Death row dog: ‘Save Niko’ plea falters in court

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Emotional Niko supporters embrace after the hearing. Staff photo Emotional Niko supporters embrace after the hearing. Staff photo

Nearly 20 people in “Save Niko” T-shirts lined the benches inside of Albemarle County Circuit Court in support of a pitbull and his owners, who are pleading for another shot at saving the animal that’s been on doggy death row since 2014.

In a March 29 hearing, Judge Cheryl Higgins dismissed a case for Audrey Wells, who says she’s an owner of Niko and has never been convicted of a crime that would cause the dog to be euthanized.

Courtesy of Prayers for Niko

In a separate criminal case, owner Toni Sue Stacy, Wells’ partner, was convicted of being the owner of a dangerous dog when Niko allegedly killed a neighbor’s cat in 2014, resulting in a euthanization order that has been delayed due to an appeal and Wells’ civil case. Albemarle Animal Control was previously called when the pitbull reportedly attacked a Jack Russell terrier, resulting in a civil penalty.

A Charlottesville Albemarle SPCA employee wrote in a letter that Niko has escaped his kennel and attacked another dog since he’s been housed there.

Online court records show Stacy was also charged with having a dangerous, unlicensed dog found without its vaccinations in June 2009. These charges could not have been related to Niko, who is 6.

Wells is represented by local attorney Elliott Harding, who took on the civil case just 48 hours before Niko was scheduled to be put down.

Wells initially was charged in that criminal matter, but the prosecution dismissed it when Stacy took sole ownership of the dog. Wells never confirmed to the court that she was an owner, and when she was granted visitation rights and the previous judge asked if she also owned Niko, she stayed silent.

“I couldn’t afford a criminal conviction,” she told Higgins. “He’s my dog.”

Assistant County Attorney Richard DeLoria said Wells dodged a criminal liability and argued that she can’t claim ownership after the fact.

“I do not find that Ms. Wells is an innocent party in this case,” Higgins said, noting that Wells was given a list of regulations to meet when Niko was first deemed a dangerous dog and that she never met them. Before ruling against the dog’s owner, Higgins added that Wells chose not to speak up to the previous judge when she had the opportunity.

However, Wells and Stacy, who have only been allowed to see Niko through a chain-link kennel when they visit him every week, will now be allowed to play with him in the SPCA’s courtyard.

Outside the courthouse, Wells said she can’t wait to hug the pit that repeatedly has been described as gentle by his supporters. He has a Facebook fan page called Prayers for Niko/Niko Strong, with more than 14,000 members.

“I feel very grateful and I can’t believe that so many people support him,” Wells said. “Niko loves everybody.”

While it seems unlikely that she’ll ever be able to bring her dog home, she said she’s optimistic about the opportunity to pursue another option. Against All Oddz Animal Alliance Inc., a Buffalo, New York, rescue organization, has offered to take him into its care.

“Yes, we want Niko back, but we just want him to live,” she said.

“I’m a pitbull dad myself,” said her attorney. “They get a hard rap sometimes.”

As for the execution order, Harding said, “We’re sitting here applying the laws of man to animal kingdom. He didn’t attack a human. He’s never attacked a human.”

Niko’s team will appeal the case to the state.

Added Harding, “I think we’re on sound legal footing, and hopefully the Supreme Court will agree.”

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