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Cat Massacre at Iowa Shelter Splits a Town

September 08, 1997|JUDY PASTERNAK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

FAIRFIELD, Iowa — On the night of the slaughter, 16 cats were bludgeoned to death and a cultural divide was laid bare.

Three high school students, young men who had never been in trouble, allegedly hatched the plot in a parking lot at the Hy-Vee food store. They are accused of driving off to pick up two baseball bats and then sneaking into a certain white house with blue trim at the edge of town--a haven for strays that was founded by a couple who had moved to central Iowa from Pacific Palisades.

The next morning, the shelter's driveway resembled a triage site, an animal MASH. Veterinarians sorted through the bashed and bloodied, deciding which to treat on the spot and which to rush off for the hour's drive to Iowa State University's animal-care facilities.

Feline corpses smoldered on a funeral pyre built by the sobbing shelter director, who sank to his knees to pray.

Within days of the March incident, arguments ignited as well, not just in this hamlet of 10,000 people but also on the Internet and in the pages of animal-rights magazines. The debaters took the measure of the lost lives of Gimpy, Whitey, Little Moe, Pumpkin, Puff and the rest of the victims. They weighed them against the potential of those charged: Chad Lamansky, Dan Myers and Justin Toben, each 18 years old. And they came to very different conclusions.

Some cry out that cat killing is murder and should be punished accordingly, with hard time. Others counter that boys and cats, like foxes and chickens, are natural enemies, made to annoy each other, especially in rural areas. Don't ruin the suspects' future, they counsel; let them grow up.

"This is a small town, but this is not a small-town issue. It's a national issue," said Laura Sykes, who founded the shelter, Noah's Ark, with her husband, David. "If it's taken seriously and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, it's a precedent." Officials of the Animal Legal Defense Fund and the Humane Society of the United States agree.

"Cats were killed at a shelter. It's like going into a church and killing," said Laura Sykes. "That's lost on certain people around here."

Charges Could Bring 10-Year Prison Terms

Jefferson County Atty. John A. Morrissey has announced charges that could lead to 10-year prison sentences if the young men are convicted. Toben, whose lawyer says he kicked one cat but did no further harm, agreed in July to testify against the others in exchange for leniency: 200 hours of community service and three years of probation. David Sykes feels Toben "got off light."

As a November trial looms, Morrissey's office has filed thousands of letters and printouts of e-mail from all over the globe into a cache of cardboard boxes.

Nearly every missive clamors for prison for Lamansky and Myers, who have pleaded not guilty and are out on bail. The writers quote the Bible and Gandhi, and refer darkly to serial killers Ted Bundy and Jeffrey L. Dahmer.

Send a message, they urge, that beating animals to death is a serious crime. "I hope some judge doesn't order community service," wrote Rita J. Sieg of Cleveland. "I pray they get the max!"

Only a few bear a Fairfield postmark, and those strike a very different chord. "I agree what they did was wrong," wrote resident Sue Beall in a typical note. "But to go to prison? . . . How many things did you and I do growing up that we wished we wouldn't have done?"

Rural boys and country cats never have gotten along, another woman, Dixie Haynes, remarked in conversation: "I think it's a thing that boys have. You used to see them out hunting, targeting cats with .22s."

Her son, Donny, bears out her claim. He is acquainted with Lamansky, who comes from a prominent farm family and played on the Fairfield High School football team. "If I'd been with him that night, I would have helped," the younger Haynes said.

On his own, he admitted, he once swung a cat around and smacked it into a telephone pole. "I just don't like 'em," he said. "They scratch me. They bite me."

Reaction Complicated by New-Age Influence

Local reaction is complicated by the fact that Fairfield is no ordinary tall-corn, light-manufacturing town. It has a distinct New Age overlay, resulting from the presence of Maharishi International University, which bought the campus of Parsons College in 1971.

Guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who brought transcendental meditation to the Beatles and tens of thousands more, has visited his school only once. Yet about 2,000 practitioners of TM have not only traveled here, but settled. Among them are Laura and David Sykes.

The old-timers and the significant minority of "meditators," as they're known locally, have coexisted peacefully, but the graft never really took hold.

Fairfield boasts a classic town square, complete with a band shell and beds of bright flowers bordering the greensward. But the breeze that flutters the U.S. flags on their poles also drives a whiff of curry through downtown.

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