Jury convicts NorCal K9 owner on four felony counts of animal cruelty

Garry Reynolds, an East County dog trainer and owner of NorCal K9, was found guilty last week on four of seven counts of felony animal cruelty by a Contra Costa County Superior Court jury.

Reynolds faces up to 10 years in prison and will be sentenced by Judge Patricia Scanlon when he returns to court on May 1. Two prior violent felony convictions — second-degree robbery in 2002 and shooting at an inhabited dwelling in 2001 — may factor into the sentence Reynolds receives.

An investigation into NorCal K9 by the Antioch Police Department (APD) was prompted by Denise and Jeff Swank after the death of their 3-year-old German shepherd, Gunnar. Gunnar died May 20, 2018, while under Reynolds’ care in a home he rented in Antioch. Located at 5200 Lone Tree Way, the home was — according to testimony in court — used by NorCal K9 to board and train dogs. For a time, Reynolds lived at the Lone Tree Way address, as did his employee, Devon Ashby. Reynolds was found not guilty on the count pertaining to the death of Gunnar.

“Animal cruelty cases are heartbreaking, as these animals are innocent and deserve excellent care,” said Deputy District Attorney Arsh Singh, who prosecuted the case for the state. “Garry Reynolds took advantage of his customers, and his ownership style contributed to the maltreatment of these dogs and the horrible death of Gunnar. The defendant claims to be a premier dog trainer yet showed no remorse and did not accept responsibility for the dogs under his care. I want to thank the jury for the important verdict in this case and the message sent to any dog trainer in our community that our office will not tolerate the mistreatment of animals.”

The criminal complaint filed by the Contra Costa Office of the District Attorney (DA) in December 2018 charged Reynolds and Ashby with eight counts of felony animal cruelty. One count was later dropped. Ashby accepted a deal offered by the DA, in which he pleaded no contest to misdemeanor animal cruelty, and received a sentence of 90 days in county jail and three years of probation. According to Scott Alonso, public information officer for the DA’s office, Reynolds was also offered a plea deal.

“We offered to resolve the case if Mr. Reynolds pleaded to a felony,” Alonso said. “He declined to do so.”

Opening arguments in the case started Feb. 26 and the jury deliberations began in the afternoon of Mar. 4. The jury returned the verdict about 24 hours later.

Much of the case concentrated on the conditions at the Lone Tree Way residence during the time between Gunnar’s death in May and June 25 — the day an APD officer entered the home and found “unsuitable and dangerous living conditions.” Police removed a number of dogs from the home at that time. Those that belonged to NorCal K9 clients were returned to their owners, some showing signs of stress and neglect, including weight loss and open wounds. Dogs that were allegedly owned by residents or former residents of the Lone Tree Way address ended up in an animal shelter, and according to a February 2019 interview with APD Detective Ryan Geis, six of those dogs were euthanized after they went unclaimed.

The defense argued that Reynolds moved out of the house days after Gunnar’s death and was not aware that conditions there deteriorated rapidly. The prosecution argued Reynolds abandoned Ashby, leaving him with more than a dozen dogs to care for and train on his own, a responsibility that overwhelmed Ashby and led to the degraded conditions.

“We were disappointed in the verdict in that we felt the facts that were not disputed were that Mr. Reynolds did not know about the conditions at 5200 Lone Tree Way,” said Matthew Fregi, Reynolds’ defense attorney. “He did not know those dogs were being neglected. Had he known, he would have done something. Had he known, there would have been consequences. That was the evidence. The law in California, as far as employer/employee liability, is that an employer is not criminally liable for the criminal acts of an employee unless he knowingly encourages, aids or advises them to engage in that activity. Our entire defense was predicated on the fact that he had no guilty knowledge, and that had he had knowledge, he would have done something.”

This week, Fregi prepared a motion to dismiss Reynolds’ convictions because Scanlon did not allow the jury to hear limitations of employer culpability for the actions of employees based on established California criminal law. If the judge accepts Fregi’s argument, the state will have to decide if it will mount a second trial for the four counts that resulted in guilty verdicts. As of press time, the date for a ruling on this motion was not available.

Reynolds remains free on a $160,000 bond until his May sentencing. He is prohibited from boarding and training dogs as a condition of his bond.

“I feel good about (the verdict), because I think he’s still going to be held responsible for what he was doing, which is the main thing,” Singh said. “I’m a little disappointed, because I thought he was guilty of all seven (counts), but I accept the jury’s decision.”