The misdemeanor trial of a pastor charged with animal cruelty in the death of a cat drew a crowd of 25 onlookers Monday, overshadowing the Bastrop County commissioners meeting next door.
The defendant, 56-year-old Rick Bartlett, the former pastor of Bastrop Christian Church, was the chaplain for the Bastrop Police Department at the time the cat died. The crowd in the courtroom included Sarah and Eddie Bell — owners of Moody, the dead cat — who are suing Bartlett for damages, and Sheila Smith who heads Shadow Cats, a Central Texas nonprofit cat rescue.
Bartlett, who had complained of strays in his neighborhood, trapped the cat and took it to the police department Jan. 17, 2012. Animal control officer Susan Keys pointed out that the cat had tags with the address and phone number for its owners, and offered to return it to them, an arrest affidavit says. But Bartlett convinced Keys to allow him to return the cat. According to the affidavit, after Bartlett drove away Moody either fell or jumped out of the cage because the cage door had been left open. Moody was found, badly injured, under the tall bridge over the Colorado River near downtown. Prosecutors allege Bartlett, who last had custody of Moody, was careless and charged him with animal cruelty, a Class A misdemeanor.
Bartlett had nothing to do with the cat’s death, his attorney said.
A five-man, one-woman jury is deciding the case this week.
Keys, who no longer works with animal control, was one of the first witnesses. She testified that while she has no personal knowledge of how the cat ended up on a walking path in the park with serious injuries, she had last seen it with Bartlett, and she became suspicious of his story when questioning him two days later.
“I trusted him to do that,” said Keys of allowing Bartlett to return the cat to its owners. Keys later went to the park in response to an injured animal call, and took the cat to a veterinarian’s office, where it died.
Keys testified she called Bartlett on Jan. 19 to ask if he knew what happened. “I asked him if he let the cat out of the trap. He said, ‘no.’ He said he went back to the church and it was ‘just gone.’
Keys said she turned the case over to police. “I became suspicious about him being honest,” she said. Under questioning by county prosecutor James Rhodes, Keys also said she learned that Bartlett changed his story when talking to police. “I did hear that,” she said. Defense attorney Chris Dillon objected to the statement as hearsay.
In his opening statement to the jury, Dillon said the cat was fine when Bartlett last saw it. “Rick came back to the church and parked in the shade to protect the cat. At about 1 p.m., he let the cat out of the cage. Three-and-a-half hours later the cat was found,” he said.
Testimony resumes Thursday morning. Dillon said Monday he had not decided whether Bartlett will take the stand.