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Forrest vs. The State of Ohio

After a near-fatal shooting, one dog joins the fight against Ohio's antiquated animal protection laws

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A bull mastiff named Forrest is enjoying life at his new home in Solon, eagerly embracing his new family and unknowingly garnering fame across Ohio and the Internet.

A man named Raymone Clements, meanwhile, is langoring in federal custody following arraignment as a felon caught in possession of ammunition.

Their stories are intertwined - riddled with pain and malice and, toward the end of the tale, flashes of joy and cautious optimism.

The federal indictment against Clements was filed Jan. 16 and came as a surprise to those watching his case closely.

He had previously been scheduled for arraignment at the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas on charges of animal cruelty, unlawfully firing a weapon and possessing a firearm as a convicted felon. The county arraignment was dismissed once the feds swooped in, arrested the man once again and scheduled their own Jan. 17 arraignment. The animal cruelty charge was tossed out the window as well. That's merely a misdemeanor in Ohio, which places Forrest's story at the heart of a long-running struggle for more thorough animal protection laws in this state.

Robin Stone adopted Forrest after he was shot twice in a Cleveland Heights park and left for dead by Clements late last year. The longtime friend to all animals says Forrest is fitting in perfectly with her three other dogs and the ranch-style home she shares with Patti Harris. The timing was impeccable for her and the dog, she adds, but the intersection of the past and the future is unavoidable.

Clements' current charge carries a possible sentence of up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Those are some nice numbers, many say, as the former county charges would have only netted Clements five years behind bars at most. Stone - and much of Forrest's blossoming Facebook following - can dig the math, but there's something amiss here for Ohio's animal protection advocates.

Forrest's role in the case, supporters argue, was sidelined when the feds moved in. As Stone says, it was Forrest alone who brought thrice-convicted felon Clements back into the eye of the justice system. It was Forrest's pain that brought a known felon's possession of guns and ammunition into the spotlight.

"It's bittersweet," Stone says of the ongoing story.

In the immediate sense, the story at hand begins at Forest Hill Park in Cleveland Heights on Nov. 25, 2012. Clements, a 42-year-old slouching hulk, walked Forrest into the park and chained the dog to a tree. He pulled out a gun and shot off four bullets, two of which hit Forrest in his jaw and chest. Clements, along with two accompanying and unidentified women, then left the park.

"He lay there dying," says Amy Beichler, executive director of the Public Animal Welfare Society (PAWS). She got a call about the incident the following morning and, mounting strength over her flu symptoms, dashed out the door to help Forrest out of the 30-degree weather and into a warmer future.

Cleveland Heights police arrested Clements Dec. 19 on misdemeanor charges of animal cruelty and firing a weapon unlawfully.

Clements' actions in the park that day followed a similarly reprehensible history. His previous felony convictions include the rape of two girls (ages 7 and 14) in 2006, drug trafficking in 2003 and aggravated robbery in 1991. The county went on to pursue an additional felonious charge of possessing weapons as a convicted felon.

When Clements was found in possession of one round of .357-caliber ammo and two rounds of .22-caliber ammo following the shooting, his crime was cast against the backdrop of a federal justice system cracking down on felons bearing arms. The county charges were dismissed, Clements' future took on a bleaker tone and agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms arrested the man on a quiet street in Cleveland.

In court, he shared a quick glance with Forrest's new owners and a slough of maybe a dozen or so of Forrest's supporters. He pleaded not guilty to the lone charge.

The U.S. Attorney's office in the Northern District of Ohio seeks out felons brandishing weapons and files these charges often - 176 times last year with an average sentence of six years in prison, in fact. And all that, of course, is an entirely separate matter.

The question many are asking themselves now is how Forrest and the growing public awareness surrounding his life can translate into action at the Statehouse and beyond.

Forrest's story, now ostensibly divorced from The United States of America v. Raymone Clements, is only one element in a much broader problem with Ohio's animal cruelty laws.

Over the years, many have called for tighter restrictions and stricter punishments. A 2010 law advanced some causes, but animal protection supporters are working to maintain pressure on the General Assembly's rather milquetoast pulse and the state's less than stellar reputation.

