FAIRMONT — Sobbing and wiping tears, the man who pleaded guilty to abandoning a Yorkie named Winston and leaving him to die in Rivesville last year apologized for his actions Friday in Marion County Circuit Court.
Marion County Judge Patrick N. Wilson sentenced, Justin Ryan Lancianese, 36, of Rivesville, to no less than 1 one year to no more than 5 years of home confinement. Both Lancianese and his attorney John Rogers asked for probation.
In July, Lancianese pleaded guilty to felony cruelty to animals before Wilson.
Judge Wilson said he has to take into consideration an offender’s credibility, yet had “some concerns” about Lancianese’s statements.
The judge questioned why Lancianese didn’t take the Yorkie to a shelter, give him to someone else or release him, if Lancianese was truly concerned about the dog’s safety.
According to the original criminal complaint, Lancianese took his Yorkie dog July 30, 2018 and placed it in a blue/red cooler bag, zipped up with a Twilight book and a CVS card inside, and tossed the dog near the Rivesville Power Plant, leaving him to die without food, water or shelter.
The judge also said Lancianese’s statements in court weren’t consistent with statements he made to other individuals in the court system.
On the witness stand, Chester Bradley, testified that his own dog was the one who discovered Winston in the cooler bag in an abandoned area that day.
Answering questions from Marion County Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Dennis B. Kittle, Bradley said that he wouldn’t have found Winston if his own dog hadn’t drawn attention to the the Yorkie.
The judge said there was “no answer” from Lancianese as to why Winston was zipped up in the cooler bag and left in a place he couldn’t be easily found. If Lancianese had wanted Winston to be found, the judge said this didn’t “make sense.”
Judge Wilson said there was no justification for putting the Yorkie in the cooler bag.
Bradley, who described how Winston’s “little head popped out” of the bag, also testified that when Winston was found, he looked like he needed to be washed and have a haircut. The dog also smelled bad, was dirty and his hair was matted with what looked like mud. Kittle asked him if it looked like Winston had been taken care of, and Bradley said no.
Kittle said the court couldn’t say that Lancianese was being truthful.
He said that with the condition that Winston was in, it was evident that Winston wasn’t being cared for by Lancianese. And he said the dog was left in an area where no person could find him. He said Lancianese still was not accepting responsibility.
Kittle asked for incarceration for Lancianese or if that wasn’t possible, the alternate of home confinement.
Expert witness Edward Baker, who was brought in the case by Lancianese’s attorney, evaluated Lancianese and testified that he has from post traumatic stress disorder that was exacerbated by use of various drugs, including methamphetamine, marijuana, buprenorphine and benzodiazepines. He said Lancianese also had has personality syndromes, has heard voices, has been paranoid, developed a suicidal complex and has felt hopeless and in despair.
Baker testified that Lancianese moved to Marion County shortly before the incident in which Winston was abandoned. He said that Lancianese moved here with his partner, who violently assaulted Lancianese, causing the post traumatic stress disorder.
Baker, however, testified that Lancianese was actually trying to save the dog by putting him in the cooler bag. He said Lancianese thought about burning his apartment and killing himself with an overdose. He said that Lancianese didn’t want the dog in the apartment when he burned it.
Kittle, who said that Lancianese “makes one heck of an argument,” said Lancianese used his victimhood to justify his actions. While Lancianese had the chance to speak about the assault involving his partner, Kittle said Winston cannot speak.
Lancianese, who at times wiped away tears, stated in court how he had taken in Winston from a friend, who was going to put him down because the dog had cataracts. The dog’s sight was eventually restored through a community effort led by the Marion County Humane Society, after he was rescued.
Lancianese referred to the dog by the name of “JoJo.” Winston was the name given to the Yorkie by his new owners, who were also in court for the sentencing. The courtroom was filled with other Winston supporters, many of whom wore “Justice for Winston” T-shirts.
Lancianese, who once referred to the Yorkie as his “cuddle buddy,” said that he has never felt more ashamed of anything when it comes to his abandonment of the dog. He apologized to “JoJo,” Marion County and animal lovers worldwide. He also spoke of positive steps he has taken to get help. He said he is at a recovery house, where he serves as president, and works with others to maintain their sobriety.
Rogers said being incarcerated would not allow Lancianese to continue his progress, and said he didn’t believe serving time in prison would be beneficial to Lancianese, his sobriety or his long-term well-being. He said he believed Lancianese has addressed the issues that led to the incident involving the dog and is “willing to comply with anything asked of him.”
Lancianese’s father, Jeffrey Lancianese, testified over the telephone. He testified that his son had a Shih Tzu puppy when he was a child, and didn’t think he was the type to hurt animals. Lancianese’s father wasn’t aware that his son had pleaded guilty to the felony charge, although he said he had read about the case. He said he knew that his son “had discarded an animal and left it for dead.”
Casey Johnson of Fairmont, who later adopted the Yorkie with girlfriend Kelley Millione-Stalnaker and named him Winston Johnson, sat up front in the courtroom looking on.
Afterwards, he said that the sentence “should have been more,” with some incarceration, but he was happy that it wasn’t just probation.
“The home confinement does make it a little bit better,” he said.
He didn’t think “Justice for Winston” had been served, however.
“I think West Virginia has a long way to go with animal laws, and I’m not going to stop fighting,” he said. “I’m going to keep going back to the capital with an animal bill. I have ordinances running now in Marion County, and I’m not ready to stop yet.”
Marion County Humane Society Director Jonna Spatafore, who also attended, said she would have liked Lancianese to have been incarcerated.
“But home confinement is pretty good,” she said. She said that she didn’t believe Lancianese’s statements in court.
“So, you didn’t burn down the house, and you didn’t kill yourself, so why didn’t you go pick your dog back up?” she said. “He wanted the dog to die, he was done with it.”
Frankie Spatafore, the humane society’s shelter manager, said she thought the sentencing was a step in the right direction.
“I do believe that this did have to happen in order for us to go further with what we want to happen for the next case that comes up,” she said.
She thought Lancianese should serve time in prison.
“It should be a punishment for what he did,” she said. “And he did it, and he admitted to it, so he should be punished and go to jail for what he did.”
According to the sentence, Lancianese will be on a 24-hour lockdown with windows to go to work and counseling appointments.
He will also be required to complete 200 hours of community service, with the county probation office determining the type of service.
People gasped and a cry of “no” could be heard when Kittle suggested Lancianese do community service at the shelter.
That drew a stern response from the judge, who said that the comments weren’t needed in the courtroom.
“Are we clear?” he said.
Upon Kittle’s request, Judge Wilson ordered that Lancianese will not be allowed to own animals for the next 15 years.
Lancianese will also have to pay court costs and attorney fees. He will get time served for the time he has spent in jail.
Noting that the Winston case has gotten a lot of attention on social media, the judge questioned if that was perhaps the bigger punishment.
Judge Wilson also said that while he appreciates the concern for the case as shown by the turnout in the courtroom, he noted there are also cases involving sexual abuse of children and he would like to see support for those cases as well.