A West Yellowstone man pled guilty Monday to two counts of misdemeanor animal cruelty as part of an agreement that will see a felony animal cruelty charge against him dropped.

John T. Hessert, 24, faced the charges after an animal cruelty investigation turned up 33 Alaskan husky sled dogs suffering ailments ranging from frost bite and malnutrition to cracked feet and infection. The dogs were taken in by volunteers and nursed back to health, but the case caused much controversy among animal-lovers over the fate of the dogs.

Hessert appeared before District Judge Holly Brown in a vest embroidered with an Iditarod logo to offer in plea over neglecting the dogs. His lawyer, Chuck Watson, told Brown that Hessert felt remorse for the suffering he caused to his dogs and that Hessert's aspirations to be a professional musher have already been compromised.

"The long-shot of this is Mr. Hessert got over-extended and the dogs suffered as a consequence," Watson said. "He has to live with that. He has a conscience."

According to the plea agreement, Hessert must pay $27,855 in restitution to volunteers who cared for the dogs while the case was being investigated. He must also serve 100 hours of community service, two days in the Gallatin County Detention Center and two years of probation.

Last, he is not allowed to own or be in control of a dog for two years.

Hessert's case caused a lot of publicity as prosecutors, volunteers and Hessert debated the fate of the dogs.

Brown eventually ruled that the dogs could be handed over to Hessert's father, Stephen Hessert of Maine, a decision that one musher criticized as sending the dogs back "to the great unknown."

Three of the volunteers who initially helped care for the dogs attended the hearing Monday.

Terry Cunningham, one of the volunteers, said he did not disagree with the plea agreement, but said the state showed mercy to Hessert.

"I was hoping for justice, but I do believe in mercy," Cunningham said. "The state showed considerably more mercy to Mr. Hessert than Mr. Hessert ever showed to the 33 dogs."

Cunningham said he and other volunteers cared for the dogs at a facility daily for five weeks.

During the hearing, Gallatin County Prosecutor Eric Kitzmiller said that although feelings were mixed about the plea agreement among volunteers and mushers, the agreement was the best solution.

"Some would like to see an eye for an eye," he said. "That's simply not something we could do. … This agreement holds (Hessert) responsible."

Kitzmiller also said the plea agreement will "prevent this type of thing from happening again."

In addressing Hessert, Brown offered him both sympathy and reprimand.

"I believe it is not something you intended," she said. "I also believe it is something that could have been avoided."

Daniel Person can be reached at dperson@dailychronicle.com or 582-2665.


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