MARYLAND -- A candidate for mayor of Hagerstown said she was wrongly convicted of animal cruelty in 2013 and plans to fight the convictions.
Rachel Cooper, one of four people running for mayor of Hagerstown in the April 26 primary election, was convicted twice in 2013 of six counts of animal cruelty, according to court documents.
A Humane Society of Washington County officer entered Cooper's North Cannon Avenue home and found dogs with their bones showing and numerous piles of feces in the kitchen and living room, according to court records.
Cooper was convicted under the name Rebecca Cage, according to court records. She changed her name to Rachel Cooper last year, records show.
Cooper, 34, of 444 Stratford Ave., said in a telephone interview that the allegations were untrue and she plans to continue to fight them. Cooper said her life was "devastated" because of the ordeal.
Cooper was charged with six counts of animal cruelty by deprivation of necessary sustenance, six counts of animal cruelty for failing to provide nutritious food/necessary medical care and six counts of failure to vaccinate for rabies, according to Washington County Circuit Court records.
Washington County District Judge Ralph H. France II threw out the six counts of animal cruelty for failing to provide nutritious food/necessary medical care, saying they were duplicitous, according to court records.
Cooper was convicted Feb. 27, 2013, of six counts of animal cruelty by deprivation of necessary sustenance and four counts of failure to vaccinate for rabies, according to district court records.
Cooper appealed the decision to Washington County Circuit Court, where she was convicted of the same charges on Nov. 25, 2013, according to court records.
Cooper was sentenced to 319 days in jail, which were suspended, and $400 in fines that also were suspended, according to court records.
At her sentencing, Washington County Circuit Judge Daniel P. Dwyer prohibited Cooper from owning any mammals for three years. Cooper also was sentenced to three years of probation.
Humane society officers took Cooper's dogs when they went to her house on May 2, 2012, and as part of her probation, Dwyer ordered that her dogs would not be returned to her.
On Aug. 24, 2015, Cooper filed a motion to terminate her probation after two years and seven months. Cooper said in the motion that she took good care of a cockatiel and that she had been regularly attending therapy sessions at Brook Lane North Village in Hagerstown, among other terms of her probation.
Cooper said she also was testing to be eligible for licensure as a cosmetologist in the state and was concerned that being on probation would prevent her from maintaining the license, according to court records.
Cooper's circuit-court file includes a letter from Sue Pinion of Brook Lane of North Village, who said she was working with Cooper. Pinion said in her letter that Cooper suffered from extreme anxiety and had a fragile sense of safety. Pinion said the staff at Brook Lane was helping Cooper work through her feelings and channel her intense emotions into healthy, assertive behaviors.
Dwyer agreed on Sept. 8 to terminate the probation and issued a message to Cooper, according to court records.
"Ms. Cage, please remember that to love animals is not enough. We also have a duty to be responsible to them," Dwyer wrote in the order.
Jaime Burger, a field-services officer for the humane society, said in a complaint filed May 30, 2012, in district court that there were ongoing animal cases at Cooper's home, which at the time was in the 200 block of North Cannon Avenue.
Burger said she arrived at Cooper's home on May 2, 2012, as part of a follow-up on Cooper's six dogs.
"The moment I saw the dogs, I could tell that they had all lost weight compared to when I last saw them in March 2012," Burger wrote in her complaint.
One of the dogs, a 6-month old pit bull puppy, looked the worst, with hair loss on her ears, head and legs, scabs all over her neck and chest, and a protruding backbone, hip bones and ribs, Burger wrote.
"The house smelled like urine and feces, and I saw two large puddles of urine in the hallway, and numerous piles of feces in the kitchen and living room," Burger wrote.
Burger said she asked Cooper if she had any food for the dogs. When Cooper replied that she did, Burger asked her to retrieve it and give some to the animals.
"She poured two piles on the floor and all the dogs were fighting to get to the food. They were growling and snapping at each other to have control of the food," Burger wrote.
Cooper said she fed the dogs that morning, but Burger said the dogs would not have acted that way if they were fed on a regular basis.
Burger said she decided to remove the dogs, and the Hagerstown Police Department responded while Burger took photographs and removed the animals.
Reached by phone, Cooper objected to the way the case was handled and criticized the Humane Society of Washington County's involvement in the matter. Cooper also claimed she has been the target of mudslinging over the issue since she launched her campaign.
"None of it was true," Cooper said of the charges that were filed against her.
She said she is planning to challenge the convictions.
An employee of the Humane Society of Washington County obtained a peace order against Cooper after the worker alleged that Cooper shook her fist at the worker during a court appearance. The worker, Evelyn Garrett, also alleged that Cooper "asked a friend of hers if that friend could find someone to ‘take out’ officer Jaime Burger, the animal control officer who removed her animals," according to Washington County District Court records.
Garrett, who was a supervisor at the shelter, also alleged in a petition for the peace order that Cooper put up a website that contained slanderous and threatening comments against the humane society.
Cooper brushed off the peace order, saying the humane society only wanted to keep her away from the shelter and potentially discover the truth behind the allegations against her.
Cooper said she never talked about having someone "take out" Burger, but said she stated previously that she hated Burger.
Regarding the website, Cooper said "I don't even know how to put up a website."
Last April, Cooper filed papers in circuit court to change her name from Rebecca Cage to Rachel Cooper. Cooper said she wanted to change it to reflect her birth name, and her filing contained a state of Tennessee birth certificate conveying her birth name as Rachel Dawn Cooper.
Dwyer approved the name change on May 19.
Cooper said she changed her name to Rebecca Cage because of an identity theft incident and that the issue had been resolved.
"There's nothing sinister about it. It was just the right time," Cooper said of the name change.
Even though the name change was approved May 19, Cooper used the name Rebecca Cage when she filed her motion to terminate her probation on Aug. 24. Cooper said she did that because her case was under her other name.
Cooper is one of four people running for mayor in the April 26 primary. Voters will select two candidates to advance to the Nov. 8 general election.
Eleven people are running for five seats on city council, and voters will select 10 candidates to move onto the general election.
(Herald-Mail Media - Feb 28, 2016