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Judge orders dog visitation

A trial date in the custody suit over the Hurricane Katrina dogs will be set on Jan. 12.

By DEMORRIS A. LEE
Published December 27, 2006


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ST. PETERSBURG - Noah was at obedience school Tuesday learning how to control his temper.

The St. Bernard that Hillsborough County prosecutor Pam Bondi adopted after Hurricane Katrina has become so possessive that he is aggressive if someone comes too close to Bondi, her attorney told a judge Tuesday.

Nevertheless, Pinellas County Judge Henry Andringa ordered Bondi on Tuesday to make the St. Bernard available so Steven and Doreen Couture of Louisiana can visit with him. Andringa issued the same order to Rhonda Rineker, who adopted the Couture's other dog, a shepherd mix.

Murray Silverstein, the Coutures' attorney, said the St. Bernard's alleged behavioral problems were news to him and his clients.

"That was the biggest, most docile, creature I've ever seen," he said.

Silverstein had asked Andringa to enforce an Aug. 1 ruling for visitation, which he said Bondi and Rineker stopped complying with after several visits in the fall.

Bondi's and Rineker's attorneys argued that they didn't agree to visitation. At a hearing on the issue last week, Andringa called a recess and ordered the attorneys to provide more information.

When the attorneys reassembled on Tuesday, Andringa said, "I intend to order visitation." He then wanted to know if the attorneys could work out the details among themselves.

"I would prefer to defer to you folks," Andringa said. "Do I think you can solve it? Do I need to solve it? Yes."

Bondi, who lives in Tampa, and Rineker, who lives in Dunedin, as well as the Pinellas Humane Society are being sued by the Coutures in an effort to get back the dogs, rescued by the Humane Society after Hurricane Katrina.

The Coutures had been allowed three visits with the dogs between September and October. But Silverstein contended that Bondi and Rineker unilaterally refused visitation without cause or justification, which violated the Aug. 1 order.

With Andringa's decision Tuesday, the Coutures will now be able to see the dogs every two to three weeks starting Jan. 5 until the matter is settled at trial. A trial date will be set Jan. 12.

Both dogs were rescued from St. Bernard Parish, La. Bondi and Rineker adopted them from the Humane Society of Pinellas in October 2005. Bondi adopted the St. Bernard, known as Master Tank, and renamed him Noah. Rineker adopted the shepherd mix and changed her name from Nila to Gracie.

The Coutures tracked the dogs to Pinellas County and sued in June after several failed attempts to get them back.

Bondi has argued that the St. Bernard she adopted was sick and improperly cared for and was not even the dog the Coutures lost. Rineker has contended she adopted an abandoned dog in good faith.

At Tuesday's hearing, attorneys for Bondi and Rineker said they were worried about liability.

Bondi's attorney, Camille Godwin told the judge she was concerned that if Master Tank got aggressive around the Coutures' two grandchildren, that Bondi not be liable for the outcome.

Rineker's attorney, Jeff Brown, who participated via speaker phone, likewise was concerned about liability issues as well as about pictures being taken during visits and later used in court.

Brown also expressed concerns about where the visitation would take place because the Rinekers wanted to be present, but they didn't want the visitation to take place at their home.

Andringa ordered that no pictures be taken and that nothing said during the visitations could be used during the trial. As for the location, Andringa said there were plenty of dog parks in the area.

He also encouraged both sides to move the case along so that both the visitation and larger issues can be resolved.

"We can take it to trial and end this," he said to the lawyers. "I assume that's what you all want, right?"

Demorris A. Lee can be reached at dalee@sptimes.com or 727 445-4174.

[Last modified December 27, 2006, 05:48:28]


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