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Man Facing Life Term in Dog's Decapitation

Courts: La Habra man allegedly killed his German shepherd to impress his girlfriend. A conviction would be his third strike.


A La Habra man who allegedly killed and mutilated his German shepherd to impress his girlfriend could face life in prison for animal cruelty under the state's three-strikes law, according to prosecutors.

After a brief court appearance Tuesday by James A. Abernathy--the 40-year-old man authorities say used a collection of swords, shears and knives to decapitate his dog--Orange County prosecutors said they intended to pursue the matter as a three-strikes case. In addition to the felony animal cruelty charge, Abernathy has twice been convicted of aggravated assault.

Abernathy's lawyer, William G. Morrissey, declined to comment on the case Tuesday or the prosecution's intention to pursue the case as a third strike.

Although animal cruelty cases make up less than 1% of all criminal cases filed in Orange County, Deputy Dist. Atty. Michael Pear said Abernathy's actions were enough to trigger a three-strikes sentence upon conviction. Instead of three years in prison, Abernathy could face 25 years to life.

The dog's death in January outraged pet owners and animal rights activists, who have inundated prosecutors and the court with letters demanding stiff punishment.

Abernathy's relatives say he has a history of violent behavior and that they fear for their safety if he is released. He is currently being held in Orange County Jail.

"He really doesn't need to be out of jail. He's dangerous," said Joyce M. Woodson, Abernathy's stepmother, who raised him from age 9.

According to authorities and family members, police were called to Abernathy's Chinchilla Street neighborhood Jan. 27, when the sporadically employed defendant walked over to his next-door neighbor and said he needed psychiatric help. The neighbor then called police.

"He admitted to killing his dog after he had an argument with his girlfriend," Police Capt. John Rees said in an interview Tuesday.

Rees said officers walked next door and discovered the body of Marie, Abernathy's year-old German shepherd mix, in the corner of a closet. A wooden stake had been pounded into its chest and pruning shears rested near its neck.

Abernathy was taken to a psychiatric hospital for observation and later transferred to the County Jail. Morrissey declined to comment on his client's mental condition.

"It was just bizarre," said George Abernathy, the defendant's father. "He loved this dog, and he was trying to prove to this girlfriend he just met that he loved her so much he could kill his dog for her. He was going to prove that he loved her that much."

Family members said Abernathy has been in and out of jails much of his life and is known for bizarre, violent behavior. He collected guns, swords, knives and other weapons, and once pointed a gun at his sister's head, family members said.

George Abernathy said his son's ambition as a youth was to join the U.S. Army. He served briefly at Ft. Bragg in North Carolina before he was discharged.

After his military experience, Abernathy earned a certificate as a physical trainer from Fullerton Junior College but did not pursue a career in fitness, his father said. Instead, he worked sporadically for general contractors--jobs his father said he would help him get only to see him lose them shortly afterward.

"Everybody's scared of him," George Abernathy said. "If putting him in prison for 25 years to life is going to prevent him from hurting some innocent person, that's OK with me."

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