Following a three-day civil trial in Hawkins County Circuit Court, on Wednesday a jury awarded HCHS director Sandy Behnke $10,000 in compensatory damages and awarded the humane society $11,000 in compensatory damages.
Before the jury could assess punitive damages, however, attorneys reached an agreement to settle the case for an additional $10,000 on the condition that there is no appeal. Behnke and the shelter will split that additional $10,000.
The defendants included former HCHS board members Hannah Speaks, Roni Vleminckx and Dena Alley, as well as Alley’s former husband, Kim Alley.
The original lawsuit filed in June of 2014 sought $800,000 from nine defendants.
In late 2013 and early 2014, the defendants were involved in a very public attempt to remove former HCHS board chairman Eddie McNally and board member Danny Alvis from the organization’s board of directors and take over the shelter.
McNalley and Alvis were co-plaintiffs in the original lawsuit but were excluded in pretrial rulings, as were five of the original defendants.
What were the defendants accused of?
The original lawsuit alleged that the defendants created and/or published comments on Facebook accusing the plaintiffs of animal abuse, animal neglect, inaccurate record keeping and misuse of HCHS funds.
Some of the defendants also reportedly filed false complaints of animal neglect and abuse, theft and drug offenses with the federal DEA, state Department of Health, the Hawkins County Sheriff’s Office and the state comptrollers office — and then contacted the media in an attempt to publicize the false complaints.
The Times News was contacted by some of the defendants at the time and looked into the allegations, but found them to lack credibility and did not publish them. They were, however, publicized on TV news and in another newspaper, resulting in public criticism and humiliation for Behnke and the HCHS.
Each agency which received a complaint against Behnke and the HCHS conducted an investigation and found no merit to the allegations.
Here are details of the specific allegations against each defendant, and how much the case will cost them:
Hannah Speaks: She was accused of stating on Facebook and in e-mails that dogs were inhumanely destroyed in the HCHS parking lot by Behnke. Speaks was also accused of posting on a website that the former HCHS director was selling drugs and telling the DEA that the HCHS was selling ketamine out the shelter’s the back door.
Speaks will pay a total of $14,500.
Kim Alley: He was accused of submitting a written statement to the attorney general’s office stating that Behnke “diverted” $140,000.
He also submitted statements written by another person to the Tennessee Department of Health claiming Behnke left dead kittens in a cage and put sick animals next to healthy animals to make them sick; neglected animals and “put animals down because she thinks she smells parvo”; and put down a healthy dog after allowing it to suffer with an ear infection.
Kim Alley will pay a total of $14,500.
Roni Vleminckx: She stated on Facebook that Behnke performed heart sticks without sedation; said Behnke killed two dogs in front of the shelter facility without sedation; and orally stated to numerous people that Behnke and Alvis were having an affair.
Vleminckx will pay a total of $1,000.
Dena Alley: She also made the statement on Facebook about Behnke killing dogs in front of the shelter without using sedation and oral statements that Alvis and Behnke were having an affair.
Dena Alley will pay a total of $1,000.
Behnke, who was represented by attorneys Tom and Crystal Jessee, told the Times News Wednesday she and the humane society have been publicly vindicated.
“These people got up on the stand this week and said horrible things about me, but they won’t anymore,” Behnke told the Times News Wednesday. “Everything they said was a lie and the jury saw right through them. We’ve gone through a lot over this since 2014, and there were many, many months that the shelter suffered because of their lies and allegations. They wanted to take over the shelter, and when they couldn’t do that through proper channels, they started writing social media pages — slander everywhere. It was in the news. They put us through a lot.”
Behnke added, “I’m so glad this is over. It’s been a long time and I’ve been stressed. It wasn’t about money. I told Crystal if we got a dollar and we could say that we won, I would be happy. I just wanted the truth to come out that we did nothing wrong.”
Attorney Mark Stapleton, who represented all nine original defendants, said Wednesday the litigation has been an emotional experience for his clients and they’re glad it’s over.
“We are glad to have been successful in getting two of the four original plaintiffs dismissed,” Stapleton said. “In addition, of the original nine defendants, we were able to successfully get five of those out of the case with no findings against them as well. As to the four who had a verdict returned against them, we maintain all of our efforts were intended to provide the stray animals of Hawkins County a better environment.”