Is the nobility of truth in journalism extinct?

The following is my letter to Billings, MT newspaper reporter Ed Kemmick after he published an article about me and others filing suit against National English Shepherd Rescue and Yellowstone County. This letter contains my opinions and what I know to be truths regarding our case.

March 31, 2010

Mr. Ed Kemmick

Billings Gazette

PO Box 36300

Billings, MT 59107-6300

Dear Mr. Kemmick:

Thank you for your article in yesterday’s Billings Gazette. The decision to enter into the second law suit was not taken lightly. My family has been a part of the Billings community for many years. For more than 30 years my parents owned and operated The Happy Diner. During these years many families worked for my dad and his restaurant was a favorite to many, many people in Billings. Through the years, I watched my dad live and practice his business ethic that an employee who cares is a company’s greatest asset. My dad was a boss that went above and beyond for his employees and I am blessed beyond measure to have learned the importance of a strong work ethic and the value of caring beyond what is expected from such a great man. Jim Soft of Yellowstone Boys and Girls Ranch once told me that he has never heard a negative word ever spoken about my dad.

I write this to you with tears rolling down my cheeks. Not tears of anger or frustration, but tears of deep sadness.

If people like my father can have a Yellowstone County Sheriff’s deputy without cause enter his home to tell his family that they are not allowed on public property or they will be arrested, then who in our community is next?

If two war veteran, Sam McKechnie, a man who fought for the United States of America in both the Korean War and the Viet Nam War, can be told without cause by the Yellowstone County Sheriff’s department that he is not allowed on public property or he will be arrested, then who in our community is next?

If a young 20-year-old girl who volunteered her time because the county sent out a call for help, is bullied and assaulted without cause by Yellowstone County Sheriff’s department employees and told that she is not allowed on public property or she will be arrested, then who in our community is next?

If community members who answer a call for help from our government are held as emotional hostages, intimidated, manipulated and lied to by their local government, then who in our community is next?

I’ve often thought of Rosa Parks and those before her who refused to give up their seat on a bus in their community because they were told to do so.

Some times in life we have to decide if we are going to give up our seat in a bus in our community because we are told to do so.

Or if we are not.

The decision to enter this law suit was not taken lightly by me or my family.

I believe in our constitution. My family believes in our constitution. We believe that our legal system is for all people equally.

Both me and my family also believe in and declare Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior.

I am ashamed to say that I participated in the name calling of Linda Kapsa early on while volunteering to work with the dogs at MetraPark. I was an equal participant in verbally agreeing with her degradation as a person in our community or even of her as a person period. I was very vocal about my belief that she should go to prison.

Negative talk and degrading language about Linda Kapsa and Liz Honaker was the norm at MetraPark. We were the good guys and they were our common enemy.

But then something happened.

God began to deal with me.

The nasty words I would speak about Linda Kapsa began to taste very sour in my mouth and when I would hear others speak horribly about her I would feel myself cringing inside.

I shed many tears of shame coming to the realization that God loved Linda Kapsa too and that He had not ever called me to be her judge, but to be His child of grace and mercy. I’ve heard people say that our true character comes out when we are in pressure situations, but I don’t agree with that. I believe our true character is revealed by the way we treat our enemy when our enemy is down.

Neither I nor my family agrees with, nor do we defend Linda Kapsa’s breeding methods, the state of her property, or the condition in which she kept the many dogs on her property. We believe her breeding practices needed to be stopped, the dogs removed and placed in loving homes, and that Linda be treated for what we believe appears to be mental illness related to hoarding.

I did not know, nor had I ever met or spoken with Linda Kapsa prior to the day I accompanied Linda, Liz Honaker, Lt. Mike Scheino, Linda’s defense attorneys, a county employee and one other volunteer on Linda’s final viewing of the dogs at MetraPark. I was asked to be a neutral party accompanying the group by Liz Honaker. This was also the first day I ever met Ms. Honaker, a person of tremendous strength and character I have come to admire greatly. Before I agreed to join the group, I spoke with a number of other volunteers at MetraPark and sought their council on what they would like for me to do. Not one asked or told me not to participate. Each volunteer I spoke with encouraged me to be present and to be their voice. One volunteer told me that he would have great difficulty making that decision also, but he trusted my judgment on doing the right thing.

