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Howling Hound on the Hunt Slain Near Gainesville

Coon hunter seeking justice over slain dog

Gainesville Times - Gainesville, Georgia - Written by Rick Lavender - January 23, 2005

North Hall farmer Stanley Barnes says he'll go to court over his coon dog, Kate, and the Gwinnett County Sheriff's sergeant who shot her dead Christmas Eve.

"I just want to help other coon hunters," Barnes said. "Maybe it'll help keep some people from shooting other people's dogs."

The attorney for Sgt. Michael Mustachio maintains his client had a right to shoot the dog because it was being used to illegally hunt deer on land Mustachio's parents own. It also posed a threat to that family's pets, Dan Summer of Gainesville said.

Barnes scoffs at the stance. He said he doesn't hunt deer, nor did Kate, a 3-year-old treeing Walker hound he bought for $2,500.

"They're just grasping for everything they can," he said.

The Dec. 24 incident in the shadow of Wauka Mountain left Mustachio, 33, of Clermont charged with felony aggravated cruelty to animals. It also laid bare tensions between North Georgia hunting traditions and the region's modern-day growth.

'All about dogs'

Edward J. Boswell, Barnes' attorney and a veteran coon hunter from Greensboro, said that coon dogs being killed "happens way more often than it should."

Often, it is renegade deer hunters who shoot the dogs. But seldom do those pulling the trigger understand the investment in time, love and money these dogs represent, Boswell suggested.

Top hounds, valued for their "voice" and ability to sniff out a raccoon's trail and chase the animal up a tree, can sell for $20,000 to $50,000, he said.

But neither cash nor raccoons make the sport.

"It's all about the dogs," Boswell said. "It hasn't got anything at all to do with killing the coons. It's all about running the dogs, training the dogs, breeding the dogs."

Some raccoons are killed. The per-hunter limit is one a day, or night, which is when most coon hunting is done. The hunting season in Georgia's north zone this year runs from Oct. 15 to Feb. 28.

There's no shortage of prey. The adaptable, ring-tailed animals range from mountain forests to subdivision yards.

Development poses a greater threat to the sport.

Coon dogs don't follow property lines. Nor is their deep baying easily ignored. The common result is conflict. And North Hall, where the allure of large tracts and mountain views is turning farmland into house lots, isn't immune.

"Most of the time," Barnes said of hunts gone sour, "we take a big tongue-lashing and leave."

Treed, then shots

That didn't happen Christmas Eve.

The Barnes family runs generations deep where Hall, Lumpkin and White counties merge and winter sunsets color Wauka Mountain a fiery orange.

Barnes' modest house on a hill off Ransom Free Road overlooks chicken houses, cow pastures and the home his great-grandfather built. The 54-year-old man with a graying goatee and weathered face has hunted coons here for some 30 years.

A roofed dog pen behind the house holds six leggy Walker hounds, all quick to yowl. Artwork in the living room pictures raccoons and coon dogs.

Barnes said he figured he was in safe territory when he and buddies Donnie Maney and Brent Thomas, both of Cleveland, turned Kate and one of Maney's dogs loose at about 9 p.m. on a friend's nearby farm. Barnes bought Kate three weeks before, but had been "trying her out" for a few months.

Within 10 minutes, the dogs were trailing a coon, their barks moving toward Wauka Ridge Road, a thin road that branches off Ransom Free and up the base of Wauka Mountain.

The howls changed. The dogs had treed the coon, Barnes said. Then came a series of shots. He counted six or more.

His son-in-law, Chad Reed, said he heard the gunfire from his porch on Wauka Ridge. He went to a neighbor's house. There, Reed said he saw a spotlight shining in the woods near the home of Theodore and June Mustachio, Michael Mustachio's parents.

Barnes called Reed, who knew the Mustachios. They drove to the house.

Reed said a woman on the porch said they shot at the dogs to scare them off. Only one, Maney's dog, Lady, still was barking.

Barnes said he was told to pull out of the way for a Jeep Cherokee with a Gwinnett tag to leave.

Maney got permission to fetch Lady. He said he found her barking treed, paws on the trunk of a thick hardwood a stone's throw up the mountain behind the house. He said he didn't take time to search the tree for a raccoon.

The hunters went back to the road. Reed drove to a ridge to see if he could hear Kate. Barnes thought she might have crossed the ridge because her radio-tracking collar read weak on his receiver.

The collar, part of a system Barnes has used for about 10 years, has a clothesline-thick cable antenna. Many coon hunters depend on such systems to find their dogs. Barnes' beeps faster when the dog is closer.

