Oxford Police: No criminal charges filed against Mississippi Critterz

Published 8:22 am Wednesday, March 3, 2021

The Oxford Police Department concluded its investigation into Mississippi Critterz and found no evidence to warrant criminal charges, but did find a list of concerns regarding the shelter’s operation.

During Tuesday’s Board of Adlermen meeting, police chief Jeff McCutchen presented OPD’s findings from its nearly two-week investigation into Mississippi Critterz, following a report filed with OPD on Feb. 17.

The claims, which were also reported to and investigated by the Lafayette County Sheriff’s Department, ranged from overall treatment of the animals, lack of medical care, over occupancy and disposal procedures for deceased animals.

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According to McCutchen, 17 former and current Mississippi Critterz employees and volunteers were interviewed or submitted written statements during the investigation. Aynslee Smith, President of the Mississippi Critterz Board of Directors and Jenn Peterman, Executive Director at Mississippi Critterz, were also interviewed by OPD.

“I know that your investigation by OPD was based on different claims of criminal behavior, and I know that is what, in fact, OPD was investigating, not to determine if the shelter was well-run…” Mayor Robyn Tannehill said.

Two unannounced visits were conducted by OPD and the sheriff’s department and four different veterinarians who had worked at or visited the shelter were also interviewed and consulted. An investigator with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), who was aware of the case, was interviewed and consulted, according to McCutchen.

“At this time no information discovered in the investigation meets elements of criminal charges,” McCutchen told the Board.

McCutchen continued to say OPD will be presenting all of its findings to the District Attorney’s office for criminal review and the potential for it to be presented to a Grand Jury if deemed necessary.

Despite OPD not finding evidence to warrant criminal charges, McCutchen did state they found “several issues” that gave them concern. Those issues included overall cleanliness, the lack of detailed records to include any medical care provided, overcrowded conditions, staffing concerns, lack of written policies or protocols, lack of formalized training of employees and volunteers, lack of oversight from the facility supervisor.

There was also concern from OPD with the fact that the Board of Mississippi Critterz was notified of issues last November. They completed an internal investigation and led the Board of Aldermen and Board of Supervisors to believe that the issues would be rectified, McCutchen said.

“As of the date of the complaint to law enforcement, these issues have not been corrected to their entirety,” McCutchen said. “Also, the lack of transparency to the city and county boards and the public is very concerning. …I don’t think anything was kept from us; however I don’t think they had the records in place to provide what we needed from time to time.”

Leigh Ann Hubbard, of the Oxford Watchdogs group, and other supporters were in attendance at Tuesday’s meeting and began speaking from the gallery. They were not allowed to provide comments or ask questions, as the item was not advertised as a public hearing, according to Tannehill.

One woman was removed from the meeting after an outburst and multiple warnings from Tannehill.

The Oxford Watchdogs group has been attempting to get questions answered regarding where money is being spent regarding salaries of an animal control officer, which they claim Critterz has not had on staff since November. Last week, Mississippi Critterz advertised an opening for the position.

Hubbard and her group have also asked Tannehill to allow them to have an independent veterinarian enter the shelter and inspect it. According to Hubbard, none of their questions have been answered by Tannehill or the city.

The Board voted to form a committee to review the information from both investigations and make recommendations back to the Board of Aldermen regarding any potential contract violations. The committee will be comprised of two members of the Mississippi Critterz Board of Directors, Supervisor Chad McLarty, Alderman Janice Antonow, a local veterinarian and a member from the Oxford Animal Shelter Watchdogs group.

“I hope to have this commission in place in the next two weeks,” Tannehill said. “And I hope that the people who profess to love animals and are passionate about having a first-class animal shelter try to work together and find some ways to solve problems and not just point them out.”

McLarty and Antonow are the two appointed county and city officials serving as liasons between Mississippi Critterz and their respective entities, and have been since the organization took over the shelter in 2018.

“We’re obviously very disappointed the charges are not going to be filed,” Hubbard told the EAGLE following the meeting. “We are glad that the city is looking at the obvious problems with Mississippi Critterz, which are numerous. What really concerns me most right now, in this moment, is that there are dogs and cats that will be there night after night until this committee gets formed. …How long is it going to be before they finally decided that Mississippi Critterz should not be in charge of the shelter?”

Mississippi Critterz is contracted by both the city and county to run the shelter, while the City of Oxford also contracts them to run animal control services. Lafayette County does not contract them for animal control services due to the county not having a leash law.

The sheriff’s department stated last month they would present the findings of their investigation to the Lafayette County Board of Supervisors upon its completion.