The right thing.

The right thing.

As a member of Amnesty International, I have long believed that every person deserves to enjoy the rights declared in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I have been an active member of AIUSA and have campaigned for the rights of many people in other countries and in my own country.

But now, I was faced with standing for the rights of the woman who was absolutely the most hated person at MetraPark and perhaps Yellowstone County.

The right thing.

As a neutral party I was not asked to represent either the defense or the county, but rather as someone Linda Kapsa could trust to tell her the truth about the dogs in the stalls and the volunteers wanting to adopt them. To the best of my knowledge, I did just that. And I did this with grace and professionalism. And to make it perfectly clear, I did not make a deal with Linda Kapsa or anyone representing Linda Kapsa to get the dogs I loved that were on her list to potentially be returned to her. Deputy county attorney Ingrid Rosenquist has blatantly lied accusing me of this act.

I have also been greatly criticized by the Yellowstone County employee who was a part of the walk around as showing kindness to Linda Kapsa and forcing the others to follow suit. This Yellowstone County employee openly and publicly stated in writing that this was a day that should have been horrible for Linda Kapsa and that she should have been treated terribly.

When did Yellowstone County begin approving, sanctioning, and encouraging intimidation, bullying, and the right for all of its employees to administer cruel judgments? It was my understanding that Judge Watters was the only person elected by We The People with the authority to administer judgment on Linda Kapsa’s actions.

It is my belief that terrorism and gang mentality first begins in the heart with a seed of hatred. That seed is then watered by words of influence. I am ashamed that the soil of my heart was such that a seed of hatred could even be planted, but it was. I disliked Linda Kapsa and all that she represented, which of course was everything bad. I bought into all that was being printed and being said about her and about Yellowstone County. We were the good guys and she was the bad guy.

Americans seem to need heroes who wear the white hats and bad guys who wear the black hats.

But what happens when all the hats are gray?

Our justice system should always be about that – justice. When the system fails to seek justice within ALL levels of the legal system then our constitution is mocked and so are those who have fought to win our freedoms and protections that are provided in that very constitution.

Sam McKechnie fought in two wars for the United States of America, its citizens and our constitution and he was treated shamefully by Yellowstone County employees. Actions taken against Mr. McKechnie by employees of the Yellowstone County Sheriff’s department violated the very civil rights Mr. McKechnie fought in TWO wars to protect. And now, Mr. McKechnie is forced to file suit to fight for his right to vote at his assigned polling place or to participate in anything at MetraPark or the fairgrounds!

When did my county become a place run by those who seek vigilante justice, the enforcement of gang mentality, and the approval of intimidation of its citizens to the point of violating their civil rights?

The Kapsa case stopped being about dogs long before it ever started.

If this case were truly, truly about cruelty to animals, then why did Yellowstone County willingly leave more than 20 dogs in Linda Kapsa’s care after the December 2008 raid? Were the lives and well being of those dogs of no less significance? When questioned at Kapsa’s sentencing as to the future of the dogs that remained on Linda Kapsa’s property, lead prosecuting attorney Ingrid Rosenquist stated that the county did not have need for any more dogs.

Why has no one sought to find out what happened to those dogs? Where was the county in their fight for the well being of those dogs? Where were the “activists” making two phone calls a week wanting to make sure the county was protecting those dogs?

They were no where to be found.