Suddenly, the beeps intensified. Kate was near, Barnes said, somewhere near the Mustachio home.

'My dog's there'

At 10:23 p.m., Michael Mustachio had called the White County Sheriff's Office, complaining that Barnes was trespassing on his parents' property, an incident report shows. The house sits in the edge of White County.

Two deputies talked with Mustachio, Barnes and the others.

Mustachio told the deputies the dogs had been running around the house and he tried to scare them by shooting in their direction, but not at them, according to a follow-up report.

The deputies left. The hunters stayed, stamping at the 25-degree cold and trying to track Kate, sometimes calling for her.

Then the signal stopped completely. "I told the boys with me, my dog's up there and something just happened to the collar," Barnes recalled.

His group called the sheriff's office, and the two deputies came again. One went to the Mustachios.

When he returned, Maney said the deputy talked quietly with his partner, then showed the hunters the two collars cut from Kate and said, "The man killed your dog."

Maney and Thomas went to get the dog. Barnes, who was angry, stayed behind. Maney was directed to a pickup. He found Kate's body in two black plastic bags buried under other bags in the back, he said.

An autopsy Barnes had done at the University of Georgia says the dog died from a bullet that apparently entered at the neck and exited near the shoulder blade. The shot clipped the dog's throat, a rib and the spine, causing massive hemorrhaging.

Mustachio told deputies on the second visit that when they first came and only one dog was found, he thought he might have hit the other one. He found the dead hound in the woods, cut off the collars and put her in a bag in his truck, according to the second report.

His father clipped off the tracking antenna. The other collar had a plate stamped with Barnes' address and telephone.

Mustachio told deputies "he panicked when he found the dog because he was afraid of losing his job" and said "he was going to call us back out to tell us the truth."

Dog posed 'threat'

Mustachio was charged with aggravated assault on an animal Dec. 30. He was released on a $5,100 bond. He is on paid administrative leave while the Gwinnett Sheriff's Department completes its investigation, spokeswoman Stacey Kelley said.

Mustachio, a department employee since 1996, told his supervisors about the incident and did not use his county-issued Glock handgun, Kelley said. The internal affairs probe will be finished in about a week, she said.

If convicted of a felony, Mustachio will lose his job and can be jailed for one to five years and fined up to $15,000. Barnes also is planning a civil lawsuit.

State lawmakers added the felony animal charge in 2000. Aggravated cruelty means the suspect "knowingly or maliciously causes death or physical harm to an animal."

Kerry Bannister, assistant district attorney for the Enotah Judicial Circuit, said the circuit's district attorney will decide if the pending charge "rises to the level of aggravated assault."

If so, the case will go to a grand jury. The charge can be downgraded to a misdemeanor or dropped.

Hunter to blame

Mustachio's wife, Cindy, referred questions to Summer. He described Michael Mustachio as an "outstanding officer with an unblemished record."

Summer said Barnes is responsible for what happened. "The owner of the dog was illegally using his dog to hunt deer on Mr. Mustachio's property," he said. "The dog (also) was a threat to their family pet. ... As a result, the dog was shot and killed."

Michael Mustachio's parents have lost a cat, Summer said, and encountered other problems with area dogs. The Mustachios were enjoying a family gathering Christmas Eve.

He declined further detailed comment.

Summer also said he has successfully defended two other area police officers in dog shooting cases. Both misdemeanor cases were acquittals.

One involved a Gainesville police officer who shot a neighbor's chained dog 11 days after it mauled his daughter. The case drew national television coverage.

Disputed accounts

State law allows a person to kill a dog when it poses a threat to him or his property, including animals. A collarless dog that is pursuing or killing a deer where it's illegal to do so also can be killed.

Hunting deer with dogs, which is done in daylight, is legal only in some South Georgia counties.

There have been cases of "deer-dogging" in Northeast Georgia, although they're less common than before, said Sgt. Johnny Johnson of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

Not so rare, Johnson said, are incidents in which property owners shoot dogs, often for running livestock. Seldom are coon dogs involved, he said.

Barnes, Maney and Reed said the Mustachios never mentioned concerns about pets or deer, only about the barking.

Barnes points to the cut collars as key evidence.

Boswell said he'll file a lawsuit seeking compensatory damages to cover the dog's value, and punitive damages, which tend to penalize the defendant.

Barnes said the suit isn't about money. He plans to donate any awards beyond Kate's price to the Humane Society of Hall County.

The issue is sending a message for coon hunters.

"If something's not done about it," Barnes said, "we all may as well quit."

This page is part of Violence in the News,
which is a component of the Barking Dog News and