WINCHESTER — Efforts to disqualify the lead prosecutor in an animal cruelty and endangered species trafficking case involving a South Carolina celebrity animal trainer and a local roadside zoo owner failed Thursday.
During a hearing in Frederick County Circuit Court, trainer Bhagavan Kevin “Doc” Antle's lawyers accused K. Michelle Welch, senior Virginia assistant attorney general and director of the Attorney General's Animal Law Unit, of bias, unethical dealings with animal welfare groups and botching a search of Myrtle Beach Safari, Antle’s South Carolina animal park.
In October, Antle — featured in the Netflix "Tiger King" documentary on an eccentric animal breeder and a murder-for-hire plot — was accused of multiple counts of cruelty to animals and buying or selling endangered species. He is accused of buying newborn lion cubs from Keith Arnold Wilson, owner of Wilson's Wild Animal Park in Frederick County. Antle's two daughters and Wilson also were indicted.
The charges against Wilson are in addition to animal cruelty charges he faces over the treatment of animals at his zoo. The zoo closed in August of 2019 after a raid by authorities in which 119 animals were seized. Conditions documented on video included animals with severe skin problems due to inattention and animals without proper food or water or space to move. Authorities also said they found maggot-infested meat, two dead animals in a freezer, areas filled with feces and animals left without water. Wilson denies wrongdoing.
Antle's attorneys Eric R. Breslin and Erin M. Harrigan told Judge Alexander R. Iden that Welch — having served on the board of the Virginia Animal Fighting Task Force, a nonprofit group that assists law enforcement on raids and searches — has a conflict of interest. They also said it was improper for Amy Taylor, a task force member, to participate in the search of Wilson's Wild Animal Park in December 2019.
Harrigan compared it to allowing a Mothers Against Drunk Driving activist to conduct a field sobriety test of a driver in a traffic stop. Welch countered that there is a long legal history of citizens assisting police at searches dating back to English common law when burglary victims were permitted at scenes to identify stolen items.
Following up on a written motion that said Welch had compromised the investigation by "blurring the lines between animal activist volunteers and duly credentialed law enforcement officers," Breslin said Antle couldn't get a fair trial with Welch prosecuting him. Breslin said Welch had "conflated" her personal and professional positions.
"That is a very dangerous line to cross," he said. "The degree of involvement by private advocacy groups is disturbing and it is unusual."
Welch accused Breslin and Harrigan of attempting to try the case through "ambush and surprise" and "prosecutor shopping." She said the legal standard for removing a prosecutor is not demonstrating generalized bias, but specific bias against a defendant. "They keep trying to put the prosecution on trial," Welch said.
Welch said the attorney general's office does receive grant money from the Animal Legal Defense Fund and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, "but they don't control our office." Welch also opposed having potential witnesses at the trial testify at the hearing. She said it could prematurely disclose the prosecution's strategy and endanger the witnesses. Welch said Taylor has been subjected to online harassment and Welch said she has personally been subjected to a death threat which she notified the FBI and Virginia State Police about.
After telling Iden that her salary is paid by taxpayers, not any animal welfare groups, Iden denied the motion to disqualify Welch. He also denied a motion for separate trials for Antle, his daughters Tawny Antle and Tilkam Watterson, and Wilson. However, Iden ruled that the prosecution must provide written information detailing what they define as animal cruelty and torture in the cases of Antle and his daughters.
The Antle case centers on the "illegal transportation" of two 14-day-old lion cubs from Wilson's zoo to Antle's park, according to court documents. They say Tawny Antle drove the cubs to Myrtle Beach on on July 26, 2019, shortly before the Aug. 15, 2019 raid at Wilson's zoo. The documents say records seized at the zoo show the birth dates of the cubs were altered to say they were born on June 28, 2019, rather than the actual birth date of July 12, 2019.
The documents say Tawny Antle retrieved a third cub from Wilson that was 25 days old on Aug. 6. 2019, and that Wilson intentionally kept secret the existence of the cub from a government inspector. The documents also said Wilson sent three cubs to Bhagavan Antle in 2017 while failing to list them in his license renewal with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. Wilson is also accused of failing to list the existence of two cubs sent to the elder Antle in 2018.
"Through inquiry, I found that neither [Bhagavan] Antle or nor Wilson currently hold, or have ever held a permit for the captive breeding of endangered species," a law enforcement officer wrote in the documents. "Lions have been on the endangered/threatened species list since 2016."