Guilty verdict: Cat shooter gets jail time
It was a shot heard 'round the county, and on Tuesday, August 22, an Albemarle District Court judge fired back, convicting Albemarle businessman George Seymour of malicious wounding of an animal and sentencing him to 10 days behind bars for the April 24 shooting of his neighbor's three-year-old pet cat, Carmen.
The guilty verdict from Judge Steve Helvin followed nearly two and a half hours of witness testimony, passionate debate between Commonwealth's Attorney Jim Camblos– who called Seymour's act "disgusting"– and Seymour's lawyer, Benjamin Dick, who argued that his client had every right to protect his expensive foreign cars. There was even a revelation that one witness called a "Law & Order moment."
Carmen's owners, Klaus and Vanessa Wintersteiger, testified about the event first made public in the Hook's May 18 cover story, "Claws & effect: Bentivar shooting sparks outrage."
Arriving home after an evening shopping in Waynesboro, Klaus Wintersteiger testified, he found his mother, who was visiting from Austria, cradling Carmen, bleeding and wrapped in a towel. A trail of blood led from the direction of the Seymour home to the Wintersteigers' garage, where Carmen had collapsed.
"We examined her," Klaus Wintersteiger said on the stand, and soon suspected she'd been shot. "There was a hole through her neck."
When the Wintersteigers took Carmen to the emergency vet, they were given bad news: Carmen's front leg and shoulder would need to be amputated, and because of a serious heart murmur, she might not survive the anesthesia.
Though veterinarian Sara Salmon testified that other cats have survived such surgery, Klaus and Vanessa made the difficult decision to euthanize their cat, fearing her quality of life would never be the same.
Vanessa Wintersteiger testified that her two children are still traumatized by the loss of the cat. "They're still having episodes of tearful nights about it," she said.
Even 10-year-old Nicholas Wintersteiger took the stand, relating how he had looked through a second floor window to see his neighbor, "Mr. Seymour," holding "a long gun."
When asked to identify Seymour in the courtroom, Nicholas, wearing a polo shirt and khaki pants, turned and looked at the defendant. Seymour, dressed in a black suit, seemed to wince and look down.
Since Seymour admitted that shooting Carmen was "an impulsive thing," much of the defense testimony was based on Seymour's right to protect his property, and particularly the valuable cars he and his wife, Kathy, both testified they often worked on at home.
"Paw prints" and "scratches" were two of the offenses Kathy Seymour cited as proof of the menace of neighborhood cats. When she offered an estimate of $500 to $1,600 in damage per vehicle scratched, tittering erupted from the onlookers in the courtroom, including at least 50 animal rights activists.
Animal lovers have been pushing for harsher punishments for animal abusers following Carmen's shooting. Several individuals picketed Seymour's automotive business, The Import Car Store, at the corner of Hydraulic Road and Emmet Street, and nearly 2,000 people signed an online petition to strengthen animal cruelty laws.
Currently, Virginia state law contains some alleged inconsistencies. For instance, it is a felony to kill livestock such as cattle or horses, but killing smaller animals– because their value is presumed to be less– is merely a Class One misdemeanor, punishable by one year in jail and a $2,500 fine. A 2002 amendment to the animal cruelty statute addresses the value of "companion animals" by making the torture of dogs or cats a felony on the first offense, but only if the animal dies as a direct result of the assault.
Camblos has declined comment on his decision not to file felony charges, saying only that his office is tough on animal cruelty.
But there's no doubt courtrooms are recognizing the value of pets. Judge Helvin also commented on the increasing value society places on animals.
"These cats are in the fabric of our neighborhoods," he said upon imposing the 60-day jail term with 50 days suspended. "They are important members of what makes up our community."
But perhaps the most dramatic moment of the trial came during the sentencing phase. Shortly after pointing out Seymour's clean record, defense attorney Dick asked Mrs. Seymour if she had ever known her husband to shoot a companion animal.
She responded "never" and after a few more questions seemed ready to leave the stand when Camblos piped up, "Oh, I have a question."
Camblos stood and asked if her husband had ever told her that he had shot and killed one of his own dogs.
Then Camblos asked Mrs. Seymour if she wanted to try to recall one particular incident. "Did he ever tell you," Camblos asked, "about the time when he was young and he shot and killed one of his own dogs?"
Suddenly, Mrs. Seymour recalled that during her pregnancy, the family's white German Shepherd had become jealous and knocked her down some stairs. So her husband took it outside and shot it.
After the trial, Camblos savored the moment. "The look on her face," he said, "it was priceless. That's the kind of stuff you don't get very often."
While the judge said the incident wouldn't affect the sentence, onlookers congratulated Camblos on the tactic.
"That was a Law & Order moment," said SPCA director Susanne Kogut, who has been monitoring the case for the past four months. "Mr. Camblos tried a great case. We're happy he got jail time– it's important to send a message."
After the trial, as journalists and onlookers swarmed the front of the Albemarle Circuit Courthouse, the Seymours and the friend who testified as a character witness slipped out the back door on High Street.
"No comment," said Mr. Seymour to a journalist who urged them to share their side of the story. "We have nothing to say," said Mrs. Seymour.
While his client was freed without bond, Dick expressed frustration with Helvin's verdict.
"I'm a little disappointed from the point of view that maybe the old times of people protecting their property are gone," he said. "You just can't go around doing things that our grandfathers could do. This is a new time, and you've got big pet lovers."
George and Kathy Seymour point out that while selling 2,000 cars over seven years in business, they've never been hauled into court. PHOTO BY WILLIAM WALKER
After the verdict, Klaus and Vanessa Wintersteiger and 10-year-old Nicholas expressed satisfaction with the sentence.
PHOTO BY WILLIAM WALKER