Suspected dog-stealer arrested; accused dog-killer pleas
A Fruita woman who was indicted in the death of a dog on Colorado National Monument was arrested Wednesday evening.
Melissa Lockhart, 32, failed to appear at a scheduled hearing Wednesday at the Wayne N. Aspinall federal building. Jeff Dorschner, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Denver, said Lockhart was expected to surrender at an arraignment hearing for her brother, Steven Romero, 37, who is accused of dragging the dog to death.
Lockhart briefly was considered a fugitive from justice, but she was arrested and booked into the Mesa County Jail at 6 p.m. Wednesday.
She had been indicted Monday by a federal grand jury in Denver, and an arrest warrant was issued that day, on allegations she failed to report the intentions of her brother to kill a dog named Buddy, and she lied to investigators before and after the dog’s dragging death on Dec. 30.
Delta authorities alleged she stole two dogs, including Buddy, from a pickup in downtown Delta on Dec. 29.
Romero on Wednesday pleaded not guilty to a charge of aggravated cruelty to animals. U.S. Magistrate Judge Laird Milburn said both sides in the case will need to schedule a trial with U.S. District Judge Lewis Babcock in Denver.
Some 40 onlookers jammed into Milburn’s courtroom Wednesday, and a group of six demonstrators held signs and chanted slogans outside, one full hour before the start of the hearing.
“Statements have to be made to raise awareness,” said Dick Dahl, 67, who made the trip from Durango to demonstrate, despite snow flurries, at the corner of Fourth and Rood.
Aspen resident Gary Sherman, 54, presented Assistant U.S. Attorney Michelle Heldmeyer with more than 107,000 petition signatures demanding justice for the dog. The petitions were bound together in a stack standing more than a foot high on the prosecutor’s desk.
Sherman, the founder of a nonprofit animal advocacy group, Adopt A Pet Foundation.org, said the petitions were collected online from dog lovers in 111 countries.
“This isn’t just the United States of America v. Romero,” he told the prosecutor. “This is the world v. Romero.”
If convicted on the animal cruelty charge, Romero faces a maximum three years in prison, a fine of $100,000, or both.
Romero is scheduled for a trial in Mesa County in March on drug-related allegations, which carry a maximum penalty of 48 years in prison.
If he’s convicted in both cases, Heldmeyer said federal law would allow a judge to stack prison time in the federal case on top of whatever sentence he would receive in the Mesa County case.
Lockhart faces a maximum three years in prison if convicted, and $250,000 fine, or both, in her case.