ATLANTA — Ron Gulley remembers the first time he saw a photo of Wattie. His fur was matted, covered in urine and poop that had fallen from the dogs above, trapped in their own cages.
“He just shook. He would just stand there and shake. He was afraid to move, he was afraid of us,” remembers Ron Gulley.
Wattie is just one of 700 dogs rescued from Reason Craig Grey, a licensed south Georgia dog breeder that now faces charges for animal cruelty. But that was 2019.
This week prosecutors did present a plea deal to Grey. Details were not disclosed, but if he does not accept the terms, 11Alive is told the case will finally go to trial March 20.
It is unclear when Angela Powell, a German Shepherd breeder arrested two months earlier at the start of 2019, will plead her case. She faces 60 counts of animal cruelty across two counties, after investigators searched her properties and said they found filthy animals and dog bones.
“It doesn’t make sense to me because it seems like it’s a pretty cut and dry type thing, but I know things in the judicial system sometimes drag out,” Gulley said.
11Alive Investigates found court records for 18 large dog seizures in the past five years, a mix of licensed and backyard breeders in Georgia. Only half of those breeders were charged with abuse and neglect.
Four of those cases were closed with plea deals. While some of the accused received long probation sentences, none of the breeders charged served jail time. Jessica Rock, the state prosecutor for animal crimes said COVID played a role.
“We are having to triage cases in a certain way we didn’t have to before,” Rock explained.
Grey is actually behind bars, not for the 16 counts of animal abuse, but because he violated the conditions of his bond.
As for Powell, the District Attorney in Montgomery County where she faces misdemeanor charges, said he intends to wait until the Candler County case is finished because the accusations against her there are more serious.
But the trial in Candler County keeps getting pushed, as her attorney fights to get the judge assigned, removed. According to court documents, Superior Court Judge Robert Reeves is under investigation by the Judicial Qualifications Commission for alleged ethics violations. How those accusations might relate to this case, if at all, is unclear.
As of March 1, there were no court dates scheduled in the Powell case.
Both Powell and Grey have plead not guilty. If prosecutors do win a conviction, both have told 11Alive they intend to seek jail time as part of their sentences.
“I say to anyone out there who’s frustrated with what they may perceive to be Georgia’s you know, perception of these crimes, it’s probably a lot better than they think,” Rock added.
She pointed to her own job as evidence. This year lawmakers created a state prosecutor focused on animal welfare.
“I think it speaks volumes to how far we’ve come in this state to show everyone this is something that’s needed,” Rock said.
In the short term, more enforcement will mean more busts. Rock assisted with two this past fall. It’s a total of 300 dogs with nowhere to go.
“It’s the first time when I have ever worked one of these cases where everybody’s full. The shelters are full. The rescues are full. The rescues fosters are full. So, we are living in kind of state of crisis,” she said.
We hear it directly from the rescue groups, social media posts, and emails. One woman wrote 11Alive concerned about Gray’s case saying she feared, “accountability will die with time.”
She rescued a Shih Tzu from Gray. Her name is Journey, named for the road of recovery she's experienced, but there are something things that won’t change, like the shape of her legs and feet after living so long in a cramped cage.
Rock also pointed to education as key. She’s focused on training police and prosecutors, noting part of the problem with these cases is "a lack of understanding what they’re looking at.”
“I make sure…everyone who is working on cases in those in that community, come together do a training together, trade cell phone numbers,” she explained.
Rock noted she supports long probation sentences, especially if the person is ordered to pay restitution. In Georgia, defendants only have to reimburse organizations for the animals they refused to surrender. In most cases, breeders surrender the animals immediately, leaving rescues and shelters on the hook for the costs required to care and feed for often emotionally fragile animals.
That's why Rocks said she’s trying to build a network within the state, so that local jurisdictions have somewhere for animals to go when rescued and a system to provide for their care. She wants police and animal control throughout the state to see her as a resource to not only help the animals, but prosecute those accused of harm.
“We tell dog fighters and chicken fighters, and people who operate these puppy mills that we’re not going to do this in Georgia anymore. Go find somewhere else to harm and abuse animals,” Rock said.
As for Gulley, he has never visited the property in person where Wattie was rescued. The pictures are bad enough. Wattie still has skin problems and never moves his tail.
“I think partly because it was so matted to his body, he just never used it,” Gulley explained.
The dog's paws are stretched from years of standing on wire and may be why he still doesn’t care much for grass.
“He likes to be around us because he knows it’s safe,” Gulley said, cradling Wattie in his arms.
After safety, animal advocates say there should come accountability. Rock wants that too.
“I think that we’re starting to slowly send that message,” she said with a determined look on her face. “I’m just not going to stop.”