PETA fighting to ensure Ga. deputy’s 3 dogs didn’t ‘die in vain’

Calls come after an Atlanta News First investigation uncovered Deputy Eric Tolbert would not face animal cruelty charges.
Published: Oct. 19, 2022 at 5:08 PM EDT|Updated: Oct. 19, 2022 at 5:15 PM EDT
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ROCKDALE CO, Ga. (Atlanta News First) - People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the national animal rights group, is calling on Rockdale County’s district attorney to take action against Rockdale County Sheriff’s Deputy Eric Tolbert.

This comes after our Atlanta News First investigation uncovered Tolbert would not face animal cruelty charges in the deaths of three of his dogs after they were left in a hot shed and died.

“Your story struck a chord with our members and supporters in Georgia and dozens of them contacted us to ask what we can do to ensure that Luke Cage, Storm, and Lala didn’t die in vain,” Daphna Nachminovitch, who works in PETA’s cruelty investigations department, said.

After multiple people sent PETA our report, Nachminovitch said PETA conducted its own investigation and sent this letter to Rockdale County District Attorney Alisha Johnson, urging her to “pursue criminal cruelty-to-animals charges against Eric Tolbert.”

PETA also added an ‘Urgent Alert’ to its homepage.

PETA sent this letter to Rockdale County District Attorney, Alisha Johnson, urging her to...
PETA sent this letter to Rockdale County District Attorney, Alisha Johnson, urging her to “pursue criminal cruelty-to-animals charges against Eric Tolbert.”(Rachel Polansky)

“You have three dogs who depended on this law enforcement officer for safety and welfare, and they were failed miserably not just by him but now, by the court system, and we want to change that,” Nachminovitch said.

While Johnson has yet to respond to PETA, she told Atlanta News First Investigates in an emailed statement, “My office is aware of this case. Based on pending considerations we are unable to comment at this time.”

In response to PETA’s letter to Johnson, the Rockdale County Sheriff’s Office told Atlanta News First Investigates in an emailed statement, “We have heard your [PETA’s] concerns and we value them. RCSO will continue to take a stand against all crime, no one is above the law.”

READ THE FULL LETTER AT THE BOTTOM OF THIS STORY

Three Dead Dogs

As Atlanta News First Investigates reported last month, Rockdale County Sheriff’s Investigator Colleen Jones was assigned the case after Tolbert made a Facebook post announcing the death of his three American bulldogs, making a remark that the heat was “no joke.”

ORIGINAL STORY: ‘I trashed them’: 3 dead dogs dumped in trash by owner, a Ga. deputy

Jones went to Tolbert’s Conyers house and rang his Ring doorbell.

  • Jones: “Hey. It’s Investigator Jones outside if you can come out and meet with me, please.”
  • Tolbert: “I’m not in town. What’s going on?”
  • Jones: “I’m out here to talk about your dogs. You have two, or three dogs that passed away?”
  • Tolbert: “Yes I do.”
  • Jones: “Okay. Where are those dogs?”
  • Tolbert: “Um I didn’t have a way to bury them so I trashed them.”
  • Jones: “You did what with them?”
  • Tolbert: “Put them in the trash.”
Rockdale County Sheriff’s Investigator Colleen Jones was assigned the case after Dep. Tolbert...
Rockdale County Sheriff’s Investigator Colleen Jones was assigned the case after Dep. Tolbert made this Facebook post announcing the death of his three American bulldogs, making a remark that the heat was “no joke.”(Rachel Polansky)

Over the next few hours, investigators searched Tolbert’s property. They took custody of his county-issued police dog, Aegis, who he left in a cage in his backyard.

They also looked inside his uninsulated shed where they found a small portable air conditioner and dirty crates lined with feces and mold.

“God Almighty, it stinks,” Jones said, as she walked around the property.

In a recorded interview at the sheriff’s office a few weeks later, Tolbert admitted after his first dog died, he put a small portable air conditioner in the shed. However, an internal investigation determined the unit was “not sufficient” for such a large enclosure. Within a day, the portable air conditioner failed and the other two dogs died, as well.

“Getting back to the air conditioner, did you read a manual at all?” a Rockdale County sheriff’s employee asked.

“I read it enough, as far as to assemble,” Tolbert answered.

“So, you didn’t read the part that possibly said something to the effect of not using it as an air conditioner?” the employee asked.

“Nah, I didn’t,” Tolbert answered.

No Warrant, No Arrest

At this point, Investigator Jones thought she had enough evidence to bring charges. But Rockdale County Judge Nancy Bills disagreed, refusing to sign an arrest warrant, and, according to case notes, it was because she felt the sheriff’s office should have turned the investigation over to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI). Bills called the case a “conflict of interest” for deputies to work a case involving one of their own.

It’s a decision the sheriff’s department continues to back.

When asked why the office didn’t turn over the investigation to the GBI, LeJohn Tate, chief of staff for the Rockdale County sheriff’s office, said, “We do have the ability to investigate our cases. We do not have to turn it over to the GBI. We have a criminal investigations division. We are a fully functioning sheriff’s office.”

Tate disagrees with Bills’ opinion there was a conflict of interest.

Tolbert Responds

Atlanta News First Investigates went to Tolbert’s house twice. The second time, he was backing out of his driveway. He initially said he didn’t want to talk but continued answering our questions.

“My agency said they’ve done an investigation and they deemed that I was fit to return back to duty,” Tolbert said. “There was no ill intent behind it or anything trying to harm my animals. Those were my animals. I loved all of them.”

CBS46 Investigates stopped by Tolbert’s house twice. The second time, he was backing out of his...
CBS46 Investigates stopped by Tolbert’s house twice. The second time, he was backing out of his driveway. He initially said he didn’t want to talk with us but continued answering our questions.(Rachel Polansky)

“Shouldn’t you have known better as a K9 handler not to keep American bulldogs in an uninsulated shed?,” Tolbert was asked.

Tolbert: “Well, the shed was getting cool so I figured it was okay. Since I’ve had them, it had never got that hot.”

Atlanta News First Investigates: “It was a June day in Georgia. Shouldn’t you know better?”

Tolbert: “Right, but it never got that hot so, ya know, they had been fine before.”

Atlanta News First Investigates: “Why did you put the dead dogs in a trash can?”

Tolbert: “My yard is heavily wooded. I couldn’t dig, so I didn’t know any other option.”

Next Steps

After the Rockdale County Sheriff’s Office closed the case, Tolbert received a four-day suspension without pay and was moved from the K9 unit to the patrol division.

What are the next steps?

Tolbert was never charged, so it’s possible the case could be reopened.

The penalty for an animal cruelty misdemeanor in Georgia is up to one year in jail and a fine. Failing to provide an animal with “sanitary conditions” or “ventilation” and improperly disposing of animals both violate state law.

The penalty for an animal cruelty felony is up to five years in prison.

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