Nancy Dilworth and her cat, Poochini, look at photos of her dogs, Sanford and Alonzo, in a photo album in her home in Wilkinsburg Monday. Her dogs were poisoned with bread soaked with antifreeze and thrown into their yard, approximately one year ago. The sentencing of their killer is scheduled for tomorrow.
Click photo for larger image.
A year and one day after the anniversary of the poisoning deaths of her two dogs, Nancy Dilworth will sit in a courtroom to hear the sentence handed down to the neighbor who admitted he soaked bread in antifreeze and threw it into her yard.
Wilkinsburg police charged John Cassase, 54, with two counts of animal cruelty April 22 in the deaths of Sanford and Alonzo, the mixed-breed dogs Dilworth had adopted from a local shelter.
Cassase entered a guilty plea Jan. 27 on both charges, making his one of the few cases of a successful investigation into animal poisoning. His sentencing before Common Pleas Judge Cheryl Allen is scheduled for tomorrow. Each charge is a misdemeanor that carries a maximum penalty of two years in prison.
"This is one of the worst things I have ever been through," Dilworth said. "It would have been better if he had shot them. They suffered for a week and I did not know what was wrong with them."
By the time Dilworth and her veterinarian figured out that the dogs had been poisoned, it was too late to save them. Despite treatment which included intravenous saline flushes, their kidneys failed to the point of almost total shutdown. They were euthanized to spare them further suffering last March 27.
A necropsy, the animal version of an autopsy, confirmed that the dogs had been poisoned with antifreeze.
The dog deaths capped a long-running dispute between Dilworth, Cassase and other neighbors on Hay Street, in the Regent Square section of Wilkinsburg.
Dilworth moved there in 2000, renting the bottom floor of a duplex owned by a pet-friendly landlord who lived upstairs with his own dog. The fenced-in back yard was an added bonus for Sanford, a 70-pound black Labrador retriever mix that Dilworth had adopted from the Animal Rescue League in 1997, when he was 7 weeks old.
Sanford was a gentle, friendly dog who was especially popular with neighborhood children, Dilworth said.
"Sanford was basically a couch potato at home. He was never outside when I was at work. He never went outside without me," Dilworth said, except for brief trips to the fenced yard to relieve himself.
Shortly after she moved in, Dilworth came home from work to find a dozen unsigned notes hanging on the fence. Each had the same message: "Keep your dogs quiet."
More notes appeared for months, sometimes on the fence, sometimes on the door of her duplex, and "each note got nastier and nastier.
"I love this neighborhood. Everyone is very friendly. I asked neighbors if my dogs barked [inside the house] when I was at work or at any other time. Everyone said no," Dilworth said.
But people in a multistory condominium adjacent to her duplex told Dilworth that a man in their building was constantly complaining about barking dogs and other noises. John Cassase even complained about doors squeaking too loudly when people entered or exited their apartments, neighbors told Dilworth.
In 2002, Dilworth adopted Alonzo, a 4-month-old white German shepherd mix, also from the Animal Rescue League. Alonzo got along well with Sanford, with other dogs and people in the neighborhood.
But somewhere along the line, Dilworth can't recall exactly when, Cassase went public with his complaints.
"He would come out on his balcony and scream about noise and barking dogs, even when the dogs weren't barking," Dilworth said.
He pounded on her door screaming complaints, and there were similar scenes with other neighbors.
A Wilkinsburg police officer came to her home, saying Cassase repeatedly complained about barking dogs. But her dogs were not barking incessantly that time, or any other time, she said, and Dilworth never received a citation from police.
Last March, Alonzo started urinating in the house. It was strange behavior for the 90-pound dog, who had been perfectly housebroken.
"We would come back from a walk and he would pee on the carpet. This went on for a couple of days, so I took him to the Penn Animal Hospital, where he was treated for a urinary tract infection."
The next morning, Dilworth awoke to the sound of Sanford vomiting. She took both dogs to the vet, who thought maybe they had a virus. He prescribed medication, but that night, they were both vomiting and had stopped eating.
Neighbors told Dilworth that a small beagle named Wagster had come down with the same symptoms and had died two weeks earlier.
Wagster's veterinarian suspected he had been poisoned with antifreeze.
Dilworth took her dogs back to the animal hospital March 26 and told Dr. Glenn Battle about Wagster. Battle did a number of tests "and then he told me, 'I have very bad news. I think someone may have poisoned your dogs,' " Dilworth said.
