Abused and rescued; dog in Marion County sparks push for bill targeting repeat offenders

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — There was a time Winston’s future looked bleak.

Now, the Yorkshire Terrier is ready to help other animals by convincing state lawmakers to increase penalties for those who repeatedly abuse them.

Winston  was found in Rivesville on July 31. He was in a zipped-up cooler bag, in a ditch. His fur was matted, and he was blind due to cataracts in both eyes.

He was found by a man walking his Saint Bernard and taken to the Marion County Humane Society, where his journey to a new life began.

Casey Johnson and his girlfriend, Kelley, of Fairmont, saw a newscast about Winston’s plight.

“It broke our hearts to see him like that,” Johnson said. “I told my girlfriend, ‘I’m going to go get him.’ ”

That same day, Johnson wrote an email to the humane society and said he wanted to adopt the little guy. He said he “literally stalked” the humane society for a couple of months, keeping track of how Winston was doing and making sure officials there knew he hadn’t changed his mind.

A lot of people were pulling for Winston, buying “Justice for Winston” T-shirts to help pay his medical bills. They still reach out to him on social media.

“I can’t believe how one little pet touched so many people,” Johnson said. “It renews my faith in humanity. I didn’t know there were that many people who cared.”

Sometime around September, Johnson contacted the society again and was told there were hundreds of inquiries about the Yorkie and the adoption process would be a long one.

The humane society posted on social media when adoption applications could be submitted.

“I said, ‘I’m ready. When are we doing this?’ They opened at 11 a.m.  and I was there an hour and half early, waiting for the doors to unlock,” Johnson said.

Applications were taken for a week  and then about a week after that, Johnson got a phone call.

“They said they went through the selection process and decided we want you to have Winston,” he said.

He picked the Yorkie up 15 minutes later. And Winston went home to meet Loki, a 1-year-old Yorkie already in the Johnson household.

The vet estimated Winston to be about 9.

Winston had surgery on his eyes and now sees better. He’s put on a couple of pounds and is adjusting to his new life.

“I slept on the couch with him for the first three or four days,” Johnson said. “Then the weekend came, and Kelley was off work and home with him. That’s the day I lost my dog to my girlfriend. He picked his favorite person.”

Winston also now has a sister, Karma, who  Johnson  recently adopted. She’s also a Yorkie.

Winston is still skittish, but Johnson said he loves to cuddle and show love to those taking care of him.

“I feel, and this is just an assumption not a fact, but at some point, someone cared for this dog,” Johnson said. “He can sit. He can shake paws, just like any other trained dog.”

In less than five months, Winston became somewhat of a celebrity. He has his own Facebook page with 1,700 friends. He has his own Post Office box because people were wanting to send him Christmas cards and gifts. He even has his own cell phone, but Johnson said Winston does not answer it.

Winston’s Law

As sure as he was about adopting Winston, Johnson knew he wanted to do something to make animal cruelty laws harsher.

It wasn’t  long before Heather Severt took the lead.

Severt is the West Virginia State director for the Humane Society of the United States. She also works at the Marion County Humane Society, so she’s been part of Winston’s case since the day after he was found.

Through the national society, she helped with the investigation, providing support and a reward for information leading to an arrest and conviction.

“Casey had a really strong desire to improve the West Virginia cruelty laws,” Severt said. “He’s very motivated, and I’m very happy to help put this in motion.”

Severt said she has a lead sponsor and some co-sponsors for a Senate Bill, but she didn’t want to identify anyone until closer to the upcoming Legislative session, which is in January.

“I think, optimistically, we are ahead of the game,” she said. She’s hoping to submit the bill in the first week.

Severt is a registered lobbyist, so she spends a lot of every session in Charleston. She’ll do that again this time, pushing for Winston’s Law. She’s hoping Johnson and Winston will be able to join her.

“I’d at least like to have a meeting with them and the lead sponsors and others,” she said.

The bill will make penalties harsher. It adds an option between the misdemeanor and felony animal cruelty charges and adds a felony charge for repeat offenders.

She said right now, a prosecutor has to prove torture and intent, and that’s not always easy.

“We see cases all the time,” she said. “The suffering can be horrific at times. There’s a lack of care or compassion. Some people are repeatedly charged with misdemeanors, but it means nothing to them.”

Severt said she knows there are some people who suffer mental illness — hoarders, for example — who don’t realize they are abusing the animals. Those are not the people she wants to go after with the repeat-offender clause.

Anyone who wants to help get the bill passed into law can contact lawmakers.

“It’s important that anyone interested in helping to support the effort, one of the best things they can do is reach out to legislators,” Severt said. “Go to the senators first and ask them to support the bill.

“You can even ask if they are interested in co-sponsoring the bill.”

The bill doesn’t have a number yet, but Severt hopes to have one by early January.

Supporters can also contact law enforcement agencies and animal-related organizations and ask them to send endorsements of the bill to the House and Senate, Severt said.

The crime

Justin Lancianese, 35, of Rivesville, was arrested Aug. 9. He was initially charged with misdemeanor animal cruelty.

Those charges were dropped later in August and upgraded to a felony animal cruelty charge.

He is still in the North Central Regional Jail on a $5,000 bond.

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