I know because I made those calls to the Department of Corrections and to the State. I sought answers as to what was going to happen to the dogs on Linda Kapsa’s property. Those dogs had every right to live lives in loving homes like the dogs caught in the raids. I, Kelly Dennehy, Denise Cooper and a small handful of others from our community removed the dogs from Linda Kapsa’s property and saw to it that the dogs Judge Watters granted Linda the right to keep were altered – all three dogs Linda chose were males. All of us involved paid for the expenses out of our own pockets. When I first arrived on Linda’s property to assess the situation, Linda had 34 dogs that needed to be placed and we placed every dog in less than two weeks. None of the dogs were emaciated, starving or malnourished. None had lice or open injuries or sores or mange or severe matting of any kind. Some of the younger dogs had fleas, but not to any severity whatsoever. Only one dog displayed any sign of pain or an injury of some kind. Linda told us that this dog had been kicked by a horse when it was younger and that the dog had just recently begun showing signs of a hip problem. Kelly Dennehy paid for the first x-ray done on the dog and I paid for the second more extensive x-ray. My vet has confirmed that indeed the injury shows all the signs of what Linda described. He also confirmed that the dog has had one prior surgery on her hip to address the injury. She will need one more surgery and I will be paying for that.

Of the 34 dogs that remained on Linda’s property when I first became involved in their placement, Linda sold 3 and found a loving adoptive home for 1, two women from the community placed 4, and myself and my connections placed 26 dogs into loving homes. I am very happy to share that two of the dogs were accepted to Best Friends Animal Society (Dogtown) in Utah. Sam McKechnie and I paid for that trip and delivered the dogs personally. Another person from our community helped us with the more than 30 hour drive down to Utah and back in two days. Animal Lodge was incredibly generous to care for the two dogs until Best Friends was ready to receive them and my schedule opened up for the trip.

Each one of the 34 dogs was humanely crated by Linda Kapsa. At no time did we have to chase a dog, run a dog down, injure a dog, or catch a dog with a rabies pole. Linda voluntarily crated every dog herself. She did the same with the 4 horses that she was required to relinquish. The horses were humanely coaxed into a trailer and moved to their new home in less than two hours.

NESR wasn’t anywhere to be found even though they claim to be a non-profit organization whose mission it is to rescue English Shepherds. Why is it no one is asking NESR why they didn’t raise funds or resources for those dogs? Why were they not preparing for the additional dogs that remained at Linda’s? They certainly had enough time to do so and according to them, they are the “experts” in placing English Shepherds.

Why is it no one is asking why the Yellowstone County Commissioners agreed to fund the bill for the seized dogs, provide all the labor to care for the dogs through its volunteer citizen work force, and then find it entirely satisfactory that NESR accept $100 for dogs adopted in Yellowstone County and $200 for dogs adopted outside of Yellowstone County of which none of these funds were given back to Yellowstone County?

AND

Why is it no one is asking why the Yellowstone County Commissioners find it entirely acceptable that the very citizens of Yellowstone County who either paid the bill for the care of the dogs and/or provided volunteer care for the dogs be held accountable to the laws of the state of Washington if they were fortunate enough to be granted the right by NESR to adopt one of the dogs? Why is it that the Yellowstone County Commissioners didn’t negotiate with NESR that the adoption contracts for the residents of Yellowstone County be held accountable to the laws of the state of Montana? When did the state of Washington or any county in the state of Washington fund any portion of the daily care needs of the dogs? Where were the Yellowstone County Commissioners when this contract between NESR and Yellowstone County was being negotiated? Why were the Yellowstone County tax payers not being represented by their own elected officials?

In my opinion, the Kapsa case was not really about dogs. From what I witnessed, it appeared to be about revenge and retaliation. It has appeared that the dogs and the Yellowstone County tax payers were simply pawns being used against a mentally ill woman who had won a case against Yellowstone County years before. Linda Kapsa’s breeding of dogs absolutely needed to be stopped and the dogs absolutely needed to be placed in loving homes, but, in my opinion, from what I witnessed, the reality of her legal case was not really about this. In my opinion, if this had been about the well being of the dogs, then greater and more thorough preparation and planning on the part of the county would have been in place and experienced leadership in the care of this size of an undertaking would also have been in place. To say that this large of a rescue had never happened before is a fallacy. Sadly, larger rescues than Operation New Beginnings have occurred too many times in our country. The laws must be changed to stop animal hoarders and irresponsible breeders.

