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La Jolla man could face up to three years for animal cruelty

By KELLY WHEELER

City News Service

A La Jolla man accused of choking his 10-week-old puppy — which later died — as punishment for barking and nipping his girlfriend on the nose must stand trial on two felony animal cruelty charges, a judge ruled Thursday.

David Hale Warner, 50, faces up to three years in prison if convicted,

said Deputy District Attorney Garrett Randall.

The defendant was on probation for domestic violence at the time of his arrest, the prosecutor said.

Warner and his girlfriend brought the chocolate Labrador retriever named Coco to an emergency veterinary hospital the morning of Feb. 24.

The male puppy was in obvious distress, couldn’t walk, had very labored breathing and had blood in its saliva, authorities said. The animal was placed in an oxygen tent and intensive care but went into cardiac arrest and died two days later.

The defendant made a number of statements to authorities, first saying the puppy had accidentally hung itself, then saying he held the animal down by its mouth, possibly cutting off its air supply, according to Randall.

Warner then allegedly told authorities that he held the puppy down by its neck for 20 seconds, and the dog was not moving and became unconscious once he stopped.

Danica White, an officer with the county Department of Animal Services, testified Thursday at a preliminary hearing that Warner told her that he held the puppy down after the animal was jumping around, acting “hyper” and had nipped his girlfriend in the nose.

“He said he pinned the puppy down on the bed by its neck,” the officer testified. “He said he released his hands off the dog, and the dog was unconscious.”

White said Warner told her that he “overdid it” in trying to discipline the puppy, according to court testimony.

But Dr. Alexandra Silber, who performed the necropsy on the puppy, testified that she saw no evidence of trauma to the dog’s neck.

She said the puppy had a previously undiscovered congenital hernia that allowed his stomach to slide into his chest cavity, which would have made breathing difficult.

Silber, testifying as a defense witness, said “reasonable” pressure could cause the dog’s hernia condition to flare up.

She said the puppy was also born with a elongated muscle near his trachea, but that didn’t contribute to his death.

Silber testified that emergency doctors would have needed a second X-ray to see the hernia and would have had to operate immediately to save the dog’s life.

“They should have looked further,” the veterinary said. “They missed the diagnosis.”

On cross-examination by the prosecutor, Silber said being restrained had something to do with the onset of the stomach sliding into the chest area, causing pressure on the lungs.

In his argument to bind the defendant over for trial, Randall told Judge Laura Halgren that the dog suffered because of Warner’s actions.

“It’s obvious that what he did led to this dog’s troubles,” the prosecutor said. “He’s the only one who could have done this. The dog clearly suffered unnecessarily at his hands.”

Deputy Public Defender Melissa Tralla argued unsuccessfully that Warner didn’t mean to hurt the dog and that his only intent was to protect his girlfriend.

“He said he intended to discipline the dog,” Tralla told the judge, noting that no evidence had been presented that Warner used unreasonable force in his actions. “Mr. Warner did not cause this dog to suffer one bit.”

The judge found probable cause to believe Warner committed the crimes alleged.

In assessing the evidence presented, Halgren said that 20 seconds was a very long time to be restraining an animal.

Halgren refused to reduce the charges to misdemeanors, telling Tralla that would be better done at a future hearing.

The judge did, however, reduce Warner’s bail from $35,000 to $20,000. A readiness conference was set for March 25 and trial for April 30.