Dog found in freezing temps, women charged after allegedly taking it.
SULLIVAN COUNTY, Tenn. (WJHL) — Two Sullivan County women face theft charges after they allegedly took a dog from owners who left it outside during December’s arctic blast, and the mother-daughter duo intends to fight in court as Harley the German Shepherd remains missing.
Dec. 23 – A Call Is Made
Just before 5 p.m. on Dec. 23, 2022, temperatures measured at Tri-Cities Regional Airport had reached around 8 degrees Fahrenheit. Storm Team 11 with News 2’s sister station, WJHL, predicted winds from 15 to 25 miles per hour, and gusts up to 40. With wind chill, meteorologist Alex Williams said “dangerous cold” could plunge to 20 below zero later that evening.
Around that time, a deputy with the Sullivan County Sheriff’s Office (SCSO) arrived at a home on Eula Private Drive in reference to an “Animal Complaint” memo from an anonymous caller. When they got there, the deputy found a female German Shepherd dog chained into an open-front shelter that consisted of a tarp, what deputies described as fresh straw and a plastic dog house.
The deputy said the dog’s water bowl had frozen from the cold. When the officer tried to contact the owners of the animal at the home, they reportedly could not be reached.
The deputy spoke to a representative of A Voice for Pets, who arrived at the scene and connected the officer with Karen Fox of Sullivan County Animal Control.
According to the deputy, Fox said animal control had been to the residence earlier and found the dog with food and frozen water. Fox was planning to visit the dog again the next day. Fox reportedly advised the deputy to give the dog fresh water, which they did. The deputy gave her ham to eat, then left.
Dec. 23 – Harley is Gone
Just after 8 p.m. on Dec. 23, 2022, temperatures measured in the region were around 4-5 degrees Fahrenheit. Sullivan County 911 received another call, this time from residents of the property. Harley, their five-year-old German Shepherd, was gone.
Harley’s owners told deputies they knew officers had visited earlier that day. Police report the owners said they had left to pick up their grandchildren, and when they returned home they planned to let the dog inside. When they got to where she was chained up, however, she was gone.
When deputies checked camera footage from the property, they reported seeing a white vehicle parked nearby and a woman getting out of the car. The woman allegedly walked around the side of the house near Harley’s location before the dog was spotted running through the yard.
In a later shot, deputies said Harley was seen sitting in the back seat of the vehicle before it drove away.
Jan. 6 – The Arrests
On the morning of Jan. 6, both Virginia and Jillian Shackelford of Bluff City were arrested by SCSO deputies for allegedly stealing Harley in December.
The mother and daughter were both charged with theft up to $1,000, a Class A Misdemeanor in the state of Tennessee. Harley’s owners described her value as $800 in the police report.
Animal care activists in the region rallied around the two on social media, as they had been calling for Harley’s release and celebrating her removal on Dec. 23, 2022. Advocates for anti-chain laws and stricter animal ordinances criticized the arrests as well. Virginia, who goes by Ginny, told WJHL in a message she believed the disappearance should be described as a rescue effort to save Harley from the sub-zero temperatures seen on the day of the incident.
Shackelford refused to say how she learned of Harley’s situation. After multiple attempts at contact, including a visit to the residence, News 2’s sister station has not heard back from Harley’s owners.
Capt. Andy Seabolt with SCSO said investigators gave the Shackelfords “several opportunities” to return Harley to her original owners before escalating to criminal charges. When the mother and daughter were asked to disclose the dog’s location, Seabolt said they refused, and warrant process began.
“Multiple times the investigator spoke to the suspects in an attempt to locate the stolen dog,” Seabolt wrote in an email to WJHL. “The suspects refused to cooperate as I stated earlier, and the investigator consulted with the Sullivan County District Attorney’s Office. Warrants were obtained for the theft and served.”
An SCSO investigator said the Shackelfords had other avenues they could have exhausted before taking the dog.
