The owners of a large number of animals that were seized from a compound in rural Jefferson County on Thursday made their first court appearance Friday, and will be back in court in March for a forfeiture hearing.
James Best, 56, and Tara Best were cited with 185 separate counts of cruelty to animals, an unclassified misdemeanor after sheriff’s deputies and representatives of the Humane Society of the United States served a search warrant at the Best residence at 1315 Mail Route Road in Jefferson. The warrant was prompted by complaints about an alleged “puppy mill” at the location.
Jefferson County District Judge Kim Bridgforth entered pleas of not guilty for the two after James Best told the judge they had hired an attorney to represent them. Best however told Bridgforth he could not “remember the name of the lawyer.”
According to sheriff’s department Operations Commander and Public Information Officer Major Lafayette Woods Jr., living conditions for the animals, which included 121 dogs, 20 horses, two cats, 11 birds, 1 turtle, 19 chickens and nine rabbits “were deplorable, many without access to food, water and necessary veterinary care, in small, filthy crates and dozens more running loose among piles of garbage on urine-soaked and feces-covered floors in mobile homes positioned on the property.
“These animals have been living in a house of horrors, with an overwhelming stench of ammonia and an unbelievable buildup of feces all over,” Woods said in a press release late Thursday night. “These animals have endured tremendous suffering and it ends today.”
Prosecutors said once the warrant was served, all the animals seized were in the custody of the sheriff’s department, and if the owners want them back, they will have to file a petition in district court within 15 business days, with Friday being the first day of the period.
If the Bests do file a petition contesting the forfeiture, they will have to post a cash bond that would be equal to the cost of caring for the animals for 30 days. A hearing likely will be held March 20 in Jefferson County District Court.
The Humane Society is paying an estimated $3,000 per day for food, shelter and care for the animals, so the Bests’ cost for a cash bond would be approximately $90,000.
In the couple chooses not to file a petition contesting the forfeiture, prosecutors will to take permanent custody of the animals.
The forfeiture hearing will deal only with the custody of the animals. Any disposition of the criminal charges will take place later.
On Friday, Deputy Prosecutor Bryan Achorn, who represented the state, said that although the Bests are currently charged only with misdemeanors, those charges could be upgraded to aggravated animal cruelty, a felony, once the investigation is completed. That determination will be made based on reports from the Humane Society and from veterinarians who examined the animals.
According to state statutes, a person convicted of an unclassified misdemeanor would be fined $150 to $1,000 for each count, and sentenced to jail for a period between one day and one year on each count. In addition, they could be ordered to have a psychological or mental exam.
The investigation was conducted by the sheriff’s department, which requested help from the Humane Society.
All of the animals were removed from the property Thursday, and are currently being housed in shelters in Saline County.