BARRE – A Cabot farmer convicted of starving his cows to death has begun serving a reparative sentence imposed by Washington County prosecutors as part of a plea bargain.
Christian DeNeergaard pleaded guilty to five misdemeanor counts of animal cruelty in January. He received a suspended one-year sentence as well as 30 days of work crew assignment as part of a deal with prosecutors. DeNeergaard, 47, may not own or possess livestock during his year of probation and must also undergo alcohol-abuse counseling.
In October, then-Washington County State's Attorney Tom Kelly said he would seek at least some jail time for animal neglect, which claimed the lives of at least 11 cows.
"We think some jail time is appropriate," said Kelly in an October interview. "The cows suffered tremendously."
But Brooks McArthur, the Washington County Deputy State's Attorney who prosecuted the case, said weaknesses in the case forced the state into a less punitive resolution. The initial search of DeNeergaard's farm may have violated the farmer's constitutional protections against search and seizure, according to McArthur, and a key police witness in the case has been deployed to Iraq and would have been unable to testify.
"The reason there wasn't any jail time in this case is there was legal issues… over the initial search that led to the entire case. There wasn't a warrant when (the officer) searched the barn, and all the evidence flowed from that search," McArthur said. "The other significant issue is Walt Smith, one of the investigating officers, was deployed and unavailable for the trial or evidentiary hearings. It would've been a shame to have the entire case go away. We didn't want to risk that and we thought it was appropriate to go ahead and just get the conviction."
DeNeergaard, first charged in March 2003, allegedly neglected to feed or water his herd of 75 cows. Numerous investigations by Vermont State Police and the Agency of Agriculture revealed squalid conditions in the Cabot barn, and a preliminary report by a veterinarian said at least 11 cows found dead on the farm had starved to death.
Police became involved in November when Cabot Constable Jeffrey Haggert observed dead animals outside the barn and notified authorities. State police and agriculture officials who investigated DeNeergaard on Dec. 4 found dead cows in the barn and said in an affidavit that food and water were not available to the remaining cows.
DeNeergaard was told to improve living conditions on the farm, but a subsequent inspection on Jan. 31 revealed an even more appalling situation.
"I observed 15 dead cows in the farm, which were not the same dead cows I observed in the past," Vermont State Police Sgt. Walter Smith said in an affidavit.
All the living cows had been removed prior to Smith's Jan. 31 inspection. DeNeergaard's wife, Twyla, said she and her husband had called a slaughterhouse to take the remaining cows away because they were too ill with the flu to care for them. She said the dead cows had succumbed to a fatal virus, though neither she nor her husband had called a veterinarian.
An employee of CC Miller Corp., the Morristown company that picked up the cows for slaughter, said the conditions of the cows and the farm were the worst he had ever seen.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which calls itself the world's largest animal rights organization, had wanted the Cabot farmer to go to jail. In a May letter to McArthur, PETA caseworker Stephanie Bell demanded jail time for Christian DeNeergaard and asked that he undergo a psychological evaluation and counseling at his own expense.
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