‘Cat murder’ case sent to grand jury

Generic cat photo by Alvesgaspar via Wikimedia Commons

Following a preliminary hearing in Rappahannock County District Court on Tuesday (March 6), Judge J. Gregory Ashwell certified a felony animal cruelty charge against 26-year-old Anthony Robert Ahrens to the grand jury that meets next week.

The former Inn at Little Washington sous chef and ex-Cafe Indigo executive chef is accused of throwing his brown tabby cat into a dog kennel that housed his two Alaskan malamute dogs on Christmas Eve – because, he told the court, the cat had bitten his finger.

Though Ahrens’ attorney, Frank Reynolds, argued that his client’s actions were more negligent than hostile – and thus did not warrant the felony charge of torturing a companion animal, resulting in its death – Ashwell was not convinced. Before certifying the felony charge to the grand jury, Ashwell read the charge aloud, followed by Ahrens’ written statement to RCSO investigators.

In the statement, Ahrens claimed that he became upset when the cat bit his finger, drawing blood, so he took the cat, which he had named Blueridge, to the dog kennel and dropped him in. Ahrens’ statement continued that after the cat was dead, he retrieved the carcass from the kennel and put it in a firewood pile on the property.

“You plopped the cat over a six foot fence, and it was almost immediately attacked by a large wolf-like dog,” Ashwell said in court Tuesday, after hearing testimony from four witnesses, including Ahrens. “I’ve got no problem certifying this charge to the grand jury that next meets March 12.”

An hour earlier, a clean-cut, well-dressed Ahrens sat quietly in the courtroom between his mother and father (Leo A. Shipp, scheduled to testify third), awaiting his preliminary hearing. On the opposite end of the room, several members of RappCats – including Washington Town Council members Mary Ann Kuhn and Gary Schwartz – filled a pew in the front of the courtroom, in support of the slain cat. Cynthia Volk, Ahrens’ former neighbor and the second witness in the hearing, sat on the far end beside them.

When Ahrens was called to stand before the court, Ashwell recognized the three intended witnesses – Sheriff’s Deputy Ronnie Dodson, Volk and Leo Shipp – and told them to await their turn to testify in a back room, so as not to taint the testimony of the other witnesses. After each witness testified, they were excused from the courtroom.

Dodson testified Tuesday that on Dec. 26 he was dispatched to the home of Cynthia Volk – who lives about a mile from where Anthony Ahrens was living at the time on Battle Run Lane – and spoke to her on arrival. He then spoke to Ahrens’ father before going to the house, Dodson said, where he saw a kennel with two Alaskan malamute dogs inside, and a third dog fastened to a cable run-line in the yard. Dodson said that Shipp told him Ahrens threw the cat in the dog kennel two days earlier (Dec. 24). He said Shipp went out to a firewood pile and retrieved the dead cat.

Goff presented photos of the dismembered cat and photos of the dog kennel – taken by Dodson on that day – to Ashwell. Dodson said he then arrested Ahrens, whom gave a written statement at the sheriff’s office while they were waiting for the magistrate.

Volk took the stand next, first describing the cat as a brown tabby that had been living in her house for the two weeks leading up to Dec. 24. She said that the cat came to her house often, and that she owned four other cats. Volk testified that Ahrens came to her home the morning of Christmas Eve and retrieved the cat, her husband helping him catch the cat and put it in a carrier.

On Christmas Day, she said Ahrens’ father, Shipp, called her and said that the cat was dead. Volk added that Shipp had warned her three days before the cat’s death not to return the cat to Ahrens “because he would give it to the dogs.” Volk said she next called Ahrens, and then reported the incident to the police.

At the time of the cat’s death, Shipp said he was living in a camper on Ahrens’ Battle Run property. It was Shipp’s Dec. 26 statement to Dodson that intitiated Ahrens’ arrest and resulting animal cruelty charge. In court, Shipp denied that his son intentionally killed the cat, and denied warning the Volks to keep the cat for its own safety. When asked what he saw, specifically in relation to the cat’s death, he said, “I just saw Tony trying to get the cat away from the dog. He loved the cat.”

Ahrens’ testimony

Ahrens said in court that he’d been living on Battle Run Lane for one year and three months at the time of the cat’s death, and owned two Alaskan malamutes and a Siberian husky. At that time, he was the executive chef at Cafe Indigo, having recently taken the post after working as a sous chef at the Inn at Little Washington. He said he has since moved out of Rappahannock – with no intention of returning – and is living with his mother in Maryland.

“When I started my job at Cafe Indigo, we had a bit of a mouse problem at home, and that’s why I got Sir King Blueridge, Mousehunter,” Ahrens said, noting that in the two months that he’d owned him, the cat stayed in the house most of the time, but would run away to the Volks’ on occasion. Ahrens said that Christmas Eve morning, he went to his neighbors to fetch Blueridge, returning with the cat in a carrier. He left Blueridge in the carrier out on the porch with food and water while he and Shipp went fishing.

“I went fly fishing with my dad at 10 and returned at 3,” Ahrens said. “The cat was still in the carrier, so I let it out, and that’s when the cat bit my finger and drew a bunch of blood. I was shocked by that, and upset; he’d bit me before, but never as badly.” Ahrens said he dropped Blueridge over the six-foot-high fence that caged the dogs while he went to go clean up and bandage his finger. Ahrens said that he and Shipp had planned on taking the cat to the RAWL animal shelter, so he was waiting for Shipp to help him put it back in the carrier for transport.

“I never thought in my wildest dreams that Kodo would attack the cat,” Ahrens said of his largest dog. “That cat slept by my head while the three dogs also slept in my bed every night.” Ahrens said that five or 10 seconds after putting the cat in the cage, he realized the dog was going after him, so he immediately went in through the gate to get the cat – but was too late. “He was a lovely cat. I was not intending to hurt the cat. I’m an animal lover.”

Attorneys’ arguments

In moving to dismiss the charge, Reynolds said that there was no evidence that Ahrens willfully inflicted pain on the animal or that he meant to kill it.

“These dogs lived with this cat, slept with this cat every evening,” Reynolds said. “When he put the cat in the cage, he didn’t tie it up or restrain it in any way . . . This [felony charge] isn’t a statute for negligent acts. He didn’t beat, maim or injure the cat. The only evidence we have is that the cat bit him and he put it in a cage of dogs that it spent most nights with. There is no evidence of willfully inflicting injury to this cat, and no evidence that he willfully beat or maimed the cat. To warrant the felony charge, you’d have to prove that he knew the dogs would kill the cat . . . Did he do something negative? Yes. Did he do something he regrets and will never do again? Yes.”

Goff disagreed with Reynolds.

“He was mad, and let the dogs play tug-of-war with the cat,” the prosecutor said. “It was a torturous kind of death. And then he hid the cat in a woodpile, showing his consciousness of guilt. His father had told the neighbors not to give the cat back because he’d ‘give it to the dogs.’ He intended that this cat die as a punishment for biting him.”

Goff dismissed the testimony of Ahrens’ father – other than his initial warning to the Volks – and questioned the credibility of Ahrens’ testimony.

“You can’t confine a cat in an open-topped dog kennel,” Goff said. “He threw it in there to kill the cat, and that’s exactly what happened.”