Dog Abuse Trial

Susan Harris and Rick Yowell demonstrate outside the Joint Judicial Center in Winchester on Tuesday, where a Frederick County husband and wife accused of abusing a small dog named Miri (pictured at left) were on trial.

WINCHESTER — The two owners of Miri, a tiny dog who endured years of neglect and abuse, will each serve 90 days in jail.

Gary Wayne Helsley Sr. and his wife, Sylvia Helsley, of the 100 block of Cedar Grove Road in Frederick County, entered Alford pleas Tuesday in Frederick County General District Court to one misdemeanor count each of cruelty to animals. For the past 10 years, the Helsleys had bred Miri twice a year, taking a physical toll on the small dog.

In a related case, the Helsleys’ daughter, Amber Dawn Howard of Frederick County, was fined $250 Tuesday for filing a false police report.

“It is hard for me to imagine a neglect case worse than this one,” Frederick County General District Court Judge Mary Costello Daniel said near the end of the Helsleys’ hour-long hearing Tuesday in the Joint Judicial Center.

According to court documents, Howard called the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office on Oct. 1 to report she had found a small, sickly Yorkshire terrier along Cedar Grove Road near Winchester. Frederick County Sheriff’s Office Deputy April M. Morris wrote in a criminal complaint that Miri was malnourished and missing part of her lower jaw and all of her teeth. She also had eye infections, muscle wasting, extensive skin and uterine infections, hair loss and an abdominal hernia so severe that her drooping, ulcerated stomach dragged the ground whenever she walked.

Miri spent the night of Oct. 1 at Valley Veterinary Emergency and Referral Center near Winchester, then was transported the next day to the Esther Boyd Animal Shelter in Frederick County. During the ride to the shelter, Morris wrote, “I placed her inside the crate in the back of my animal control vehicle and she collapsed due to being unable to hold herself up or walk.”

The ailing dog stayed at the county animal shelter for about two weeks. Since her caregivers did not know her name, they started calling her Miracle, or Miri for short. When she was well enough, Miri was transferred to Gray Face Acres, a nonprofit animal-rescue organization near Manassas that specializes in caring for older dogs.

Georgia Dodson, director of Gray Face Acres’ foster and adoption program, testified on Tuesday that she did what she could to make Miri happy, healthy and comfortable.

“I began feeding her with a baby spoon,” Dodson said.

Gray Face Acres treated the bacterial infections in Miri’s eyes and the skin conditions that had been caused by flea bites and a fungal infection, but Dodson said the dog was too weak to undergo surgery for the hernia. Instead, caregivers dressed her in clothing to prevent her stomach from dragging the ground.

Within a few weeks, Dodson said, Miri had regained enough strength to enjoy “walking in the grass and being outside.”

In January, three months after arriving at Gray Face Acres, Miri died due to a collapsed trachea, a physical condition that interferes with an animal’s ability to breath. Collapsed tracheas are not uncommon among older, smaller dogs, so Dodson characterized Miri’s passing as “a natural death.”

During Miri’s stay at Gray Face Acres, a woman named Laurie Alexander contacted the shelter’s Facebook page to report that Miri had belonged to her mother, Sylvia Helsley. Dodson shared that information with the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office, and Morris paid a visit to Alexander on Oct. 20. That’s when officials learned that Miri’s real name was Spring.

The next morning, Morris visited the Cedar Grove Road home of Gary and Sylvia Helsley.

“Sylvia advised that she and Gary had owned Spring and she could not afford vet care ... but was aware she just needed to be put down,” Morris wrote.

Gary Helsely reportedly told the deputy that Spring had been in bad shape for two years.

“Gary advised Spring would use the restroom on the steps of their camper because she could not walk down the steps and would drag her rear legs,” Morris wrote. “Gary also advised Spring’s skin smelled horrible and he would hear Spring screaming and whining often.”

According to court documents, Gary Helsley asked Howard to take Spring to the Esther Boyd Animal Shelter to be surrendered or euthanized. Instead, on Oct. 1, Howard drove the dog to an area near Crossroads Grocery in Frederick County and alerted police she had found a stray in need of medical attention.