Why is it that no one is asking why Kristen Wyatt had to make 2 phone calls a week for 5 months and get no where until she reached Yellowstone County commissioner Jim Reno and then suddenly, within a few days, according to Yellowstone County attorneys Mark Murphy and Ingrid Rosenquist, the same amount of man power was placed on the Kapsa case as they would place on a homicide case? How did this go from 5 months of “we aren’t going to do anything about the dogs on Kapsa’s property” to a full fledged homicide level case with one phone call to Jim Reno?

Why is it no one is actively seeking documented numbers from Yellowstone County? The Gazette went to court to get emails and documents on the “in office” sex life of Dennis Paxinos, but no one has sought documentation as to what the actual amount of money Yellowstone County tax payers provided for the “care” of the dogs or the salaries paid to those employees overseeing the operation? Why is it no one is printing or televising on the news the large number of dogs that died painful deaths while in the care of the county? I’ve read many times in the Billings Gazette that Linda Kapsa had dead dogs on her property, a fact that rips at my heart every time I think of it. However, who should be held accountable for all of the painful deaths of the dogs while in the care of the county. Shouldn’t the Yellowstone County tax payers be informed of these deaths also? After all, at this point they were paying the salaries of those in charge of the care and well being of these dogs.

The Billings Gazette has published at least 11 stories about the Kapsa case – many on the front page. In these stories, 18 different numbers have been published as the total number of dogs cared for by Yellowstone County, and 20 different money amounts paid by Yellowstone County tax payers have been reported. Do you or does anyone else actually know the correct numbers? Is anyone holding the Yellowstone County Commissioners or the Yellowstone County Sheriff’s department accountable for tax payer funds? If the reports of $200,000 to $250,000 is true and if we approximate this cost as for the care of 200 dogs from December 30, 2008 to September 15, 2009, then approximately $3.86 to $4.83 a day was spent on each dog, according to Yellowstone County. I can tell you that in the 8 stalls of dogs I personally cared for every day, I did not see $3.00 to $5.00 per dog per day from Yellowstone County coming into those stalls. Why is it no one is questioning the reported $20,000 a month vet bills when Rolling Dog Ranch reported that their vet bills for the entire year of 2009 was $46,000? And they claim that to be a very high bill for them. Where were the Yellowstone County Commissioners in the negotiating of the cost of vet care for the dogs? As a volunteer, I spent approximately $2,000 on the daily care needs of the dogs. I know other volunteers who spent an equal amount and others who spent more. I believe that with appropriate and experienced leadership and a well planned organizational effort in place the financial cost to the volunteers would have been drastically less. I also believe that the Yellowstone County Sheriff’s department should be held accountable for the deaths of the dogs while in their care.

Mr. Kemmick, with all due respect, in your article yesterday you wrote, “Honaker also represented Kapsa, who was sentenced last August to 20 years of probation after pleading guilty to a charge of aggravated animal cruelty. About 200 dogs, 27 chickens, and 10 birds were taken from Kapsa’s property in December 2008, and she was accused of failing to properly feed, shelter and care for the animals.” First, to the best of my knowledge, Liz Honaker has never represented Linda Kapsa in any animal cruelty case. Second, Linda Kapsa did not plead guilty. She pled “no contest” to a charge of animal cruelty, which the county agreed to. And third, what do any of these specific statements about the Kapsa case have to do with the case myself and others have against NESR and Yellowstone County, which was the basis of your article?  Our case is about the actions of NESR, Yellowstone County and specific volunteers, not Linda Kapsa.

I honestly and sincerely write these words with respect. I enjoy your writing and enjoy your columns very much. However, I also appreciate the power of the influence of words and how they are presented. As a published writer you have the opportunity with each column and each article to influence for truth or influence for an agenda. My hope and prayer is that the Billings Gazette and its employees believe in and desire for the noble ethic of using the power of the influence of their words for truth.

My guess is that the majority of Yellowstone County residents could tell you the name of the dog breeder accused of animal cruelty and identify her in a picture, but could not tell you the name of the young man who killed the nurse while recklessly driving his car or the name of the man accused of brutally murdering three people in our community or the name of the man recently accused of raping an adolescent boy or identify a picture of any of these men accused of horrific crimes.

