Elsa’s owner gets jail time, can no longer own animals; SUU starts disciplinary review

CEDAR CITY – After more than a year of postponements and extensions, a sentence was issued at the Iron County Justice Court in Cedar City Monday in an animal cruelty case involving a Southern Utah University employee whose two severely malnourished horses, dubbed Elsa and Anna, were forcibly removed from his custody in January 2014.

As part of a plea agreement reached with the Iron County Attorney’s office, Enoch resident Sonn Kent Berrett was ordered to spend 30 days in jail, to be served on weekends; participate in 18 months of supervised probation; and pay court fines in the amount of $1,246.

As part of the conditions of Berrett’s probation, he is not allowed to own any animals.

According to court documents, Berrett pleaded guilty to two class B misdemeanor counts of animal cruelty. The other four charges against him were dismissed without prejudice: two class B misdemeanor counts of failure to obtain a dog license; and two class C misdemeanor counts of failure to obtain rabies shots.

A second status hearing was set to discuss the amount of restitution Berrett must pay to Dust Devil Ranch and Sanctuary for Horses, which took the two horses in and provided rehabilitative care for them.

Dust Devil Ranch volunteer Marilyn Kidwell was in court Monday and said when Berrett was informed that, as part of his probation, he could not own any animals, he protested, telling the judge his daughter has a cat and the family owns two dogs.

Iron County Justice Court Judge Margaret Miller informed Berrett that he would have to find new homes for the animals and would not be allowed to keep them, Kidwell said. She said no specific details were given to Berrett regarding how he was to go about placing his family pets in new homes or how much time he had to meet that specific requirement of his probation.

According to court documents, any violation of the terms of Berrett’s probation will result in the stayed sentence reverting back to the maximum sentence. Each class B misdemeanor carries with it a maximum sentence of six months in jail and $1,950 in fines.

Though Dust Devil Ranch founder Ginger Grimes said she did not feel as though justice was served in the case, she said it was good to see it finally come to a close after so long.

Grimes said she is hopeful Elsa’s death will not be in vain and that revisions to animal cruelty statutes in Utah will help further protect neglected horses in the future.

SUU disciplinary review

Berrett’s conviction could affect his job at Southern Utah University.

Since Berrett’s conviction Monday, SUU President Scott L. Wyatt said, the university is taking a closer look at his charges and how they may or may not impact his employment. He said there is a process involved whenever an employee is convicted of a crime, but each case is dealt with on an individual basis.

“What I can tell you is, is that we take these kinds of things seriously,” Wyatt said. “The conclusion of the case was (Monday) and we haven’t had a chance to respond to that. We typically try to do things in a careful manner, making sure that everyone has their full due process.”

Wyatt would not elaborate about SUU’s disciplinary and sanction process.

“The rules that we have to operate within make personnel matters confidential,” Wyatt said. “If somebody is terminated then that becomes a public event; but if somebody is disciplined and they keep their job, then that is not a public event.”

According to university policy 8.3.5, there are a multitude of disciplinary possibilities, ranging from termination to a warning letter to a temporary reduction in pay. Included among the causes for disciplinary action listed in section 3 of the school policy is “conviction of a crime by a court of competent jurisdiction.”

Not all crimes are created equal, Wyatt said. A traffic violation is considered a crime but it would not result in significant action from the university toward an employee. Something like domestic abuse, however, would be taken much more seriously.

Still, Wyatt said, the school would have to take into account that particular employee’s role at the institution. If the person was an educator, there would be much greater cause for termination or sanctions than if the person worked in a back office and had little or no contact with students or the public.

According to SUU’s base salary data sheet, Berrett was hired at the university in August 2005 and is the lead maintenance carpenter in the Facilities Management Department. His annual salary is listed as $37,684, but Utah’s Right to Know reported that once benefits and additional funds are added to his base salary, Berrett’s total, or gross, compensation is actually $ 65,477.

How employees handle themselves in public reflects on the university, Wyatt said. While that always plays a part in disciplinary decisions, so does the criminal action in comparison to that person’s specific role at the university.

Animal cruelty is very important to me,” Wyatt said. “These types of things are not insignificant events, and we take them very seriously.”

A tale of two horses

Affectionately named Anna and Elsa, after the characters in Disney’s “Frozen,” by their rescuers at Dust Devil Ranch, the neglected mother horse and her foal touched the hearts of horse lovers across the nation and around the world. The news of Elsa’s tiny body found frozen to the ground ignited fury toward the horses’ owners – and an overwhelming amount of support for their rescuers.

Both horses were nearly 300 pounds underweight when they were taken from Berrett’s custody. The animals had been eating a nearby telephone pole to stay alive, Grimes said. She said evidence of the telephone pole consumption was found in the manure passed by both horses shortly after they arrived at the ranch.

Both monetary and in-kind donations began coming in from all over the world to help support rescue efforts for Anna and Elsa, but there were still extensive medical costs to be met.

Despite the efforts of rescuers and veterinary specialists, Elsa died Jan. 18, 2014. Her mother, Anna, is thriving, Grimes said.

“She is picture perfect,” Grimes said. “She is a great little hunter jumper now.”

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1 Comment

  • sagemoon April 3, 2015 at 8:56 am

    Glad to see justice done on behalf of animals. All living things matter.

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