ACQUITTED | Jury finds Rockdale deputy not guilty in animal cruelty trial
Eric Tolbert was facing five charges related to the heat-related deaths of three of his dogs last year.
ATLANTA, Ga. (Atlanta News First) - Eric Tolbert, a Rockdale County sheriff’s deputy, was found not guilty Thursday after being charged with three counts of felony aggravated cruelty to animals and two counts of misdemeanor cruelty to animals.
Tolbert’s indictment came after an Atlanta News First investigation uncovered that he his dogs inside a hot shed last year, and all three died. Then, according to an internal investigation, he threw their bodies into a trash can.
Tolbert is officially on administrative leave without pay. More than 50 potential jurors were called May 15 for the trial, and a 12-person jury was seated before the day’s end.
A total of nine witnesses were called for the prosecution, while only two were called by Tobert’s defense. The deputy himself took the stand Wednesday for almost two hours, a time span that also included cross examination.
During her 45-minute opening statement, state prosecutor Jessica Rock showed a Facebook post in which Tolbert announced the deaths of his three American bulldogs. She also showed various photos of dirty crates lined with feces and mold, the same crates where Tolbert’s three dogs died just days earlier.
Tolbert’s defense attorney, Melinda Johnson, said the deputy’s personal dogs were like his family, and he became depressed after they died. She said the dogs were not neglected, abused or mistreated.
A search warrant conducted at Tolbert’s property in September 2022 states “unsanitary conditions and the improper disposal of his personal dogs” was in violation of Georgia law.
When Rockdale County District Attorney Alisha Johnson announced the charges, she said the indictments came after “a thorough review of the investigation and assessment of the facts in the case involving Eric Tolbert. Our efforts have led us to the point where we sought and obtained an indictment before the Rockdale County Grand Jury. As I promised the people of Rockdale County, in this and all cases, where the evidence leads, we will follow and pursue each case without fear, favor, or affection.”
The charges come four months after an Atlanta News First investigation, and three months after the national animal rights group, PETA, began calling on Johnson to take action against Tolbert.
“Nothing can bring these dogs back or make up for their suffering, but these charges send the message that there are consequences for anyone who causes dogs’ agonizing deaths, including those charged with enforcing the law,” said PETA Senior Vice President Daphna Nachminovitch. “PETA is calling for Deputy Eric Tolbert to be barred from owning animals for life so that no other dog dies slowly and painfully in his stifling shed as LaLa, Luke Cage, and Storm did.”
In September, Jones went to Tolbert’s Conyers house and rang his Ring doorbell. Here is their exchange:
- 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.”
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.
MORE COVERAGE FROM ATLANTA NEWS FIRST INVESTIGATES
- ‘I trashed them’: 3 dead dogs dumped in trash by owner, a Ga. deputy
- Rockdale DA under more PETA pressure to charge deputy with animal cruelty
- PETA fighting to ensure Ga. deputy’s 3 dogs didn’t ‘die in vain’
At that point, 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, 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 continued to back.
When asked why the office didn’t turn over the Tolbert 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 disagreed with Bills’ opinion there was a conflict of interest.
In September, 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 with us 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.”
- Atlanta News First Investigates: “Shouldn’t you have known better as a K9 handler not to keep American bulldogs in an uninsulated shed?”
- 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.”
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