By Ivan Raconteur
Lester Prairie resident John Richardson was escorted into Tuesday’s city council meeting wearing a jail-issued ensemble complete with handcuffs and shackles. He came not to plead his own case, but that of his rottweiler, Lexy.
Lexy was classified as a dangerous dog Oct. 23. Richardson requested a hearing before the city council to challenge this designation.
He chose to have the hearing scheduled Tuesday, even though he was advised to wait until December when his sentence will be over and he could appear in civilian clothes, according to Lester Prairie Police Chief Bob Carlson.
Richardson was serving out a sentence at the McLeod County Jail on unrelated charges.
During the hearing, Richardson asked to have his handcuffs removed, but his request was denied.
Lester Prairie Police Officer Mark Thiry described the situation as “unprecedented,” and said the McLeod County Jail agreed to let the police department check Richardson out of jail to attend the hearing, but jail protocol required that he remain handcuffed and shackled while he was out.
Lester Prairie City Attorney Jody Winters outlined the procedure for the hearing.
Witnesses would be called and asked to testify about events that led up to Richardson’s dog being classified as dangerous.
Richardson would then have the opportunity to question each witness, and then present his own case.
The decision before the council was to determine if the dangerous dog designation was justified, or if Lexy should go back to being classified as a potentially dangerous dog.
The first witness was Winsted Police Officer and part-time Lester Prairie Police Officer Justin Heldt.
Heldt stated that on July 24, he was flagged down by a female resident who described two incidents related to the actions of a dog later identified as Richardson’s rottweiler, Lexy.
In the first incident, a neighbor was walking down the street when Lexy broke loose from her chain and chased the neighbor and her dog down the street.
The second incident involved the dog chasing a child who was riding a bicycle down the street.
Per city ordinance, Heldt sent a letter to Richardson explaining the concerns regarding complaints about the dog.
Following Heldt’s testimony, Richardson admitted that his dog did get loose on one occasion.
“I was there when the girl was on her bike. The dog did run into the street, but I called her and she came back,” Richardson said.
“Everyone lied to me, including the police department and the mayor, who I didn’t even know was my mayor at the time,” Richardson said, referring to the dog being designated potentially dangerous.
The next witness was Lester Prairie Police Officer Brenda Conzet.
Conzet described her first meeting with Richardson, stating that she had been talking to a group of children when Richardson approached and asked to speak to her about the letter he received from Heldt.
About 10 minutes later, when she was finished talking to the children, Conzet went to Richardson’s residence to talk to him.
Conzet said when she got out of her squad car, the dog ran toward her in an aggressive manner. She said the dog was on a leash, but the leash was not connected to anything. Richardson called the dog, and it came back.
Winters asked Conzet how she felt when the dog approached her.
“I was scared. I don’t like dogs charging at me,” Conzet said.
Conzet played a recording of the lengthy conversation she had with Richardson.
During that conversation, Richardson crumpled up the letter he received from the police department, and threw it on the ground, and the dog ate it.
While Conzet and Richardson were talking, a woman came down the street walking her dog. Richardson’s dog ran to the edge of the curb barking in an aggressive manner. The woman picked up her dog and walked in the opposite direction.
Conzet said Oct. 22, she received a call from dispatch about a rottweiler running loose and chasing children.
Conzet drove to the area and was flagged down by two women, identified as Tiffany Grube and Corrine Dahl.
The women were pushing baby strollers and walking a schnauzer.
The women told Conzet that when they approached the area of 1221 Prairie Ridge Lane, they observed a rottweiler running loose.
The dog began to follow them, and the women said they were afraid due to past aggressive behavior they had observed in the dog.
They picked up their dog and walked away. The women later provided a taped statement describing the situation.
Richardson said that people were afraid of his dog because Conzet has been “running around instilling fear.”
Conzet said that, when people have asked, she has told them that it was a potentially dangerous dog.
“I don’t feel I am getting a fair hearing,” Richardson said.
Referring to Conzet, he added, “She’s lying again, flat out lying.”
Richardson repeatedly asserted that his dog is not a threat to anyone.
