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PUNTA GORDA, Fla.–A judge granted emergency custody of an allegedly abused dog to the Lee County Sheriff on May 12, in a civil hearing during which the dog’s owner had to be removed from the courtroom twice for disruptive behavior.
At the center of the civil suit was a 2-year-old black-and-white Pitbull named Sheba, who was described by Lee County Sheriff Carmine Marceno as “very loving.”
The sheriff sought the emergency legal action after a video was brought to the attention of the Lee County Sheriff’s Animal Cruelty Task Force via a private Facebook group.
An unidentified tipster later confirmed to deputies that Marcus Lynn Chiddister, 22, was the man in the video that appeared to show him punching and/or beating a dog in the backseat of a light-colored Chrysler 200 later identified as belonging to Chiddister’s girlfriend, Kiara Howse, 23.
The video was taken on or about March 29 at a Fort Myers RaceTrac gas station, sheriff’s deputies said. Chiddister was arrested on felony animal abuse charges and remains in jail on a $25,000 bond awaiting arraignment on May 23. His girlfriend, who later claimed the dog was hers, was not charged but was named in the civil suit.
Judge Zachary M. Gill had postponed the May 2 hearing to give the dog’s owners time to hire an attorney.
Chiddister appeared in court in handcuffs and told the judge he had not been given the chance to obtain legal counsel because he was not given access to a telephone or communication methods. The sheriff’s office could not confirm those claims.
At the May 2 hearing, the judge reminded Chiddister, Howse, and the sheriff’s attorney Kimberly Sams, that the hearing had to be held within 30 days of the April 15 original complaint.
Court records show that the judge gave Chiddister until May 12, the 27th day after the filing, to get representation and told him and Howse to have any exhibits they needed for the case filed with the clerk of courts by May 10.
In addition, the sheriff’s motion requested that Chiddister and Howse be disallowed from owning more animals and that adoption of the dog be supervised to keep their family members from accessing it.
However, Gill reserved ruling on the adoption specifications, asking lawyers for Marceno to submit a brief on how such a restriction would be conducted.
During the May 12 hearing, Chiddister was seated at the defendant’s table, in restraints, and for the first 10 minutes calmly observed proceedings. However, when Gill allowed him the opportunity to ask questions of the Sheriff’s Office deputy, Adnan Selimovic, he became agitated, shaking, and began talking loudly that he “couldn’t handle the hearing.” He told the court he was having a panic attack and was asked to be removed.
“I can’t do this, I can’t do this,” Chiddister said, as the court video shows him flailing his arms and crumpling papers. “I’m going to have an anxiety attack. Get me outta here, please get me outta here.”
After a 10-minute recess, deputies placed him in another room by order of the court where he was allowed to view and participate in the proceedings via Zoom.
However, another recess was called 15 minutes into the proceedings when Chiddister began shouting profanities and threw an iPad against a wall.
After recess, Chiddister was returned to a holding area and was no longer involved in the hearing. Howse was allowed to remain at the defendant’s table and participate in the hearing, even though she had to be admonished by the judge several times.
According to LCSO detective reports that were presented in court, Howse had confirmed that the man in the video was Chiddister and had also identified the dog as Sheba.
She told detectives that the dog had eaten their food, which caused Chiddister to become upset and that he had “struck the dog several times.” She also said it was not the first time that had happened, the report continued.
According to the report, Chiddister told detectives it was him in the video but that he was not punching the dog but cockroaches that were on some clothes in the backseat of the car. He also told officers that he would “never hurt it.”
A veterinary exam of the dog was admitted into evidence and found “multiple injuries” including “broken teeth, hemorrhaging and swelling of the eyes, and bruises around the neck caused by blunt force trauma.”
The Sheriff’s Office report concluded that the injuries were not accidental but were “consistent with unnecessary suffering and animal cruelty.”
Howse denied that she or Chiddister had ever “abused the dog” saying the injuries were inflicted by a previous owner whom she claimed had “shot the dog in the head.” She had previously told detectives they only had the dog for three months.
In an apparent contradiction, she said she could not identify the person in the video as her boyfriend, Chiddister.
“I don’t know, that doesn’t look like Marcus to me,” she told the court. Initially, she said she had told deputies, “I did not see any dreads, and I did not see any tattoos.”
When asked about the car that was in the video, Howse said, “I’m at that RaceTrac every day. I would not be surprised if my car was in a video.”
Chiddister’s mother, Joann Chiddister, and a trainer, Jenna Horton, also testified and provided documents saying the dog was not abused, and that Marcus Chiddister suffered from and took medications for PTSD.
Records of those claims could not be found in filings to the Lee County Clerk of Courts that were supposed to be made before a court-imposed deadline on May 10. Joann Chiddister and Howse claimed they were in the filings.
Joann Chiddister could not produce a receipt for the evidence, but the judge allowed the information to be examined by the Sheriff’s Office attorney who had objected to the information being used.
After two hours of testimony, the judge ruled that the dog was to be put into custody of the sheriff and that neither Chiddister nor Howse was not allowed to possess animals in the future.
Sheriff’s records show that this was the 45th arrest for Chiddister and court records show his offenses ranging from possession of tobacco as a minor to battery and possession of a firearm by a felon.
Marceno said Sheba is on a “recovery hold” at Lee County Animal Services pending further possible adoption and is making a “quick recovery from her injuries.”
The person who turned the video over to sheriff’s deputies will receive a cash reward of up to $3,000 from Crime Stoppers.