“There’s a right way and a wrong way to do things,” said Capt. Richard Frazier, the commanding officer of SCSO’s criminal investigations division. “If they thought that it wasn’t being done fast enough, I wish they’d have called us back and maybe spoken to a patrol supervisor. Maybe they could have gotten a quicker answer there or something else could have been done.”
Frazier said that SCSO’s first priority is to return Harley to her owners and that if the Shackelfords had handed her over, then things might have gone differently.
“We did just want to get the dog back to the owners,” Frazier said. “They didn’t cooperate with the investigation, as far as the suspects go. All we wanted was knowledge of the dog. Just tell us where the dog is, we’ll go get it, we’ll handle everything from there.”
According to Sullivan County District Attorney Barry Staubus, at least two investigations are ongoing concerning the Shackelfords and Harley’s owners. News 2’s sister station requested recordings of the 911 calls lodged by an anonymous person and Harley’s owners on Dec. 23, 2022, but the requests were denied due to the investigations.
WJHL asked Staubus whether he expected criminal charges against the owners in the investigation, to which he said he had no comment at the time. As of Tuesday, Jan. 17, no other charges filed in either investigation.
The Shackelfords are set to appear at 9 a.m. in Sullivan County General Sessions Court on Jan. 30.
“Both Ms. Jillian Shackelford and Ms. Ginny Shackelford shall plead not guilty,” Julie Canter, the mother and daughter’s attorney, told News 2’s sister station in a message. “The State has the burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt. We intend to aggressively and actively fight the allegations and charges. My firm is currently conducting an independent investigation into the circumstances surrounding the arrests and allegations.”
As of Friday, Jan. 13, authorities said Harley’s whereabouts are still unclear.
WJHL reached out to the SCSO Tuesday to see if that was still the case, but has not yet heard back.
The Law: What Can You Do?
Tennessee has no existing laws that protect the average citizen from criminal charges when they take an animal against its owner’s consent, no matter the conditions. The state does, however, have a ‘hot car’ law that can protect citizens from civil liability if they break into a locked vehicle to save an animal or minor that they believe would suffer harm when left inside. That law has specific limitations, including a clause requiring citizens to notify first responders and remain nearby with the animal or minor.
According to the Sullivan County Attorney’s office, no formal animal ordinance is on file with the county. Animal control officials told News 2’s sister station they follow state laws on the matter.
“Generally, all we can do is what the animal control [says] ‘hey, check this,'” Frazier said. “Once we check everything, adequate shelter, food and water, we’ve got to turn it over to them.”
While animal matters are largely left to animal control, Frazier said that doesn’t stop the occasional deputy from taking a call personally.
“I know some of us have put animals in the back of our cruisers before, but we’re just not equipped to deal with it,” Frazier said. “And a lot of times, once that’s happened, animal control has come and gotten the dog. We just don’t have anything to do with them.”
When it comes to the removal of animals for things like neglect, Frazier said that request has to come from Animal Control. Seabolt said he doesn’t recall the last time a call like that came through the office.
“Call us, we’ll forward it on to the proper authorities,” Frazier said. “Don’t take it upon yourself to go on somebody else’s property and take their pet.”
According to Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-14-202, anyone who “knowingly ties, tethers, or restrains a dog in a manner that results in the dog suffering bodily injury” could be charged with a Class A misdemeanor for cruelty to animals for their first offense and a Class E felony for later offenses.
For the full versions of Tennessee’s animal offenses, you can visit the state’s website.
According to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AMVA), cold weather is a serious risk for even thick-coated dogs like German Shepherds. The medical authority that vets across the country use for guidance said cats and dogs shouldn’t be left alone outside regardless of breed when weather is below freezing, much less below zero. If that advice is disregarded, AMVA said cold conditions can lead to cracked/bleeding paw pads, hypothermia, lameness, frostbite and death.
This is a developing story. Details will be updated as they become available.