The Animal Legal Defense Fund, in fact, ranks Ohio 34th in the country in terms of being a protective place for animals to live. ("Thirty-fourth is not good enough. We can do better," Beichler says.) The Humane Society of the United States similarly sticks Ohio with a basement grade, particularly compared to other northern states. Such rankings stem from the availability of felony penalties and increased penalties for repeating offenders, police officers' ability to enforce animal protection laws and more.

Chapter 959 of the Ohio Revised Code delves into the specific policies and punishments surrounding cruelty to animals in this state: To wit, shooting a dog (or otherwise knowingly injuring a "companion animal") is a first-degree misdemeanor.

"I think Forrest's story will kind of propel this story to Columbus," Stone says. "Our goal is for a comprehensive bill."

The previous General Assembly, which wrapped up its session in December, killed or otherwise slept on seven bills related to animal cruelty.

For instance, House Bill 108, known colloquially as Nitro's Law, was an attempt at making animal cruelty at the hands of a kennel owner or employee a felony violation, rather than a misdemeanor. (Nitro was starved to death by a trainer in Youngstown in 2008. Six other dogs died alongside him and 12 other dogs were on the threshold of death when authorities found them. The trainer was arrested on 19 counts of animal cruelty, arraigned on a mere four, and sentenced to a quick four months in prison.)

That bill has died twice now in the Statehouse, following a fate similar to six other bills that languished in legislative limbo during the 129th General Assembly:

Ohio Dog Auctions Act: Ban Ohio puppy mill dog auctions.

House Bill 25: Include "companion animals" in domestic violence and stalking protection orders

House Bill 138: Require a person to file proof of successful completion of training with the county recorder prior to being appointed as a humane society agent

House Bill 289: Make bestiality a fifth-degree felony

House Bill 290: Make an assault against a dog warden, deputy dog warden, humane agent or animal control officer a fifth-degree felony

House Bill 300: Provide protections for search and rescue dogs

"I think that's going to be different in this situation," Stone says, trying to parse out why, after all those attempts, legislation has a tendency to pass into oblivion. She's looking ahead optimistically, though, hoping that Forrest, Nitro and other dogs like Herbie (recently found neglected and abused in Lorain County) can promote widespread knowledge of the state's stunted view toward our pets. Every story is different and every story shines a light on a particular issue that needs tightening up in the Statehouse.

Even with the passage of Nitro's Law - a single, very powerful bill - Forrest's case would not be covered. There are many facets to animal cruelty and the penalties that surround it. Animal protection advocates - and many others who support the movement tacitly - realize that the lens needs to be widened.

"If you put all that together to protect our animals, you're talking about a comprehensive bill that would be broader in scope," Beichler says. She adds that, given the heinous background on Clements' rap sheet, the wellspring of support in the media for Forrest and the fact that this situation took place in a public park of all places... Well, it's a compelling story that has a pendulum of pain and catharsis swinging dramatically at every bend. "All of these ingredients are there. Forrest could truly be a catalyst for change."

State Sen. Shirley Smith now sits on the Senate Agriculture Committee. She's expressed her support for the burgeoning Justice For Forrest campaign and, as such, is poised to direct potential legislation through the legislature.

"I am going to restart the conversation," she promises. With an eye toward promoting healthy farming policies in Ohio, she's hoping to dig into the intersection of our state's Big Ag production and the animals at the foundation of that industry. Following that line, she sees her committee's work intersecting with companion animal advocates like Stone and Beichler. Forrest's story, along with countless examples of animal torture, starvation and hoarding will all roll into Smith's overarching look at agriculture in Ohio: past, present and future.

"I think Forrest is a hero," she says.

Simultaneously, Beichler is joining nearly a dozen other leaders of humane groups and rescue organizations around the state as part of an ad-hoc committee on the direction of this movement. They meet via phone conference weekly to hash out ideas, hopes and visions.

"What is the mission?" Beichler asks... "To bring reform to animal cruelty laws."

In the meantime, Forrest's celebrity is at the very least conjuring increased awareness by the day. A benefit for the dog and the Public Animal Welfare Society of Ohio will be held Feb. 16 at Negative Space Gallery downtown.

Forrest will be there ready to greet his friends. He's feeling much better these days. Stone says he stood on his hind legs for the first time recently, offering hugs and showing off his infectious energy.

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