Battle did renal function tests. A reading of 130 indicates total kidney failure. Sanford and Alonzo had readings of 97 and 103, well on their way to failure.
The dogs were hooked up to intravenous lines and subjected to saline flushes.
"When I brought them home on March 26, they just got weaker and weaker," Dilworth said. A friend drove her and the dogs back to the vet March 27. Alonzo's reading was 117. Sanford's was in the 120s.
"I brought them home to say goodbye," Dilworth said. Then she called Wilkinsburg police and the Western Pennsylvania Humane Society. Wilkinsburg Officer Michael Bender and Bob Gosser, who investigates cruelty complaints for the Humane Society, both talked to Dilworth. She told them she thought her dogs were dying from poison, and she told them she thought she knew who did it.
Then Dilworth took Alonzo and Sanford back to the animal hospital to be euthanized.
Nearly a year later, Dilworth cannot retell the story without crying.
"My dogs were my joy. They were the best therapy," Dilworth said as she looked at photo albums filled with pictures of her dogs and her friends. "Who was he to take that from me? I had Sanford for 6 1/2 years. Alonzo wasn't even 2 years old when he died."
Despite her shock and grief, Dilworth "did everything right," Gosser said, starting with calling the police and the Humane Society. Gosser picked up the bodies at the animal hospital and had them tested. Both dogs had been poisoned with antifreeze.
Gosser interviewed neighbors, including people in Cassase's building. No one but Cassase had any complaints about barking dogs.
Bender followed through, interviewing Cassase on April 3. "Mr. Cassase ... did supply me with a written confession of his involvement," Bender said in the affidavit of probable cause which is part of the court record. "Cassase stated he soaked some bread in antifreeze and did throw the soaked bread over the fence in the yard with the dogs."
Cassase told Bender he'd been having problems with barking dogs in the neighborhood since 2001, which had caused him "an extended period of sleep deprivation."
He said he didn't want to kill the dogs, and he had hoped their owners would see the bread and avoid letting their dogs outside at night. He said he was "saddened they were harmed by my actions ... and I only wish that the owners could have been more responsible in handling their dogs and understanding the disturbance they were causing to others."
Cassase moved out of the neighborhood shortly after criminal charges were filed against him. He could not be reached for comment for this story.
Cassase is executive director of the Peer Support and Advocacy Network on Penn Avenue, Downtown, which has 27 employees, but he has been on a leave of absence. The organization's Web site said it is a nonprofit, holistic agency that seeks to "build a community, free of stigma, where individuals with mental illness work together toward recovery of mind, body and spirit."
Assistant District Attorney Deb Jugan, who handles most of the animal cruelty cases in Allegheny County, declined comment on the case until after sentencing.
Gosser said the Western Pennsylvania Humane Society gets several calls each year about poisoned animals. "It's usually cats, often stray cats, and it usually happens in the spring and summer, when cats are urinating on porches and defecating in gardens. Veterinarians tell us antifreeze is sweet and dogs and cats like it."
Though people who report suspected poisonings often suspect someone, charges cannot be brought unless there is a witness to the poisoning, Gossar said. He cannot recall another Allegheny County prosecution for antifreeze poisoning.
Ethylene glycol is the ingredient that causes kidney failure in animals and people.
Last year, the Pittsburgh Poison Control Center at Children's Hospital received 181 calls about antifreeze ingestion, said Rita Mrvos, a nurse and education coordinator there. Six of the calls were for cats, 34 for dogs and 141 were for people. There was one fatality, a 63-year-old man, she said.
Some of the ingestions, especially with animals, are accidental, Mrvos and Gossar said. Fluid leaks from a car radiator onto a garage floor or driveway and an animal drinks it. Sometimes the highly toxic fluid is carelessly stored and a pet or small child can get into it.
Dilworth said she had not considered adopting another dog. She has been reading books and surfing the Internet for information about animal abuse. She wants to start a nonprofit advocacy group called Puppanulaa, Protecting Our Pets in Pennsylvania with New Laws Against Abuse.
"I don't want anyone else to go through something like this, and then find out the penalty is only a misdemeanor," Dilworth said.
Correction/Clarification: (Published March 28, 2005) Bob Gosser is a humane agent for the Western Pennsylvania Humane Society. He was incorrectly identified in the version of this story that appeared in later editons of the March 27, 2005 newspaper.