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Newfoundland and Labrador's chief veterinarian breaks down on stand in horrific animal cruelty case

Provincial court Judge James Walsh had little sympathy for a man who had pleaded guilty to animal cruelty.
Provincial court Judge James Walsh had little sympathy for a man who had pleaded guilty to animal cruelty. - The Telegram

WARNING: Contains graphic content that may be disturbing to some readers

Seeing the shrivelled remains of a dog that had been starved for months and left stuffed in a suitcase was too difficult even for the province’s chief veterinary officer to talk about.

Dr. Laura Rogers fought back tears as she described the suffering Diamond, a young pitbull, had to have endured in the months leading up to its death.

“(In that state), a dog would get quite dizzy and weak and eventually can’t walk or even lift its head,” Rogers said with a quiver in her voice.

She took a long pause to wipe her eyes and regain her composure before continuing, “Sorry, it’s not something that’s very pleasant to think about.”

Rogers became emotional several times while testifying earlier this week at the trial of John Michael Corcoran at provincial court in St. John’s.

The 33-year-old capital city man has pleaded guilty to a charge of animal cruelty in a case that Rogers described as the worst case of emaciation she’s seen in her 20 years of practice.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a dog this emaciated before, to be honest,” she said, pausing again as she struggled to speak. “It’s hard to explain, sorry.”

The dog’s remains were found on Aug. 15, 2015.

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That day, employees from the Newfoundland and Labrador Housing Corporation contacted police after finding a suitcase that was seeping liquid in the basement of a unit on Buckmaster’s Circle. It was underneath a mound of clothing. Corcoran had just moved out of the unit and the workers were there to clean it and prepare it for the next tenant.

According to the facts of the case presented in court, when the workers entered the unit, they immediately noticed a strong, unpleasant smell, which they discovered was coming from the suitcase. They tried to open it, but with the liquid leaking through, the zipper was stuck. They called the police. Once officers arrived, they cut the suitcase open and found a garbage bag. Inside were the dog’s remains, which were taken to Rogers later that day for examination and to determine the cause of death.

She explained in court that the dog was in such an emaciated state, there was virtually no muscle and no bone marrow left.

“This dog’s marrow was actually empty. It was completely hollow,” said Rogers, who added bones from its spine were protruding from its back. “There was no fat to analyze. Everything about this dog was shrunken…

“The dog had basically wasted away.”

While the dog had access to water — or else it would have died of dehydration — but she estimated the dog had been without food for months, if not years. She estimated the dog’s remains had been inside the suitcase for up to three months. There had been some decomposition, she said, but most of the damage was done before it died.

“Even in advanced states of decomposition — and I’ve seen many decomposed animals — none of them end up looking like that,” she said.

Photos of the dog’s remains entered into evidence are too disturbing to publish.

Rogers said the dog’s claws were also extremely long, indicating it had been confined to a small space and had not walked in a long time.

When Crown prosecutor Robin Singleton asked Rogers about the standard of care required by dog owners, Rogers said that, unlike livestock, dogs are completely at people’s mercy.

“There’s a saying, it’s really more geared towards horses, but it says, ‘The eye of the master makes the horse fat.’ It obviously shows you that it’s up to you, as the owner, to be able to look at your animal and give it what it needs in order to provide and make sure it looks the way it looks,” she said.

“It’s not difficult to feed a dog, you know. Buy some dog food. You just need to provide it with something once a day to eat.

“It’s not that difficult,” she repeated, her voice fading.

Corcoran also pleaded guilty to unrelated charges — mischief and breaching a court order by not residing in the place he said he would.

In making her recommendations on sentencing, Singleton said Corcoran deserves jail time for the heartless suffering he caused his dog.

“The circumstances of the demise of the dog are horrific. This is a case of ongoing neglect,” said Singleton, who noted Corcoran’s neighbour, who had noticed the neglect, had confronted Corcoran about the dog and tried to contact authorities, to no avail.

“The responsibility of owning a pet is significant. Mr. Corcoran did not have to take on that responsibility and, certainly, he was in a position of trust to that dog.”

She said all Corcoran had to do was give the dog food and water. Instead, he let it starve to death.

“There is just no excuse for it. It’s just very, very senseless,” she said, adding that even the manner in which the dog was discovered reveals a lack of respect for the animal.

“Mr. Corcoran didn’t have to take on the responsibility of a dog, and at any point he could’ve given up that responsibility and there would be no need for us to be here today.

“It’s actually quite hard (to fathom) how somebody could just stand by and let an animal waste away like this.”

Singleton noted that this was not the first time Corcoran has been convicted of animal cruelty. The first conviction was in Grand Bank in 2012, when he was given a suspended sentence with a year’s probation. He also has numerous convictions for breaching court orders, as well as ones for assault with a weapon and assault.

Singleton recommended Corcoran be given a blended sentence — eight months behind bars, with 18 months’ probation for the animal cruelty charge, and conditional sentences totalling 45 days for other unrelated charges, including possessing stolen property from the construction company he had worked for and breaching court orders for not residing where he said he would.

Singleton said Corcoran should also undergo counselling and be banned from ever owning a pet again.

When Corcoran got the opportunity to speak, he said, “I’m very sorry for what happened at my house.”

He went on to say that he tried to get legal counselling, but that it didn’t work out. He said the case has had a big impact on his life.

“I lost everything over all the circumstances in the case,” he said. “So, basically, I seek the help of family … to guide me to where I am today, to get past it, and try to fix myself and better myself for, not just my children, but for everybody else in our community.”

He asked the judge to consider a conditional sentence for him to allow him to care for his family.

But Judge James Walsh had little sympathy for him.

“You have a prior for doing this. How do you explain that?” he said to Corcoran. “This is not just a matter of, ‘I just forgot to feed the dog.’ You looked at photographs. So have I. And when I have a veterinarian with 20-plus years’ experience saying it’s the worst she’s ever seen, and she gets very emotional when she’s describing the work she had to do with this emaciated dog, like, where does that come from?

“Where was your head?

“I’m still trying to figure that out, Your Honour,” Corcoran replied.

Walsh went on to say, “This, in essence, is a form of torture — by neglect, complete neglect! And even then, you just took the corpse and stuck it in a suitcase and sealed the suitcase and left it in a unit up in Buckmaster’s Circle area and then walked out. You left it for somebody else to find and clean up the mess.”

Walsh told Corcoran that he hasn’t learned his lesson, and said he considered having him taken into custody then and there, but opted to review all the information and think it over.

“Mr. Corcoran, I can tell you, I’ve been here (serving as a judge) over five years and I’ve seen some pretty horrific stuff, and this is ranking up there (with the worst),” he said. “How you ever let it get to this point is beyond me, absolutely beyond me. It’s inexplicable.”

Walsh will render his decision April 26.

“I’ll give you a decision then, Mr. Corcoran,” the judge said, “but pack your toothbrush, because I tell you there will be some straight jail time.”

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