More may be charged in cat torture case

CNJ staff photo: Gabriel Monte Clovis police say they will be seeking more charges against more people in connection with the torture and killing of a cat at Ned Houk Park.

By Sharna Johnson: CNJ staff writer

Jack the cat may be gone but his ugly demise is not forgotten.

The gruesome details of Jack’s torture and killing shocked Clovis and much of eastern New Mexico last week.

Now, Clovis police say they will be seeking more charges against more people. And the mother who struggled with turning in her eldest son for the grisly act now faces the possibility of another son being charged.

Jack’s end is a story that sparked outrage across the community and is tearing a family apart.

Police, who initially charged only Clovis High School senior Jonathan Hall, 18, say they now believe he didn’t act alone and they plan to seek charges against two more juveniles who participated.

Police view three teen boys they say were involved in torturing and shooting a family pet as co-conspirators, according to Clovis Police Chief Steve Sanders.

Sanders said in the course of the investigation, police have made cases against two other boys, both 17.

“I think that Mr. Hall was probably the ringleader, but they took an active part in it,” said Sanders. “They weren’t being forced to take part in anything they didn’t want to be.”

Hall was charged Feb. 6 with maliciously torturing an animal, criminal damage and negligent use of a firearm.

Charges of animal cruelty against the other boys will be forwarded to juvenile probation and parole, Sanders said.

Police are not identifying the youth because charges are still pending, according to Sanders, and department policy prohibits releasing the names of suspects.

District Attorney Matt Chandler said Hall faces a maximum sentence of about three years if convicted on all three counts.

The juvenile’s cases will be reviewed by Juvenile Probation and Parole, who can decide if the charges will be handled informally through their office, or passed to the district attorney for prosecution.

The district attorney’s office is also evaluating if it will charge Hall with additional counts of contributing to the delinquency of a minor.

The criminal case

A police report released last Tuesday detailed Hall’s confession to his mother Brie Barth.

Barth told police her eldest son laughed as he told her that he and two other boys, one of whom was his 17-year-old brother, took the family’s cat, Jack-O-Lantern, to Ned Houk Park.

According to Barth, her son told her he hung Jack from a tree by the neck and shot the cat’s legs to stop it from squirming and clawing to free itself from the noose.

Barth said her son confessed to shooting Jack in the stomach until the cat cried so much, Hall said he shot it in the head, killing the animal.

Barth told the CNJ her cat had been missing for several days and she had asked her children if they had seen it. But it wasn’t until she confronted Hall with a .22 rifle she found in his vehicle, that he confessed to her what had happened to Jack.

Witness: “It just creeped me out.”

Barth said since police took the initial report, five youths have come forward and admitted to her and their parents they were there, some saying they are still disturbed and upset by what happened.

Through their stories, she said she has learned the shooting of the cat was planned out in advance, with the other boys stopping at a store on the way to the park so Hall could purchase bullets.

She said one of the youths used to hang out at her home with her sons but after the incident, stopped coming over. She said he told her, “It just creeped me out. There’s just a certain level and that passed that level.”

Barth said though Hall is an adult and will likely face the stiffest, most public consequences, she holds all the boys equally responsible because they didn’t try to stop it and they didn’t come forward with the truth.

“I don’t know if it was Johnny’s idea, I don’t know whose idea it was,” Barth said. “That has never come to light. I do know not all of them participated, they were all just there.

“(But) if you were just there and you didn’t stop it, that makes it just as wrong,” Barth said.

A mother’s difficult decision

For Barth, turning her son in to police equates to the end of a life that could have been something great — the end of one road and the start of a difficult journey into the unknown.

She has left 18-year-old Jonathan Hall in jail, refusing to pay the relatively small bond that would bring him home to his family.

Turning him in was the hardest thing she’s ever had to do, she said.

“I was in pieces when I went to the police department. I cried, I shook. I was turning in my kid and it sucked,” she said.

“He’s still in the jail and that’s where he will stay. I think being where he’s at is the best place for him. By no means was it easy for me to turn him…I don’t want him to think that (what he did is) OK.”

The 32-year-old mother of five said in the four years she has cared for Hall, she saw no indication of trouble beyond normal teenage issues.

“I guess hindsight is 20/20, but nothing big ever happened. It was stupid things like breaking curfew, but nothing against the law… it just came out of nowhere, and let me tell you, it hit me like an oncoming truck,” she said.

He was placed on probation for stealing a sports drink at school, but Barth said that was the worst trouble she had with him.

Quite the contrary, she said, Hall worked hard to earn straight A’s in school and with three months left to graduation, had plans to become an emergency medical technician and possibly join the military.

Now, facing a felony record, all that hard work and his plans have been thrown away, she said.

Barth, who has two young children and grew up in foster care, said she took Hall in four years ago and became his legal guardian. After that, she became legal guardian of two of his teen friends who needed places to live.

