tampabay.com

Bondi tries to hang on to Katrina dog by a toenail

The St. Bernard that Pam Bondi adopted last year is not the same dog that a Louisiana couple lost after Hurricane Katrina, Pam Bondi's attorney said Friday.

By DEMORRIS A. LEE
Published October 28, 2006


ST. PETERSBURG - The St. Bernard that Pam Bondi adopted last year is not the same dog that a Louisiana couple lost after Hurricane Katrina, Pam Bondi's attorney said Friday.

And she said the dog has the toenail to prove it.

"Everyone assumed that it was the same dog from the outset," attorney Camille Godwin said. "But the toenail is very convincing."

Bondi, a Hillsborough County assistant state attorney, adopted the dog she has named Noah from the Humane Society of Pinellas, which took in dogs displaced by Katrina last year.

Steven and Dorreen Couture of St. Bernard Parish, La., have gone to court in an attempt to reclaim the dog they know as Master Tank. He is one of two dogs they lost in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

During a court hearing Friday, Bondi's attorneys focused on one of the dog's toenails as a key difference between the animal that Bondi has and the one the Coutures lost.

The Sept. 18, 2005, paperwork from the makeshift shelter where Master Tank was taken indicated that a "ingrown rear toenail" had been removed. Godwin has sworn statements that say the dog that Bondi adopted has all his nails.

Murray Silverstein, the St. Petersburg attorney representing the Coutures, said that Bondi and her attorney are wrong. On the paper, one line says the nail was clipped, while another line says it was removed.

"No, the toenail was not taken out," Silverstein said. "The intake says it was clipped, not taken out. Now we have this toenail as a basis of an identity dispute."

Bondi, the Coutures, and Rhonda Rineker of Dunedin, who adopted the second dog, appeared before Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court Judge Henry J. Andringa Friday to determine who should have the dogs while he decides their fate.

The dogs were rescued by the Humane Society of Pinellas in September 2005 from St. Bernard Parish, after Hurricane Katrina.

A short time later, Bondi and Rineker adopted the dogs. Bondi adopted the St. Bernard on Oct. 15, 2005, and changed his name from Master Tank to Noah. Rineker adopted the shepherd-mix on Oct. 28 and changed her name from Nila to Gracie.

On Friday, the Coutures said finding their dogs was a step toward pulling their lives back together. When they finally tracked them down in January, even though they had paperwork listing them as the owners, they were told that the dogs had been adopted.

But on the witness stand, Bondi testified, "I don't believe they are the owners of Noah."

Godwin showed her a picture of the St. Bernard the day he was left at the makeshift shelter and asked, "Is that Noah?"

"No, ma'am," Bondi said sharply.

On the stand, Steven Couture described how he, his brother-in-law David Johnson and another relative were rescued by boat and taken to a nearby school but left jugs of water and dog food behind for the dogs. A 50-pound bag of food was not opened, and some of the jugged water was capped.

Rineker's attorney, Jeff Brown, asked how the dogs were expected to get into the sealed items.

"Bite into it," Steven Couture said. "It's a dog. It's survival."

Couture said that by the time the dogs were rescued, the dog food was opened and the bottles of water had been consumed.

Rineker said she never wanted to be in this position. Her family had just lost a dog, she testified. She said she saw Steven Couture's name on the paperwork as the dog's owner, asked a Humane Society worker about it and was told that "dog was surrendered."

"Our dog had passed away and we were heartbroken, and I didn't want to lose another dog," she said.

The hearing continues 9:30 a.m. Monday. Andringa has not indicated when he will make a ruling.

Demorris A. Lee can be reached at 445-4174 or dalee@sptimes.com.