On Tuesday, Howard entered an Alford plea of guilt to filing a false police report. An Alford plea allows a defendant to maintain his or her innocence while acknowledging there is sufficient evidence to warrant a conviction. Daniel fined Howard $500 but suspended half of that amount. She also sentenced Howard, who is about eight months pregnant, to 365 days in jail but suspended the entire term of incarceration.

Defense attorney James P. Bohnaker, who represented Gary Helsley, admitted the dog who came to be known as Miri was not raised in ideal circumstances but was nearing the end of her natural life anyway.

“An 11-year-old Yorkie is an old dog,” Bohnaker said in court, even though numerous online sources list the average lifespan of a small Yorkshire terrier as 13 to 20 years.

Sylvia Helsley’s attorney, Collin Heffern, said Miri’s owners showed compassion by asking their daughter to take the dog to an animal shelter, so it seemed unfair to prosecute them.

“These people had a sickly dog that they tried to get help for and the commonwealth wants to put them in jail,” Heffern said.

Daniel, who winced Tuesday while looking at photos of Miri, balked at Heffern’s statement.

“It seems to me the Helsleys tried to avoid responsibility until they absolutely had to,” she said.

“They had every reason to know what they had done to this dog was cruel,” added Frederick County Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Marie Acosta. “For years, she [Miri] had screamed and whined in an effort to move around. ... It’s such a level of callous disregard for the suffering of a living being.”

Acosta requested the maximum 12-month sentence for each of the Helsleys. Bohnaker and Heffern said they weren’t expecting the prosecution to request jail time, so they asked Daniel to suspend any period of incarceration.

Daniel said the community must understand there are ramifications for not properly caring for a defenseless animal.

“Dogs are dependent on us entirely for everything,” she said,

Daniel imposed the full 365-day sentence on both Helsleys, then suspended all but 90 days. Gary Helsley will report to the Northwestern Regional Adult Detention Center on June 18 to start serving his sentence; Sylvia Helsley will report on June 22.

The judge also fined each of the Helsleys $200 for failing to purchase a dog license, failing to have Miri vaccinated against rabies and failing to show up in Frederick County General District Court for a previously scheduled hearing on April 6. Additionally, she ordered them to pay a total of $284.71 in restitution to the Esther Boyd Animal Shelter within one year.

Finally, Daniel banned the Helsleys from having companion animals again. The pets currently living in their home must be surrendered to a designated family member by June 17, and the Helsleys must consent to searches of their property by Sheriff’s Office deputies to determine if they stay in compliance with the court’s order.

During most of the sentencing process on Tuesday, the Helselys remained silent. However, when Daniel banned them from owning pets for the rest of their lives, Sylvia Helsley leaned toward her attorney and whispered, “That’s bull----.”

Following Tuesday’s trial, a small group of animal rights activists that had been picketing outside the Joint Judicial Center said they were satisfied with the outcome, although they wouldn’t have objected to longer jail terms and heftier fines.

“It’s a pretty good day,” protester Rick Yowell said. “This proves that you can stand up [against animal abuse] and do something. You’ve just got to be willing to do it.”

— Contact Brian Brehm at

(9) comments


A sad situation obviously; justice prevailed. The sentence is appropriate.


Na, those three disgusting individuals deserve to suffer in prison for the same amount of time they forced that poor dog to suffer in order to provide them money. Disgusting vermin, just as horrific as Michael Vick and his dogfighting business. He got off easy because he could throw a football. Garbage, in my book.


Perhaps we are allowing emotions to enter in too much. We do not see how justice was done for sweet Miri. No one has to have animals. It is a choice and the animal should be well taken care of. Miri was not!!!


So not appropriate. They should have gotten ten years which is what Mini went through.


Is ten years within the scope of the sentencing guidelines?


Gotta love these progressive judges who suspend sentences for heinous crimes. Disgusting!!


Thank you Deputy Morris for doing such a good job of investigating this abuse case. I'm sure with your compassion there will be others who abuse animals that will also be brought to justice. Keep up the good work.


Lets just let them free and no punishment and chalk it up to a just a bad day or Miri.

Why do we have laws and prosecutors. I guess for plea deals and cost to our Local Governments to keep them.


Plea deals are usually for cases that are obvious, so-called "open and shut". There is no reason to waste the court's time on a case that has no room for judgement.

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