By KEVIN WALKER
IMLAY TOWNSHIP, Mich. — Not much for the family has changed in the nearly four years since charges of animal abuse leveled at the Mills were dismissed.
Although they were relieved to have the criminal charges against them thrown out, from this family’s perspective, the damage was already done. That’s the way Ellen and Mark Mills still feel to this day, although they have had a few years to try to put the case behind them.
“I Googled us recently, and the abuse thing is the first thing that comes up (in the Internet search),” Ellen said. “It’s something that we’ve been dealing with for a long time. But we have a lot of supporters. A lot of farmers support us.”
The story began in March 2007 when police showed up at the Mills’ property, arresting the adults in the family. These included Ellen, Mark, daughter Kate, then 20, and son Andrew, then 19. Animal control officers removed several dead lambs from the family’s barn, a dead horse and several dogs that animal control contended were undernourished.
The Mills defended themselves against a charge of not properly burying a horse by saying it couldn’t be buried immediately, as the ground was frozen. Kate said the USDA had asked her to save the dead lambs because they might have come from a scrapie-positive ewe, and the horse had been undernourished because it had a disease.
They denied the dogs were undernourished and also denied they were being abused or otherwise neglected.
Judge Laura Barnard, who presided over the case, agreed with defense’s arguments and also ruled some of the evidence obtained by the county was inadmissible as it was obtained illegally. It was determined Andrew didn’t have anything to do with the care of the animals and that Kate had been at college when the alleged abuse took place.
Charges against them were dismissed first. In the end, Mark and Ellen Mills pled guilty to a charge of having an unlicensed dog. The judge agreed with the defense’s argument the horse had not been starved.
At the time Lapeer County Prosecutor Byron Konschuh said the horse died after it fed too quickly and got food stuck in its throat, because the horse was underfed. Mark Mills has always contended Konschuh and others in local government have been out to get him because of his robust criticism of local officials. “Byron is a pathological liar,” he said.
The four Mills sued the local government, but their efforts went nowhere, Mark said. “They claimed governmental immunity, so you can’t sue the government,” he said. “You have to prove gross negligence, otherwise they walk off into the sunset, and that’s what they did.”
What’s left for the Mills is to try to forget, but sometimes the Internet makes it hard to move on. An animal abuse information website called Pet-abuse.com, for example, has kept track of the Mills case and, despite the fact charges against all members of the family have been dismissed for nearly four years, the top of the page still indicated charges against Ellen and Mark might be pending.
When asked about it in an email message, the president and founder of Pet-Abuse.com, Alison Gianotto, said she makes every effort to keep cases updated. She said sometimes it can take a while because courts do not always respond to document requests timely. But she did not explain why a case would not be updated with such critical information after nearly four years.