Linda Kapsa is not an easy person to help. But I was deeply saddened when I asked her one day how many Christian leaders in our community had contacted her to see how they could help her. Or how many of the service or humanitarian organizations had reached out to help her clean her property or put up a barn she has all of the materials for. She said, “None.”

Last September myself, Kelly Dennehy, Denise Cooper, and three others from our community began the process of cleaning Linda’s property. Linda worked diligently along side of us. While Linda expresses gratitude, an awareness that she battles mental illness is always present. Reaching out with compassion and kindness to Linda Kapsa is not always easy, but ostracizing and alienating those that are not always easy to love is not the example my parents set for me. I did not volunteer to work with the dogs to “get a dog” – I don’t know any volunteer that did that. I volunteered because I love dogs. Dogs are easy to love. I have volunteered my efforts to help Linda Kapsa clean her property and find homes for the dogs that remained on her property because I knew in my heart it was the right thing to do. It has not been the easy thing, but it has been the right thing.

In his letter from Birmingham jail, Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote to his fellow clergy that right defeated is stronger than evil triumphant and an injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. Just as Rosa Parks would not give up her seat because she was told to do so, I will not remain silent when my own local government states lies as facts just because I am told to do so. President Obama told the world in his inaugural address that those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent are on the wrong side of history. If we hold this to be true for those in other countries, then we must hold it to be true for ourselves.

I am an excellent dog owner and provided and cared for the dogs at MetraPark with all the love in my heart, with my own finances, and with great sacrifice because I loved them. I fell in love with my stalls of dogs the first day I entered the stalls. I am proud of the mountains of fear they climbed and conquered. The dogs I applied to adopt, Love, Joy, Eddie and Happy are four of the greatest dogs I have ever known and I am so very, very proud of their intelligence, bravery, socialization skills, and abilities to shine in the most challenging of circumstances. My life is blessed beyond measure to have had these dogs in my life. I bonded with each of these dogs and they bonded with me. The only true reason I was denied the right to adopt Love, Joy and Eddie was because of my refusal to remain silent over what was happening at MetraPark. And Kelly Dennehy was denied because of her courage to stand up for me.

For almost 8 months I showed up at MetraPark every day, no matter of the weather or if I was not feeling well to care for Love, Joy, and Eddie and I continue to show up for them every day now as I fight with all of my resources to bring them back home to me. Each of those dogs excelled socially with my handling. Anyone who states otherwise is not telling the truth. NESR, Ingrid Rosenquist, and Catherine Schaeffer falsely accuse me of rejecting Happy. I never rejected Happy. Happy has lovingly been with me since August 12, 2009, the same day my 15-year-old chocolate Labrador died. Happy was adopted by Sam McKechnie, but health reasons never allowed him to adequately exercise Happy and so Sam generously shared her with me. In January of this year, he legally transferred her ownership to me. Happy is an extraordinarily well cared for healthy and fit dog.

I have proven beyond question my commitment to the well being of the dogs seized and those that remained on Linda Kapsa’s property. Dear friends and my own vet have generously contributed to the care of the dogs that remained on Linda’s property and that I helped place into homes and for this, I am eternally grateful. However, I have never asked for donations to help cover any of the costs I have gladly paid out for the care of the dogs. We are legally fighting to have Love and Joy returned to us because we love them. They are not property or little treasures from a legal victory to us. They are the dogs we developed a relationship with and bonded with for many months. They are part of our lives and our hearts and wonderful, wonderful homes with their well being and best interest await them with us. Separating them from us was nothing but cruel retaliation meant to hurt us.

The citizens of Yellowstone County deserve honest and ethical leadership, honest and ethical law enforcement, and honest and ethical accounting of the dollars spent by the Yellowstone County Commissioners.

To date, this has not occurred in the Kapsa case or Operation New Beginnings or in the relationship between NESR and Yellowstone County officials.

This is my seat in a bus in my community and I will not move simply because I am told to do so.

Respectfully,

Penny Ronning

Volunteer MetraPark dog handler of Love, Joy, Happy, Eddie, Trooper, Tippy, Sadie, and Suri