John Robert, Michel Gagnon wanted to avoid ‘spectre of publicity’

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Two men accused in a dog-fighting ring asked to skip out of a preliminary hearing to avoid the “spectre of publicity” around the case.

However, John Robert and Michel Gagnon were fortunate other factors played into the decision by Ontario Court Justice Paul Kowalyshyn to allow them to be absent from the proceedings held Tuesday in a Chatham court.

The judge said if the request was based solely on the two accused wanting to avoid “shame, humiliation and embarrassment, I don’t believe I would have been inclined to grant the request.”

Ken Marley, defence lawyer for both men, who face several charges in connection to an alleged dog-fighting operation in the Merlin area, cited Section 537.1 of the Criminal Code in making the request.

Marley first noted a long-standing medical condition that affect Robert’s neck and back makes it difficult for him to sit for long periods of time.

The lawyer also told the judge both his clients “were concerned about the spectre of publicity . . . and protesters attending the courthouse.”

If the court were not to grant the request, Marley said both his clients were close by and could be contacted by telephone to attend the proceedings.

Assistant Crown attorney James Boonstra indicated he had no objection to the request.

Kowalyshyn took into account that two experienced officers of the court have consented on the matter, as well as the medical condition of Robert when granting the request. He also factored in the efforts that have been made to narrow the focus of the preliminary hearing so it could be held in a single day. Otherwise it would have taken several days to complete.

A few protesters, carrying signs, were on Grand Avenue West at the roadway leading to the courthouse, Tuesday morning.

“We just feel like we need to represent the community,” said Sherri Sherbo, one of the protesters. “This community doesn’t agree with bloodsport.”

Kowalyshyn also accepted Marley’s request to impose a publication ban on evidence heard during the preliminary hearing.

The case came to court as a result of a joint investigation by the Chatham-Kent police service and the Ontario SPCA major case management team. Officers went to a Morris Line property, near Merlin, on Oct. 9, 2015. Their findings culminated in more than 500 criminal and provincial offences charges laid for animal cruelty, as well as drugs and firearms offences.

Initially, four people, including Robert and Gagnon, were charged. However, all charges have been withdrawn against Robert’s wife Kim Robert and his son John Robert Jr.

A total 31 pit bull-type dogs were seized from the property along with hundreds of items alleged used in dog-fighting training.

Several of the dogs have been sent or will be going shortly to a dog rehabilitation centre in Florida, after the conclusion of a separate legal battle that started when the SPCA brought an application before the court to have 21 of the dogs euthanized.

As the investigation progressed, dog-fighting-related charges were also laid against Robert Tomlin and Candice Johnson. They appeared briefly before Kowalyshyn on Tuesday to indicate their intention to enter guilty pleas. A court date was set for Aug. 24 for pleas by these two accused.

With files from Trevor Terfloth


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