Describing her home as a neighborhood hangout for kids, Barth said she opened up her home to Hall and the others because she wanted to repay kindness she received in her experience, and, “biological or not, I love them each like they are my own.”

Her home has also become sanctuary to several rescued animals — dogs and cats that were unwanted or in peril. And they are members of the family too, she said.

“I wish I saw it coming. It haunts me every day what Jack went through ’cause I loved him. I loved him like my kid. He was still a member of our family,” she said.

Jack’s trust betrayed

Jack-O-Lantern was her 6-year-old son’s cat.

At nearly a year old, “Jack,” as they called him, often sought comfort with Hall when the younger son’s playing was too much, she said. The closeness between Hall and Jack was one of the things that added to her shock.

“I guess that was the part that hurt me so much,” Barth said. “When he told me the story, he had like this smile on his face, like he had done something funny.”

When she pressed Hall about what he had done, she said he didn’t seem to understand why she was making such a big deal about it. He told her hunters kill things all the time. But, she said, he didn’t seem to understand when she explained to him the difference between torture and a clean kill by a hunter.

“He knows he did wrong because he knows he’s in trouble, but I don’t think he knows the severity of what he’s done… at some point something broke inside him, inside his head, to think this was all right, to have that much coldness inside him,” Barth said.

“If he stays in jail, it’s up to the system and all I can ask is that they do help him out. I’d like to have him evaluated. Rotting in jail is not going to be the answer — it’s not going to fix what’s wrong.”

Barth said finding herself and her family in the spotlight during a painful situation has added to the difficulty they are facing.

“I understand everybody’s angry and nobody has any right to be any more angry than me and my 6-year-old, because we’re the ones it affected the most,” she said.

“But I don’t want anybody to think that there was something I could have done to prevent it, because there was (sic) no signs.”

Why? How? — The psychology

When perpetrated by a sole individual, animal torture is often viewed as sadism and a possible precursor to trouble down the road.

But experts sometimes see different dynamics unfold when a group is involved, as suspected in this case

The power of group thinking and peer influence can act as a force that drives people to do uncharacteristic things, according to Lisa Bond-Maupin, a criminologist with New Mexico State University who specializes in juvenile justice.

The dynamic is called “risky shift”, or, “something that can happen in a group that has lost its capacity for critical thinking… engaging in behaviors that one would never imagine doing alone,” she said via email.

Risky shift dynamics can be identified in all kinds of group-influenced behaviors from dangerous acts that could result in injury or death to acts that appear unconscionable to society.

“Combine (risky shift) with adolescence and difficulties controlling impulses or thinking completely clearly about consequences – and these kinds of group acts can result,” Bond-Maupin said.

An extreme historical example for the dynamic can be found in the activities of the Nazis, who as a collective group, committed atrocities they may have never considered on an individual level.

“The Nazis not only experienced a lost capacity for critical thinking in a group – but also were effective in dehumanizing others – making it possible to torture, hurt, kill without completely abandoning their own humanity,” she said.

“The young men may have been relatively easily able to engage in a similar process with the cat – groups tend also to provide rationalizations for the behavior, ‘it’s only a cat.’”

In modern society, Bond-Maupin said, masculinity is all too often equated with violence. And young men who have been exposed to violence need extra assistance in finding ways to express themselves.

Society, she believes, bears much of the responsibility for working to ensure boys attain the right ideas about being men.

“We all have responsibility for raising healthy, balanced boys and I am always amazed that more men don’t take this on in their communities,” she said.

“It is sad to me that the result is a focus on an individual when this is a social and cultural phenomenon. By prosecuting a single youth, searching for a diagnosis, and marginalizing a young person, we are freeing ourselves of responsibility as a society and community.”

The next steps

Barth said she turned Hall over to authorities in the hopes he would learn a lesson and most importantly to get him help, something she said she wants for all those involved.

Since his arrest, Barth said she has discovered she has little say in what happens with her son. And, because he’s an adult, she can’t impose resources on him if he doesn’t want them.

She said she plans to petition the court to place him on an evaluation hold.

Chandler said in the court process, “Because he’s an adult his defense attorney (will) have to determine what’s in the best interest of him as an adult.”

In the event Hall is convicted and sentenced to prison time, the first step for the New Mexico Department of Corrections is a 30-day mental health evaluation, according to DoC spokeswoman Rosie Sais.

During the evaluation, staff members work to determine what level of custody an inmate requires and if they need a mental health plan.

And, “even if mental health may not see (an inmate) as a candidate for mental health, there are still programs that (they) can go to,” Sais said.

In the case of the minors police say were involved in Jack’s killing, Juvenile Probation and Parole, a division of the Children Youth and Families Department, has resources for both youth and their families.