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Evidence in pit bull death analyzed

Animal control details timeline of dog’s discovery

Joseph Nelson
Joseph Nelson

ROCK FALLS – A necropsy was performed Monday on an adult male pit bull found a week ago today in a Rock Falls rental home. The dog appears to have died of dehydration or starvation, officials say.

Results will be sent to a state lab to try to determine the time and cause of death, said Vanessa Scott, Whiteside County Animal Control warden.

Its owner, Joseph Nelson, 37, of Rock Falls, was arrested Friday afternoon on a charge of aggravated cruelty to an animal, a felony that carries 1 to 3 years in prison. He was in Whiteside County Jail on Monday on $50,000 bond and has a court hearing Thursday.

Animal control was notified of the dog’s death on Tuesday, and in turn notified the Whiteside County Sheriff’s Department. Deputies arrested Nelson after a 3-day investigation, Sheriff Kelly Wilhelmi said.

Whether the lab will be able to determine its cause of death depends on how badly decomposed the carcass is, Scott said.

Although the dog appears to be an adult, its body weighed only 25 pounds, Wilhelmi said.

This case may be a first for the county in recent history: Scott, who has been with the agency since 1992, said she could not recall a single case in Whiteside County in which authorities were able to amass enough evidence to prosecute someone for felony animal cruelty.

According to Scott and Wilhelmi:

On March 14, Animal control received a call asking the agency to check on the welfare of the dog. Workers went to the home in the 1000 block of Lincoln Street that day.

They knocked and got no answer, and looked in the windows, but did not see, hear or smell anything. They talked to some neighbors, and left a posted message for the owner to call Animal control so they could get inside and take a look.

It was obvious at the time, Scott said, that someone was moving out and would have to return to pick up the rest of his or her possessions, and so would see the note.

Her office got no other complaints, and the owner did not call about the dog.

On March 25, a private worker hired to help clean out the home found the dog dead in a cage in the basement and carried it outside. Another worker reported the dog’s death the next day.

If they had suspected a problem, Animal control would have tried to track the home’s owner, Scott said.

Her staff cannot enter a home without a warrant, which must be obtained through the sheriff’s office, and a warrant cannot be obtained without some evidence of a potential crime.

Animal control never had been called to the home before, and no complaint against Nelson ever had been lodged, she said.

“If we had suspected something was going on, we would have checked again,” Scott said.

Unfortunately, most of the calls her office gets claiming animal abuse or neglect turn out to be unfounded, she said.

State regulations are very clear about what constitutes mistreatment of an animal; people don’t always realize that what they consider abuse – for instance, leaving an animal outside in the cold – may not meet the legal definition, Scott said.

Scott’s agency bears no blame for what happened to the dog, Wilhelmi said Monday.

“Animal control did everything within their power to check on the welfare of this dog ... we can’t just go kick somebody’s door” on a suspicion, Wilhelmi said.

Nelson has been given a public defender.

If convicted, because of his criminal history, he could receive an enhanced sentence of up to 6 years.

He has several felony convictions on his record in Whiteside County, for two counts of burglary and for writing bad checks in two 1997 cases, and for driving on a revoked license and obstructing justice by destroying evidence in a 2009 case. He also has a felony bad check conviction in Lee County stemming from a 1998 case.

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