Olympic Animal Sanctuary director convicted of third-degree malicious mischief in jury trial
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Joe Smillie/Peninsula Daily News
Steve Markwell answers a question from his public defender, Doug Kresl, during Markwell’s malicious mischief trial in Clallam County District Court in Forks on Wednesday.

By Joe Smillie
Peninsula Daily News

FORKS –– Steve Markwell intentionally damaged the car of a protester outside the Forks warehouse in which he housed as many as 124 dogs, a District Court jury decided Wednesday.

After a six-hour trial, a jury convicted Markwell, director of the defunct Olympic Animal Sanctuary, of third-degree malicious mischief.

He faces a maximum penalty of 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine when he is sentenced Monday.

“Bummer. I didn't see it going this way,” Markwell said after the verdict was announced.

Markwell had requested a jury trial for the misdemeanor instead of the usual bench trial.

“I don't know if it would have been different,” he said. “I knew it was a toss-up going in.”

City Attorney Rod Fleck said the trial before Clallam County District 2 Judge John Doherty was the city's first jury trial in at least a half-decade.

While a jury trial in Forks is rare, Doherty said, a jury trial on a malicious mischief charge is even rarer.

“I've never seen a jury trial for a malicious mischief charge,” he said.

“Usually you throw out 90 days [in jail], and people don't want to put that up to a jury.”

Markwell said he didn't intend to kick the BMW sport utility vehicle owned by Maggie McDowell of Seattle in the icy dawn of Dec. 12, 2013.

McDowell was one of the protesters who stood vigil outside Markwell's sanctuary, a pink warehouse owned by Markwell's mother at 1021 Russell Road, last fall, saying the more than 100 dogs in the shelter were mistreated.

The kick knocked out a reflector light, causing $53.46 worth of damage.

“We're not denying whether something was broken,” Markwell's public defender, Doug Kresl, said to the jury.

“But accidents are not illegal. Accidents are just that.”

Fleck argued that Markwell intentionally kicked the car to get McDowell to talk to him.

Fleck said McDowell had climbed into the driver's side of the car to avoid Markwell, saying he was shouting profanities at her.

“It might have been minor; the car was damaged by the defendant,” Fleck said in his closing argument.

“The defendant, as he testified, had lost it at that point.”

Markwell founded Olympic Animal Sanctuary as a home for “dogs you'd rather see dead” in 2006, gaining national prominence for his efforts in such national media outlets as People magazine and the Los Angeles Times.

Many of the shelter's dogs, he said, had been condemned to death by courts around the country, and he took them in as an alternative to euthanasia.

By last year, protesters had rallied against the shelter, fueled by a Facebook campaign that posted photographs said to have been taken by volunteers and the Forks Police Department.

They stood vigil outside the shelter in November and December until Markwell drove off with the shelter's 124 dogs packed into crates he had built in the back of a semi owned by the sanctuary in the middle of the night Dec. 21.

After three days on the road, Markwell turned the dogs over to New York-based animal rescue organization Guardians of Rescue at a makeshift shelter in the Arizona desert on Christmas Eve.

The last 18 of those dogs were recently adopted by a California rescue agency, the Peninsula Daily News reported Tuesday.

Markwell returned to Forks in February.

McDowell testified she had arrived to protest outside the warehouse at about 5:30 a.m. on the day Markwell kicked her car.

Shortly after 7 a.m., after McDowell had been answering emails and “taking notes,” she left her car to go to a house around the corner when she saw Markwell's pickup truck arrive at the sanctuary.

“I believe she said, 'Good morning,'” Markwell testified about seeing McDowell that morning. “She was smiling.”

But after weeks of protests outside the sanctuary, which included McDowell yelling through a bullhorn, Markwell said he was upset, sleepless, stressed and wanted the protesters to go away.

McDowell testified that he yelled profanities at her, asking why she was there and what she was doing.

With Markwell standing beside the passenger door of her car, McDowell ran for her driver's door and got inside the car, she said.

“I was scared out of my mind. I couldn't remember how to lock my car, and I was just dialing 9-1-1,” she said.

“When I sat down in my car, he kicked the front of my car.”

Markwell testified the kick was not malicious.

“I wouldn't say I kicked at the car, but I kicked, and my foot hit the car,” he testified.

“I think I could have done quite a bit of damage to the vehicle if I wanted to,” the 6-foot-2, 250-pound Markwell said.

Markwell was charged Tuesday by the state attorney general on charges he failed to register the shelter as a charity and did not provide an accounting of how he had spent the more than $300,000 in donations he collected without registration.

Before Wednesday's jury was selected, Doherty warned both attorneys to avoid the attorney general's suit.

“Last night, I'm sitting at home watching channel 5. Up pops Mr. Markwell's AG investigation,” Doherty said.

“That has nothing to do with this case. It's a damaged property case.”

Markwell also faces a civil suit for breach of contract and misuse of a restricted donation filed by Sherrie Maddox of Port Angeles, one of the sanctuary's largest donors, saying he improperly used a $50,000 donation she made in July 2012.

A summary judgment hearing was set last Friday, but no one appeared, according to court records.

Markwell said Tuesday the two sides were negotiating a settlement.

The Forks City Council is now working through the first draft of a new chapter for its animal control ordinance that would limit the number and type of pets a resident can own without special licenses.

Forks Police Administrator Rick Bart has said Markwell has several dogs and is possibly keeping snakes but that he has not told police how many he has.

When asked Wednesday how many he has, Markwell said “a handful” but would not specify how many that is.

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Sequim-Dungeness Valley Editor Joe Smillie can be reached at 360-681-2390, ext. 5052, or at jsmillie@peninsuladailynews.com.

Last modified: July 30. 2014 8:43PM
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