Rage, then outrage
By CARY DAVIS, Times Staff Writer
The letters still arrive, from California, New Jersey, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Arkansas. Make Barry Colbert pay for what he did, they demand.
Colbert, readers might recall, was arrested in February on charges that he got drunk and allowed a 7-year-old boy to drive his car. Last month, Colbert, 39, of Moon Lake was jailed after authorities said he beat up his girlfriend. She suffered a concussion and a broken nose and had to be airlifted to a St. Petersburg hospital.
But the dozens of letters piling up on the desk of Pasco-Pinellas State Attorney Bernie McCabe (and in the Times newsroom, where 34 arrived on Thursday) hardly mention those incidents. Not a dime of the accompanying donations (totaling more than $3,000) is earmarked to help Colbert's girlfriend, Jacki Clever, pay her medical bills.
No, all the attention is directed toward another of Colbert's alleged victims:
In matters of public sympathy, Buster has a big advantage over Clever. She's only a person. Buster is a dog, a 10-month-old boxer mix.
Just before Colbert beat up Clever, he attacked Buster with a hammer, authorities say. Clever's pet lost an eye and suffered a broken jaw in the attack. Both stories made the papers. But Buster's story quickly circulated among dog lovers on the Internet. A letter-writing campaign soon followed.
"Animal cruelty cases generate more mail than any other type of case we have," said McCabe. "If it's in the newspaper and it involves animal cruelty, we're going to get tons of mail."
Murder, child abuse, public corruption -- those cases sometimes generate a few letters, McCabe said. But the public has built up a certain immunity to those cases, which fill up police blotters, court dockets and newspaper columns every day.
Animal cruelty cases are relatively rare, which helps explain why the public reacts so passionately to them. The State Attorney's Office received stacks of letters when two East Lake teens were charged last year with attacking three llamas with golf clubs and a meat cleaver.
In March came the case of the poultry farm north of Dade City that filed for bankruptcy, leaving state officials no choice but to euthanize some 200,000 malnourished birds. McCabe, who hasn't decided what to do with the case, said he's getting pressure from the public to prosecute.
"Heck," McCabe said, "we've already gotten hundreds of letters" about that case.
McCabe still laughs about the irate letters he got years ago involving a man who regularly took his boa constrictor to a St. Petersburg park to feed the snake a Muscovy duck. A newspaper photograph showing webbed feet disappearing down the snake's mouth helped fuel the community's outrage.
University of South Florida sociologist Spencer Cahill explains the phenomenon this way:
"We react differently to crimes depending on what role we think the victims played in their own victimization," Cahill said. "The more innocent the victim, the more sympathy we have."
Of course, children are innocent and defenseless, too. And while crimes against children may touch a nerve, those cases rarely inspire people to act on their emotions. Cahill explained that people assume that there will always be someone -- a family member, a public agency -- to speak up on a child's behalf. Animals have no such support system, so people are more inclined to act, Cahill said.
"Pets have a humanlike status for many people," Cahill said. "We treat them as part of our families."
Buster has become the darling of a Web site devoted to the boxer breed. Someone wrote a form letter asking McCabe to seek the harshest possible penalty for Colbert and posted it on www.boxerworld.com. That explains why McCabe has received so many letters with identical wording.
Lisa Wheeler of Weaverville, N.C., sent one of those form letters.
"I just hope (Colbert) is punished to the fullest extent of the law," Wheeler, the owner of two boxers, said in an interview. "Some people think that if the victim is a dog, and not a person, it doesn't matter, and it does."
Others have opened their wallets to pay for Buster's mounting veterinary bills. The Pet Aid Service Society of Port Richey set up a fund for Buster. So far, people have donated $3,400.
Buster, who is being treated at Bayonet Point Animal Clinic in Port Richey, is awaiting surgery on his broken and infected jaw. And he may lose sight in the one eye he has left.
Otherwise, "he's doing real good," said Clever, who came home from the hospital to find Buster missing.
Authorities say Colbert never wanted the dog to be found. From the county jail in Land O'Lakes, Colbert called a friend and asked him to bury the dog, authorities say.
Two days after the dog was beaten, a neighbor discovered the dog near a tree, malnourished and barely alive.
"Everyone's more concerned with the dog, and that's fine with me if Buster gets better," said Clever, 32.
But Clever said she could use a little concern, too. She lost her job while recovering from her injuries. The state took custody of her children after officers came to their house and found traces of marijuana and drug paraphernalia.
"Nobody's helping me with the mortgage payment or the phone bill," Clever said. And she no longer wants anything to do with Colbert. "I want to move on with my life," she said.
For Clever, the criminal justice system may prove to be the great equalizer. The courts, as a matter of law, put more value on human victims.
Colbert is charged with aggravated domestic battery, a second-degree felony, in the case involving Clever.
The charge carries a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison. The animal cruelty case involving Buster is a third-degree felony, and carries up to five years in prison.
But there's one final irony: the matter of Colbert's bail.
On the animal cruelty charge, a judge set Colbert's bail at $10,000. Colbert's bail on the aggravated battery charge: $1,000.
-- Cary Davis covers courts in west Pasco County. He can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6236, or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6236. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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