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Animal Control officers arrested on charges of cruelty to animals

March 28th, 2012 10:17 am by Rain Smith

Animal Control officers arrested on charges of cruelty to animals

From left to right, Stephen F. Ward, 51, and Aaron Douglas West, 30.

A pair of officers with Sullivan County/Bluff City/Kingsport Animal Control have been arrested and charged with two counts each of cruelty to animals.

According to sealed indictments returned March 20 by a Sullivan County grand jury, the men, "unlawfully, intentionally, knowingly and unreasonably" failed to provide care for animals in their custody.

Stephen F. Ward, 51, of 485 Hood Road, Kingsport, and Aaron Douglas West, 30, of 251 Heyford Drive, Bristol, Tenn., were arrested Tuesday evening. They were booked into the Sullivan County jail in Blountville and released after posting $10,000 bond each.

According to the indictment, the incidents occurred between April 17 and April 22 of last year. Court records indicate the investigation was conducted by Det. Danielle Eller with the Bristol Tennessee Police Department.

Sullivan County Assistant District Attorney Julie Canter said BTPD were asked to investigate, as animal control was under the auspices of the Sullivan County Sheriff's Office when the offenses are alleged to have occurred. SCSO Public Information Officer Leslie Earhart said she nor Sheriff Wayne Anderson were made aware of the allegations against the officers. She added they did not know Ward or West had been indicted until their arrests on Tuesday.

The Sheriff's Office ceased to operate animal control in July of last year. That's when the county, Kingsport and Bluff City partnered to run animal control efforts as a nonprofit agency. The Sullivan County Commission approved the move, with SBK Animal Control receiving funding from each of the three governments.

President of the SBK Board of Directors, Sullivan County Commissioner Joe Herron, says he didn't learn of the charges until Tuesday afternoon — and is shocked by the allegations.

"I know both these gentleman, and it's hard for me to comprehend either of them would even be capable of doing anything like this," he said.

An emergency meeting of the SBK board is being scheduled for later this week. Herron said they'll take a vote on what, if any, actions should be taken against Ward and West.

Herron prefers to hold off until the men's court appearance in approximately two weeks before making any definite decisions. For the time being they've been told not to report for work.

"This is supposed to be America, and we're supposed to be innocent until proven guilty," Herron said. "I'm going to request to the board that they're put on administrative leave with pay."

Ward was hired by the Sheriff's Office in 1999. West was hired in 2003. Each of their employment was transferred to SBK Animal Control when the changeover occurred last year.

They're each scheduled to appear in court April 13. Citing the impending proceedings and a continuing investigation, Canter declined to discuss specifics of the case, including the nature of the alleged offenses, where they occurred, or number of animals involved.

The animal cruelty charges against Ward and West are Class A misdemeanors. Each of the two counts against each defendant can carry up to 11 months and 29 days incarceration, a maximum fine of $2,500.

Tuesday's arrests mark the second time in less than a year that Sullivan County animal control officers have been booked into the Blountville jail. On April 20 former animal shelter supervisor Phillip Howard Lane, 46, turned himself in on multiple counts of sexual contact with female inmates under his supervision.

In Nov. of 2010 the SCSO launched an investigation into the claims, with Lane subsequently terminated of his employment for code of conduct violations. Five months later he was indicted by a Sullivan County grand jury.

Lane most recently appeared in Sullivan County court on March 8 for a diversion hearing. Due to his attorney being ill and unavailable to appear it was reset for April 20.

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