Tag: judge

Alabama Cat Ladies Raise $85k For Legal Appeal, Plan To File Civil Suit

Two women who managed a cat colony in their Alabama hometown — and were rewarded with an infamously tone-deaf arrest and criminal conviction for their efforts — have raised $85,000 for their appeal.

This time, their fate won’t be decided by a small-time judge appointed by the same mayor who ordered police to arrest the women in the first place.

Mary Alston and Beverly Roberts of Wetumpka, Ala., were arrested on June 25 after three police cars pulled up and four officers surrounded them on public land, demanding they stop their efforts to trap feral cats and leave the area immediately.

Alston and Roberts, who were in disbelief that four officers had been dispatched and were treating them like hardened criminals, didn’t move fast enough for the cops, who berated them and placed them both in handcuffs before charging them with a pair of misdemeanors each.

Their attorneys fought for months to obtain a copy of the police body camera videos of the arrest, and when they finally obtained that copy, it became apparent why the Wetumpka Police Department fought to keep it out of their hands.

The footage shows officers warning the women the confrontation was “going to get ugly,” insulting them and joking that they were “a bunch of cops beatin’ up on some old ladies.” It showed the police escalated the situation and had little regard for two women who were doing their hometown a service by managing a stray cat colony and conducting TNR — trap, neuter, return — to prevent the cats from breeding and multiplying.

They were convicted in a December trial that was followed by local and national media.

Now Roberts, 85, and Alston, 61, have raised $85,195 for their appeal via GoFundMe, with more than 3,000 donors across the US contributing to the fund.

After filing an appeal on Dec. 19, the women have been notified that their first hearing is set for Feb. 23 in front of 19th Judicial Circuit Court Judge Amanda Baxley, said Mary King, Roberts’ daughter. Baxley was sworn in earlier this month and begins her tenure on Jan. 17 after she was elected to the post in November.

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A Wetumpka police officer wags a finger at Roberts, who was 84 years old at the time, before handcuffing her hands behind her back and rifling through her personal possessions.

In a December trial, attorneys for Alston and Roberts revealed it was Wetumpka Mayor Jerry Willis who personally dispatched the officers by calling the assistant chief after spotting Alston’s car parked near a wooded area owned by the county. The lawyers also questioned Willis on his history of feuding with the pair on animal-related issues.

Although Willis testified that he did not tell police to arrest the women, Officer Jason Crumpton testified that he was indeed instructed to make the arrests before he arrived and determined what the women were doing.

Despite the fact that Wetumpka does not have laws against feeding or trapping cats, municipal Judge Jeff Courtney, who is directly employed by the town instead of being answerable to voters, found Alston and Roberts guilty of two misdemeanors each, sparking an outcry in local and national media. Courtney found Roberts guilty of trespassing and disorderly conduct, while he found Alston guilty of trespassing and interfering with governmental operations, an analogue for resisting arrest.

“I thought that they surely had more pressing issues to attend to,” Roberts told PITB in December. “I really thought the judge would dismiss it and tell the city to work it out.”

The arrest and conviction were widely panned by observers, including Alabama Political Reporter’s Josh Moon, who called the drama an “utterly absurd” spectacle that “reeks of small town politics.”

Roberts and Alston hope Baxley will give them a fair trial, which they believe they did not receive under Courtney in Wetumpka.

In the meantime, the colony cats in Wetumpka remain on their own. Willis, who has not responded to requests for comment by PITB, allegedly rejected offers by animal welfare groups in neighboring towns to care for the cats.

“We are very worried about them,” Roberts told PITB last month. “A few animal lovers have said they would help, but we are not sure this will happen. I’m not sure there is enough food available to hunt. The weather is getting colder, and they need protein.”

‘We Never Broke Any Laws’: In Disbelief Over Their Conviction, Alabama Cat Ladies Vow To Appeal

They’d been treated like hardened criminals and insulted by the same police officers who were supposed to protect them, but Beverly Roberts and Mary Alston didn’t think they’d be convicted.

Not for taking care of cats.

“I felt it was very unlikely that we would be found guilty,” Alston told PITB, “with all of the evidence that we had on our side with the body camera footage, and we never broke any laws.”

Roberts and Alston were arrested on June 25, when a trio of police cars pulled up and officers from the Wetumpka, Alabama, police department confronted them. Police body camera footage shows the women, who had been caring for a colony of stray cats, were surprised by the tone and impatience of the officers.

What they didn’t know was that Wetumpka Mayor Jerry Willis was the one who’d in effect dispatched the officers to the small wooded lot owned by Elmore County, grounds that are open to the public. They didn’t know that the officers — who warned the confrontation was “going to get ugly,” told the women they’re “too old to be acting this way” and later joked that they were “a bunch of cops beatin’ up on some old ladies” — were told by the assistant chief of police to arrest them after Willis spotted Alston’s parked car and called the assistant chief directly.

On Tuesday, despite the fact that Willis’ role was revealed during a trial, and despite the fact that Wetumpka has no laws against managing cat colonies or conducting “trap, neuter, return” activities, Alston and Roberts were convicted of a pair of misdemeanors each. Lacking laws to charge them directly, the authorities instead accused the women of trespassing on public land and being uncooperative with the officers.

“That’s what I kept going back to – that feeding and trapping cats is not illegal,” Roberts told PITB. “I was not in the location I was [accused of trespassing], and I was sitting in my car talking to my friend. I was not feeding cats.”

During the trial, Willis and the police argued that they’d already told Alston and Roberts to stop interacting with the cats, and said the pair chose to ignore earlier warnings to stay away from the stray colony. They reiterated their view that the colony is a nuisance.

Roberts said she’s had her disagreements with Willis in the past about the way the town handles animal-related issues, but says Wetumpka’s animal control officer gave her and Alston his blessing to manage the cat colony at their own expense. The animal control officer confirmed that during the Tuesday trial. Public-private partnerships to care for stray cats are common in towns and cities across the US, with many elected leaders welcoming the opportunity to work with local rescues and volunteers.

Roberts and Alston say they plan to appeal their conviction, hoping a county judge will see the charges as “politically motivated” accusations. They pointed out that Wetumpka municipal Judge Jeff Courtney is employed directly by the town, not elected to the post by voters, and they believe they’re more likely to get a fair shake when the people deciding their fate aren’t serving at the pleasure of the people making the accusations.

In the meantime, the cat colony remains in Wetumpka, and the cats haven’t been cared for since late June.

“We are very worried about them,” Roberts told PITB. “A few animal lovers have said they would help, but we are not sure this will happen. I’m not sure there is enough food available to hunt. The weather is getting colder, and they need protein.”

Since the terms of the sentencing include two years’ probation, Alston and Roberts are prohibited from caring for the strays. Alston noted the irony of local authorities claiming TNR was exacerbating a “nuisance” while, in the absence of care and neutering, the free felines “are left to go hungry and continue to multiply and branch out searching for food.”

Roberts says she still finds it hard to believe Wetumpka officials refused to compromise or find a way to establish cooperative care for a community problem.

“I thought that they surely had more pressing issues to attend to,” she said. “I really thought the judge would dismiss it and tell the city to work it out.”

Top image credit Wikimedia Commons