It was a dog owner’s worst nightmare that fueled a mother and daughter’s fight for harsher animal cruelty laws in Idaho.
The story starts with a frantic text from a roommate, a hurried trip to the pet emergency room and the grave news that the dog’s heart is no longer beating. Dakota Goin and her mother Jennifer Cook hope it ends with Idaho legislators toughening laws to treat cruelty to animals as a felony.
The state is now one of four in the country to treat most cases of cruelty to animals instead as misdemeanors.
“In the future, it would be nice to see that somebody else doesn’t get away with doing the same thing to an animal,” the 18-year-old Goin said. “It’s awful. I know that without the laws being changed, he’ll just get basically a slap on the wrist.”
The dog, in this case, is Hank, an 11-month-old Corgi and Red Heeler mix. On July 24, Goin left him in the care of her roommate, 23-year-old Austin Matott, at their house in Hauser, Idaho, while she and her boyfriend attended a Spokane Indians game.
During the game they got the news. “I think he needs to go to the emergency room now,” Matott texted at 8:17 p.m. The dog died within the hour, according to records.
“I’m so sorry dude, I feel like this is all my fault,” Matott wrote back. “I’m so, so, so, so, so, sorry. I swear I didn’t mean for him to get hurt.”
In the days after his death, Goin and her mother started piecing together the signs pointing to abuse – not an accidental fall off of their 3-foot-high porch. There were the pools of blood in the living room, the trails leading to Goin’s closet. The rings of red under the dog shampoo in the bathroom.
The signs culminated in a necropsy report from a Washington State University lab in Pullman detailing the multiple bruises, rib fractures, punctured lungs and hemorrhaging that caused severe internal bleeding in Hank’s chest and abdomen. And a statement from a veterinarian in Spokane Valley, who read the report and broke it down into layman’s terms.
“The injuries that he suffered were consistent with substantial damage from severe force such as being hit by a car, beaten with an object by a person with great strength, or falling from three stories or higher,” Dr. Julia Leese wrote. “Luckily, Hank likely passed away quickly.”
As more evidence came to light, Goin and her mother pressured Kootenai County Sheriff’s deputies to investigate. On Aug. 4, Cook sent an email to animal control officers and attached photos of blood spots in the house, screenshots of text messages between Matott and her daughter, and voice recordings of Goin confronting Matott and her other roommates on what happened.
In the police report, deputies wrote that Matott was “evasive” to animal control officers and wouldn’t open the door. When they were finally let inside by Goin and Cook, officers noted the dark stains near a bed, more stains that resembled blood drops in the bathroom and rings of blood on the tub.
Due to his unwillingness to cooperate and the necropsy report, deputies cited Matott with two misdemeanors on Aug. 9, including cruelty to animals and beating and harassing animals.
In a public Facebook post on Aug. 14, and after a KHQ news story, Matott disputed that he abused the dog.
“I want everyone to understand that I would never in my life do anything to hurt an animal,” he wrote. “I’ve grown up with animals my entire life, in all shapes and sizes. I’ve loved every single one that I have ever had the chance to meet. I have absolutely no idea why anyone would ever, or could ever accuse me of doing such a sick and wrong thing.”
Matott deferred further questions to his attorney, John Redal, who did not return multiple calls and emails seeking comment.
Upon learning of a possible sentence for the alleged crimes, which could include up to six months of jail time and a fine, Goin and Cook said they were “sickened” it wasn’t more severe. In talking with the deputy prosecutor on the case, Cook said the state’s attorneys were in disbelief Idaho doesn’t recognize “this kind of abuse as a felony.”
“With this situation, and learning the whole state of Idaho does not recognize this kind of animal cruelty as a felony, we feel helpless,” she said. According to an amendment to state law in 2012, animal abuse in Idaho can be a felony if the person convicted had been found guilty of two previous violations. In Matott’s case, he has no prior criminal history.
David Rosengard, a staff attorney at the Animal Legal Defense Fund, a national nonprofit that advocates to improve lives of animals, said there are other cases where animal cruelty can be a felony on first offense, such as sexual assault of an animal, or poisoning. But in this case, it would be a misdemeanor no matter what.
“It’s fair to say that Idaho’s basic animal cruelty crime is set at a misdemeanor level,” he said. “As the current law stands, felonies are really only triggered by a recurring offense or specific sorts of crimes.”
Goin and Cook have drafted a letter to Idaho Supreme Court Judge Timothy Van Valin. In it, they ask the judge to impose the “harshest penalty,” including a maximum jail time sentence along with probation.
“In addition, I strongly suggest that Austin Matott receive mandatory psychological counseling and be prohibited from ever owning or harboring animals again,” Cook wrote.
They’re also in the process of drafting a letter to state legislators, which would reference and push for laws mirroring those in Washington state that treat egregious cases of animal cruelty as a felony.
“If we get the laws changed, the next person to do that, it will become a felony,” Goin said. “And that will at least be a little better.”
Goin said she cries when thinking about Hank.
“He was like a child,” she said. “He’d cuddle with me. He was always around me. I miss him like crazy.”
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