Absent the testimony of the only reported witness to the crime – the defendant’s apparently estranged and legally fugitive father – former local chef Anthony Robert Ahrens pleaded guilty Monday (Nov. 26) in Rappahannock County Circuit Court to a reduced charge of misdemeanor animal cruelty, and then went home to Massachusetts.
Ahrens was accused of throwing his pet cat into a pen with two Alaskan malamute dogs last Christmas Eve at the rented Battle Run Lane home he then shared with his father, Leo Shipp, while Ahrens was employed as executive chef at Sperryville’s Cafe Indigo. He was first charged with the misdemeanor, but then-new Commonwealth’s Attorney Art Goff in March pursued an indictment against Ahrens on a felony charge of torturing a companion animal and thus causing its death.
A jury trial scheduled for August was cancelled when Shipp, apparently the only witness to the crime, did not show up. Monday’s plea came after authorities failed to track down Shipp, according to Goff. Ahrens said after court Monday that he did not know where his father was, and that the two had not communicated for many months.
Judge Jeffrey W. Parker told Ahrens that he believed the testimony the 27-year-old gave Monday – testimony primarily meant to influence sentencing – was “far removed from reality.”
Parker was referring to Ahrens’ claim that he was playing with the cat, that “I loved that cat,” and that after it bit him on the finger he “did something really stupid” and put it in the dog pen, intending to then get his father’s help to put it back in a cat carrier and take it to the shelter. “If I bought your version of events,” Parker said, “I should find you not guilty . . . But you don’t play with a cat and then all of a sudden, they bite you. I don’t know if you were teasing it or threatening it in some way, but . . . what you did was grab it, probably by the back of the neck so it couldn’t get at you, and you threw it into the pen, and you knew exactly what would happen next.”
What happened was the dogs killed the cat, according to a statement made last December by Shipp (and which Shipp in March attempted to recant). Though his attorney Frank Reynolds had argued for no jail time and Commonwealth’s Attorney Art Goff had argued for making an example of Ahrens, Parker sentenced Ahrens to six months in jail – and then suspended all but four days.
“I am not some bleeding heart animal lover,” Parker said, “but I do not tolerate cruelty to animals. And I think this court must send a message to others who would act in a similar way.”
Since Ahrens had been arrested twice and held, however, his credit for time served and the standard credit of one day for each day served meant he could go back that afternoon to the job he told the court he’s had for the last four months at an unnamed Massachusetts-based restaurant group, where he said during sentencing testimony that he manages 60 others. It was clear later that neither Parker nor Goff realized Ahrens had credit for two days served when the sentence was made.
Parker also imposed unsupervised probation for a year, and told Ahrens he was not to ever have a pet cat again. “It’s clear, you and cats don’t work.”
“I think it’s fair to say that community could view this as a slap on the wrist,” said Pat Snyder by phone later Monday. Snyder is president of RappCats, a local nonprofit that works to rescue, rehabilitate and find homes for stray cats in the county. A representative of RappCats was in the courtroom during Monday’s proceedings, though she was not called to speak on behalf of the victim, as Goff said later he had intended.
“I realize that there are children dying in the world,” Snyder said, “and women are being abused, and that this is about animals – but I would like to have had the opportunity to ask him [Ahrens], ‘Can you imagine the terror that that cat experienced, and the pain?’