Judge questions whether charges should be heard in criminal court
By Jean Ortiz, jortiz@VenturaCountyStar.com
September 16, 2006
A federal court case involving a former Tierra Rejada Valley couple accused of owning an escaped tiger that was shot and killed in Moorpark last year has hit another snag.
U.S. District Judge George H. King has thrown out the recently submitted signed plea agreements of the alleged owners of the tiger, Gert “Abby” Hedengran and Roena “Emma” Hedengran, until a prosecution issue is resolved.
King questions whether some of the charges the couple face are violations of criminal statutes or more properly heard as regulatory violations, according to court records.
Abby Hedengran had agreed to plead guilty to six counts, including four misdemeanor charges for transporting exotic cats in enclosures of “insufficient structural strength” and in a manner that could cause them harm; exhibiti
ng exotic cats without a license; and keeping the animals in facilities that couldn’t prevent their escape, according to court records summarizing the plea agreements submitted Aug. 21. The remaining charges, according to the complaint, are felonies: making a false statement to a federal authority, obstruction of justice and witness tampering.
Emma Hedengran had agreed to plead guilty to the same misdemeanor charges minus the exhibiting without a license charge.
King has called into question only the misdemeanor charges and suggests that they could be violations of administrative rules, subject to an administrative hearing before the Department of Agriculture. If so, punishment would be in the form of fines rather than prison time. It does not affect the felony charges Abby Hedengran faces, which are still intact, nor indicate the case could be thrown out.
“It’s better to figure it out now than it is to convict them and then find out later through the appellate process at the U.S. Court of Appeals that this was never a crime and have the convictions reversed,” said Alfred Vargas, a Ventura lawyer not connected with the case but familiar with federal court proceedings.
The matter is not unusual, but merely an area of untested law, he said.
Laurie Levenson, a Loyola Law School professor and former federal prosecutor, agreed, saying it’s always good when there is thorough consideration of a case.
“It’s an indication that they’re a bit in uncharted territory and they want to make sure they are on the right track,” she said.
The couple were to appear in court Sept. 5 for the change of plea hearing, but that was pushed off pending resolution of this latest issue.
Lawyers have until Sept. 25 to submit briefs arguing whether the couple violated the criminal code or administrative rules.
The Hedengrans were at the center of controversy during a weeklong search for the exotic cat in February 2005. The 352-pound tiger was found in a city park and shot and killed by wildlife officials out of concern for public safety. Authorities alleged the animal belonged to the couple, who had recently moved to the area with nearly two dozen exotic cats, and that the animal escaped two weeks before the search began. A ranch worker’s sighting prompted the search.
The couple now live in Nevada.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph Johns, the prosecutor in the case, did not return repeated calls seeking comment.
Janet Sherman, who represents Emma Hedengran in the case, declined comment.
Kimberly Savo, Abby Hedengran’s lawyer, was unavailable for comment.
When the couple were initially charged in March 2005, Abby Hedengran faced as much as 60 years in federal prison, while Emma Hedengran faced a maximum 10-year federal prison sentence.