- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 2, 2002

WACO, Texas The torture and killing of a stray cat here has turned out to be the biggest story in this central Texas town since the Branch Davidians tragedy of 1993.
The death of Queso, who was given his name because he loved to gobble up spicy leftover cheese dip from diners at the Taco Cabana restaurant, caused a furor unleashing public protests, thousands of letters and phone calls to officials, even a Web site, "Justice for Queso."
Most of the activity began because authorities refused for two months to criminally charge two Baylor University baseball stars.
Finally, as protesters surrounded the district attorney's office last May, it was announced that the young men had been charged with cruelty to animals, a misdemeanor.
After several hearings, postponements and considerable publicity, last month the first of the two defendants, Derek Brehm, 21, went to trial. He was found not guilty by a McLennon County jury.
Charges against the second man, Clint Bowers, 22, were immediately dropped.
They did not deny what they had done. Mr. Brehm said that at about 4 a.m. on March 9, 2001, they shot the cat with a pellet gun, carried it in his SUV a few blocks away and slammed it in the head with a golf club before decapitating the animal and skinning it.
However, Russ Hunt Sr., Mr. Brehm's attorney, successfully argued that the incident did not constitute animal cruelty because Queso was feral a wild stray animal, not a domesticated pet and because the cat was dead when the men decapitated it.
The night manager of the restaurant, Teresa Jones, claimed the cat was hers because she fed it regularly, named it and nurtured it.
But jurors decided that she wasn't the owner and that the cat was feral. Texas cruelty laws do not protect wild animals.
The verdict brought animal-rights activists to tears.
"This could have been a triumph for animals everywhere," said Kathie Robnnet, president and co-director of Fuzzy Friends Rescue animal shelter here. "Instead, it was a travesty."
"That jury really had to search for a way to find him innocent," said George Tavaris, a local builder who attended the trial.
Jerry Layne, a local animal-rights advocate, called the verdict "another black mark on Waco's history."
"That jury had no compassion," he said.
"We did our duty," the jury foreman told the Waco Tribune-Herald after the verdict. "That's all I can tell you."
Mr. Hunt did not return phone calls last week, but told a reporter earlier that Queso's supporters "ought to find out what all the facts are before they make a judgment call."
The Texas animal-cruelty law was not written to apply to wild animals, he explained. If it did, he told the local newspaper, it would be "open season" on deer hunters.
Both Mr. Hunt and Rod Goble, the attorney for Mr. Bowers, said their respective clients had shown remorse.
Animal-rights folks hope that the widespread publicity will spur state legislators to tighten what they consider a terribly flawed cruelty law.
The present law, says Skip Trimble of Dallas, a board member of the Texas Humane Legislation Network, is "not only vague but stupid."
In another animal cruelty case in Little Rock, Ark., a man hurled a cat from an Interstate 30 overpass into rush hour traffic. He was convicted March 22 of aggravated assault, cruelty to animals and criminal mischief.

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