During Conzet’s conversation with Richardson at his home, she offered suggestions to help him keep himself and the dog out of trouble.
Tiffany Grube was the next witness to testify.
Grube confirmed the incidents described by Conzet. Winters asked Grube if she was concerned about the dog being loose, and if she had been afraid, Grube responded “Yes” to both questions.
Richardson asked Grube if she was afraid because Lexy was a rottweiler or because of her actions.
“I was not afraid because she is a rottweiler. I was afraid because of her actions,” Grube replied.
Referring to incidents where his dog ran into the road, Richardson said, “I wanted her to go out in the road and meet people.”
“Until you get to know the dog, you will always be afraid of her,” he added.
Corrine Dahl was the next witness, and also confirmed Conzet’s statement.
Richardson said when his dog followed Dahl and Grube, he was outside, and would have been able to call the dog back at any time.
“I don’t know if you would have been able to call it back. You were mowing the lawn and facing the other way,” Dahl said.
“Another time, it ran after us. It came running out, and it was growling. I was scared,” Dahl added.
Richardson asked if, since that time, it was not true that he has visited Dahl’s home, and his dog has played with her dog in her yard.
Dahl confirmed that this was true.
The last witness was Carlson. He stated that his conversations with Richardson have taken place since the dog was declared dangerous.
Carlson said Richardson has maintained that his dog is not dangerous and has not bitten anyone.
“I told him that individuals have feared for the safety of themselves and their families. I told him the only way to change the designation was to appeal to the city council,” Carlson said.
“This is all due to one incident and Brenda has been going around telling people that my dog has attacked other people in the past,” Richardson said. “My dog was only unchained one time.”
“You have stated more than once here tonight that it was not under your control,” Mayor Eric Angvall said.
“I have lived in this community for five months. My dog has never attacked anyone, has never bit anyone,” Richardson said.
“Nobody told me I could fight this. Now, a state senator is trying to help me. I came highly unprepared,” Richardson said.
“If my dog bites someone, you won’t have to knock on my door and tell me to have it put down. It will already be put down. There are 15-20 of my old neighbors (from Edina) who have signed this paper saying my dog never hurt anyone. Until my dog bites someone, you are going to have to kill me to take her,” Richardson said.
Council members made reference to recent dog attacks that have been reported in the news.
“When should we be concerned for that 7-year-old, before or after she gets bit?” Angvall asked.
“Any animal has the potential to bite,” Richardson replied.
Throughout the hearing, Richardson said his dog is not dangerous, and he has tried to integrate it into the community so his neighbors get to know the dog and are not afraid of it.
“My concern is, you say she has done nothing wrong, but several times she has been unsupervised. Anybody in Lester Prairie should be able to walk down the street without fear,” Council Member Ron Foust said.
On a vote of 4-1, with Angvall, Foust, and Council Members Andy Heimerl and Art Mallak in favor, and Council Member Larry Hoof opposed, the council upheld the dangerous dog designation.
Winters said after six months, Richardson can apply for annual review of the designation.
Carlson said Richardson has 14 days to comply with the county auditor’s protocol for a dangerous dog.
Richardson said it would be impossible for him to comply with the requirement that he get a $50,000 surety bond or $50,000 in liability insurance.
Richardson said the bond is not necessary, since his property insurance would pay up to $300,000 if his dog bit someone. However, Richardson also said that if his insurance company knew he had a rottweiler, it would cancel his policy.
Winters said the city would get clarification on this, and would provide him with a copy of the statute.
Winters said Richardson will have to register his dog with the county, and it will have to be leashed and muzzled any time it is outdoors.
The statute also requires that Richardson supply proof of proper enclosure for the dog, and obtain a warning sign and warning tag for the dog.
Failure to register the dog could result in Richardson facing misdemeanor charges, and/or possible confiscation and disposal of the dog.
Odds and ends
In other business, the council:
• approved a charitable gambling license for the Lester Prairie Lions for pull tabs at One Eyed Willy’s when the bar opens.
• accepted the donation of street banners from the Lester Prairie Business Association.