A judge has convicted a Steuben man in the August 2018 killing of a dog owned by a lobsterman he had worked for.
At the end of a one-day bench trial Thursday in an Ellsworth courtroom, Justice Robert Murray found that Justin Chipman, 24, was guilty in the shooting death of Franky, a pug whose body washed up on a Winter Harbor beach days after he went missing while his owner was out of town.
Chipman and another man — Nathan Burke, 38, of Hancock — were accused of taking Franky from Phil Torrey’s house while Torrey was out of town, going for a ride with the dog in Torrey’s Hummer, and then shooting the dog. Burke, who like Chipman worked for Torrey as a sternman on Torrey’s lobster boat, is being tried separately from Chipman but has not yet had his trial scheduled.
Murray convicted Chipman on one count of aggravated cruelty to animals, one count of burglary, two counts of theft and one count of criminal mischief.
Outside the courtroom, Torrey said he was “ecstatic” over the verdict, adding that he still believes Burke also is responsible for Franky’s death.
Torrey credited people who have offered support, some of whom he said he doesn’t even know, and said he thinks some good will come from the case and the verdict, even if it doesn’t bring Franky back. He said the verdict sends a message that cruelty to animals will not be tolerated.
“This has set a tone,” Torrey said. “You do not hurt animals.”
Even before Chipman was convicted, he added, Franky’s death inspired a change in state law that allows victims in animal cruelty cases to have courtroom advocates who monitor court proceedings; review records on animals’ condition from animal control officers, veterinarians and law enforcement officers; and make recommendations to judges.
A group of Torrey’s supporters in the courtroom, who included several women who wore yellow t-shirts with Franky’s photo and the words “Justice for Franky” printed on them, shook hands with each other when Murray announced the verdict.
Police have said Chipman and Burke entered Torrey’s home in Winter Harbor without permission, took Franky and then shot the dog Aug. 24, 2018, when Torrey and his girlfriend had traveled to New Hampshire to attend a concert. Police also have said the duo took Torrey’s Hummer out for a joy ride as part of the same incident and damaged the vehicle.
Chipman and Burke told police they frequently came and went from Torrey’s house because they worked for him. They told police that Franky jumped in the Hummer when they took it for a ride while Torrey was out of town. But then, they said, the dog ran off and the pair did not see him again, according to court documents.
The dog was found dead six days later on a local beach by the wife of Hancock County District Attorney Matthew Foster. He was wrapped in plastic and appeared to have been shot through the throat “some time ago,” according to an arrest warrant and affidavit filed in court.
Because Foster was considered a witness in the case, Deputy Hancock County District Attorney Norman “Toff” Toffolon prosecuted the case. Foster testified Thursday morning about taking the dog’s body to the local police department to report the alleged crime.
In testimony Thursday morning, witnesses told Murray that after Franky was killed, the dog’s hair was found on the grill of Torrey’s Hummer and his collar was found tied to a rope hanging from a tree in a local gravel pit. Empty beer containers of a brand favored by Chipman, as well as cigarette butts of a brand Chipman smoked, were found in the Hummer, which had been clean before Torrey left town.
They also told Murray that Chipman had been upset about an incident two weeks earlier, when he showed up with his dog at Torrey’s house and Franky attacked his dog.
Chipman’s defense attorney, Robert Van Horn, called no witnesses and during the trial filed a motion to acquit, arguing that there is no direct evidence linking Chipman to Franky’s death. Police do not know the circumstances under which Franky was shot, who was present when it happened, where it happened, or what kind of bullet or gun was used, Van Horn said.
“Anyone could have done this,” Van Horn told the judge. “Where we’re at is ‘well, maybe Mr. Chipman did it.’ That’s not guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Murray denied Van Horn’s motion on four of the five counts filed against Chipman, but ruled that there is not enough credible evidence to convict Chipman of aggravated criminal mischief, which was one of the charges prosecutors had filed against Chipman. The judge said the evidence does not support the claim that Torrey’s Hummer sustained more than $2,000 in damage during the joyride.
However, Murray found Chipman guilty of a lesser charge of criminal mischief for the damage to the Hummer.
In response to Van Horn’s argument, Toffolon told the judge there was considerable circumstantial evidence against Chipman. Not only did Chipman know information that would have aided in the killing of Franky — that Torrey was out of town — but he also had a motive because, as Torrey told the judge, Chipman had been “worked up” over the altercation between Franky and his dog.
“Who’s the only person with a motive?” Toffolon said to the judge in his closing rebuttal. “It’s not speculation at all” to conclude Chipman was responsible for killing Franky.
Outside the courtroom, Toffolon declined to comment. A small group of Chipman’s friends and family who had been in the courtroom also declined to speak to a reporter.
Van Horn said briefly after the trial that he and Chipman would evaluate their options following the verdict, presumably including a possible appeal. He said sentencing is expected to take place in January.