LORAIN — Tensions were high in the courtroom Wednesday as the two owners of 21 cane corsos seized in a July 2018 raid were sentenced to probation.
Lorain Municipal Court Judge Mark Mihok sentenced Lauren Souris, 37, of Olmsted Falls, and Cornelius Charlton, 45, of Lorain, each to five years of probation and $1,450 in fines for misdemeanor charges of cruelty to animals.
Mihok also ruled the couple may not own or care for any companion animals without a written court order. Random checks can be conducted at their homes by local police or animal protection organizations to ensure they are abiding the ban.
Lorain police had received an anonymous tip July 17, 2018, concerning the welfare of animals in an apartment at 1703 E. 28th St. A search warrant was executed, and 21 cane corsos were seized and taken to Friendship Animal Protective League in Elyria.
The dogs were left alone in the unventilated apartment without air conditioning or water when they were found by law enforcement, police have said.
Souris and Charlton each initially were charged with 21 counts of cruelty to companion animals after the Lorain County dog warden and Lorain police seized the dogs.
In September, city prosecutors changed the charges to felonies and the case was bound over to a grand jury. The cases were sent back to Municipal Court in November after the grand jury elected not to indict them on felony counts.
The couple also is expected to owe Friendship Animal Protective League and Must Love Corsos Rescue restitution for the animals’ care. The restitution will be for costs for housing, food and medical care for the dogs.
Melanie Vandewalle, founder and president of Must Love Corsos Rescue, said some of the dogs had medical issues including heartworms, seizures and skin conditions.
Her organization also rehabilitated the dogs’ behavior.
“These dogs were terrified of being in homes, some of them weren’t potty trained, they were afraid of stairs, ceiling fans and TVs,” she said. “We got them through all of that.”
Mihok said the amount of restitution will be calculated later, but attorney Jack Bradley, who represented Souris and Charlton, expects the defendants will owe $40,000 to $50,000. Nineteen dogs also were spayed and neutered, but that cost will not be covered through the restitution.
During testimony regarding restitution, things turned tense between Vandewalle and defense attorney Bradley.
Bradley asked for the address of one of the dogs adopted, but Vandewalle refused to answer because of threats she received.
During one of the hearings last year, Mihok ruled that the dogs could be sent to foster homes, as long as the homes were in Ohio. Only three dogs remain at the corsos rescue facility, including two undergoing medical treatment and an elderly dog.
In another part of her testimony, Bradley presented to the court a printed sheet of Vendewalle’s Facebook page where she made a post saying, “Let’s spay and neuter some dogs up in this (expletive).” He asked her what that exactly meant.
Visibly upset, Vandewalle said she made that after receiving a threat from an anonymous person online warning her not to physically alter the dogs.
Trying to help the dogs
In his closing statement, Bradley said Souris originally had 13 dogs but rescued eight and had them on acres of property. When the property flooded, Bradley said, Souris and Charlton had to find a temporary home for the dogs until they found better property.
They found the East 28th Street apartment. Lorain police conducted the raid about two months after the dogs were moved to the apartment. From then on, Bradley said, Souris and Charlton were in the public eye.
Before sentencing, Charlton said he and his family have been through a lot following the arrest, including receiving death threats and losing his construction job.
“I feel that we’ve been through enough, we’ve had death threats and everything,” Charlton said. “We have a 10-year-old daughter and I feel it wouldn’t be fair to say that she can’t have a cat or a little animal because she hasn’t done anything wrong.”
Mihok said the issue wasn’t the context of what happened before the raid or their best of intentions for the animals. What he said the sentencing was because of the condition the police found the dogs in.
“If there’s a problem, you have to seek help, you have to call the APL, you have to get help wherever you can get it in order that these animals can be taken care of, because they don’t have the power to take care of themselves,” he said. “I don’t think that was done here today, I don’t think this case was as egregious as it was first reported, but this is not an abuse case. This is what you would call a neglect case and their conditions were varied but clearly these 21 animals were not being taken care of.”
During sentencing, Mihok said he considered threats to an animal rescue organization a serious issue.
“I take very seriously that an animal rescue organization received threats. That is astounding to me. If I found out who did that, I’m going to sign a warrant to have those people arrested,” he said.
The defendants erupted, questioning why he mentioned those threats but not those against them. As he calmed down those in the courtroom, he said, “All I’m going to say is everybody better act like an adult.”
Bradley said the case will be appealed, to challenge both the speedy trial and the amount of the restitution.
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