SULLIVAN COUNTY, Tenn. (WJHL) – Two women in Tennessee are facing theft charges over allegations that they took a dog from owners who left it outside during December’s arctic blast.
The mother-daughter duo now intend to fight the charges in court. But the dog still hasn’t been reunited with its owners, and the suspects have so far refused to disclose whether they know the animal’s location.
Police receive a complaint
Just before 5 p.m. on Dec. 23, temperatures at the Tri-Cities Regional Airport in Sullivan County, Tennessee, measured around 8 degrees Fahrenheit. The Storm Team at Nexstar’s WJHL also predicted winds from 15 to 25 mph and gusts up to 40 mph.
With the wind chill, meteorologist Alex Williams said, “dangerous” cold temperatures could plunge to 20 below later that evening.
Around that time, a deputy with the Sullivan County Sheriff’s Office (SCSO) responded to a home in Bristol following a complaint from an anonymous caller. The deputy arrived to find a female German Shepherd chained into an open-front shelter that consisted of a tarp, a plastic dog house, and what appeared to be the fresh straw on the ground.
The deputy said the water in the dog’s bowl had frozen from the cold. The officer was also unsuccessful in reaching the dog’s owners at their home.
The deputy spoke to a representative of A Voice for Pets, a non-profit organization based in Tennessee. The representative arrived at the scene and connected the officer with Karen Fox of Sullivan County Animal Control.
Fox said Sullivan County Animal Control had already been to the residence earlier in the day and found the dog with food and frozen water, according to the deputy. Fox was planning to visit the dog again the next day.
She advised the deputy to give the dog fresh water. The deputy also gave the animal some ham.
Harley goes missing
Later that same day, just after 8 p.m., temperatures in the region plummeted to around 4-5 degrees Fahrenheit. Sullivan County 911 operators received another call, this time from residents of the property where the dog was found.
Harley, their five-year-old German Shepherd, was gone, they said.
Harley’s owners told deputies they knew officers had visited earlier that day. The owners claimed they were away picking up their grandchildren at the time, but planned to let the dog inside when they returned.
Deputies with the Sullivan County Sheriff’s Office viewed surveillance footage from the property and reported seeing a white vehicle parked nearby. A woman got out of the car and appeared to walk around the side of the house near Harley’s location before the dog was spotted running through the yard.
In a later shot, deputies said, Harley was seen sitting in the back seat of the vehicle before it drove away.
On the morning of Jan. 6, 2023, Virginia and Jillian Shackelford of Bluff City were arrested by SCSO deputies for allegedly stealing Harley on that December day.
The mother and daughter were charged with theft up to $1,000, a Class A misdemeanor in Tennessee. Harley’s owners estimated her value at $800, according to the police report.
Animal care activists in the region rallied around the two on social media as they had been calling for Harley’s release and celebrating her removal on Dec. 23. Advocates for anti-chain laws and stricter animal ordinances criticized the arrests as well.
Virginia Shackelford, who goes by Ginny, told WJHL in a message that she believed Harley’s disappearance should be described as a rescue effort to save the animal from sub-zero temperatures. Shackelford refused to say how she learned of Harley’s situation.
After multiple attempts at contact, including a visit to the residence, WJHL has not heard back from Harley’s owners.
Captain Andy Seabolt with SCSO said investigators gave the Shackelford’s “several opportunities” to return Harley to her original owners before escalating to criminal charges. When the mother and daughter were asked to disclose the dog’s location, Seabolt said they refused, and the warrant process began.
“Multiple times the investigator spoke to the suspects in an attempt to locate the stolen dog,” Seabolt wrote in an email to WJHL. “The suspects refused to cooperate as I stated earlier, and the investigator consulted with the Sullivan County District Attorney’s Office. Warrants were obtained for the theft and served.”
An SCSO investigator said the Shackelford’s had other avenues they could have exhausted before taking the dog.
“There’s a right way and a wrong way to do things,” said Captain Richard Frazier, the commanding officer of SCSO’s criminal investigations division. “If they thought that it wasn’t being done fast enough, I wish they’d have called us back and maybe spoken to a patrol supervisor. Maybe they could have gotten a quicker answer there or something else could have been done.”
Frazier said that SCSO’s first priority is to return Harley to her owners. If the Shackelford’s had handed her over, he said, then things might have gone differently.
“We did just want to get the dog back to the owners,” Frazier said. “They didn’t cooperate with the investigation, as far as the suspects go. All we wanted was knowledge of the dog. Just tell us where the dog is. We’ll go get it. We’ll handle everything from there.”
According to Sullivan County District Attorney Barry Staubus, at least two investigations are ongoing concerning the Shackelford’s and Harley’s owners. WJHL requested recordings of the 911 calls placed on Dec. 23 — both the call made by the anonymous person and the call placed by Harley’s owners — but the requests were denied due to the ongoing investigations.
When asked, Staubus did not comment on whether he expected criminal charges against Harley’s owners as well. As of earlier this week, no other charges had been filed in either investigation.
The Shackelfords are set to appear at 9 a.m. in Sullivan County General Sessions Court on Jan. 30.
“Both Ms. Jillian Shackelford and Ms. Ginny Shackelford shall plead not guilty,” Julie Canter, the Shackelfords’ attorney, told WJHL. “The State has the burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt. We intend to aggressively and actively fight the allegations and charges. My firm is currently conducting an independent investigation into the circumstances surrounding the arrests and allegations.”
As of last week, police said Harley’s whereabouts are still unclear.
The law: What can you do?
Tennessee has no existing laws that protect the average citizen from criminal charges when they take an animal against its owner’s consent, no matter the conditions. The state does, however, have a “hot car” law that can protect citizens from civil liability if they break into a locked vehicle to save an animal or minor that they believe would suffer harm when left inside. That law has specific limitations, including a clause requiring citizens to notify first responders and remain nearby with the animal or minor.
According to the Sullivan County Attorney’s office, no formal animal ordinance is on file with the county. Animal control officials told WJHL they follow state laws on the matter.
“Generally, all we can do is what the animal control [says],'” Frazier said. “Once we check everything, adequate shelter, food, and water, we’ve got to turn it over to them.”
While animal matters are largely left to animal control, Frazier said that doesn’t stop the occasional deputy from taking a call personally.
“I know some of us have put animals in the back of our cruisers before, but we’re just not equipped to deal with it,” Frazier said. “And a lot of times, once that’s happened, animal control has come and gotten the dog. We just don’t have anything to do with them.”
When it comes to the removal of animals for things like neglect, Frazier said that request has to come from Animal Control. Seabolt said he doesn’t recall the last time a call like that came through the office.
“Call us. We’ll forward it on to the proper authorities,” Frazier said. “Don’t take it upon yourself to go on somebody else’s property and take their pet.”
According to Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-14-202, anyone who “knowingly ties, tethers, or restrains a dog in a manner that results in the dog suffering bodily injury” could be charged with a Class A misdemeanor for cruelty to animals for their first offense and a Class E felony for later offenses.
For the full versions of Tennessee’s animal offenses, you can visit the state’s website.
According to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AMVA), cold weather is a serious risk for even thick-coated dogs like German Shepherds. The AMVA said cats and dogs shouldn’t be left alone outside regardless of breed when the weather is below freezing, much less below zero. If they are, the AMVA said cold conditions can lead to cracked/bleeding paw pads, hypothermia, lameness, frostbite, and death.