Dog debate rages at council meeting

By Nicole Daughhetee
Staff Reporter

EASLEY — A local family’s fight to bring home its dog continued during a packed Easley city council meeting Monday night.

Approximately 50 people showed up at the meeting to address council and urge council member Dave Watson to return the lost Chihuahua he found in May to the Blanton family, Easley residents that say they searched for the dog for months before discovering Watson and his wife had adopted her.

Following the traditional order of the invocation and Pledge of Allegiance at Monday’s meeting, Easley mayor Larry Bagwell addressed the room filled with concerned citizens.

“I have received lots and lots of e-mails and I have received phone calls wondering why the city of Easley has not stepped up and done something about this situation that’s been facing us for the last two or three weeks,” he said. “We have tried to do something. We have gone through the municipal association, we’ve gone through the Ethics committee in Columbia, and they have told us, as a city, we could not do anything.”

Pickens County and the city of Easley have gotten a lot of attention in the news of late, and it has not all been positive. The arrests of three SDPC employees on sexual misconduct and drug distribution charges, not to mention the termination of a Pickens police officer, has put Pickens County in a rather bright spotlight.

“Mr. Watson is elected, just like all of us sitting around this table, so I want to make that perfectly clear. Our name gets linked in with these things that sometimes we have no control over,” Bagwell said. “This is a situation that we want to bury in a sense that it’s not been a good week for Easley or Pickens County. We know that.”

While Bagwell might not want bad publicity, there was an abundance of criticism directed at Watson from the crowd in attendance. One Blanton supporter brought her dog, dressed in a neon green sign board that read “I Love Lucy.” Another woman in the crowd wore a badge that read “Bring Lucy Home. Dave Watson is not DSS for Doggies.”

Fellow Easley city council members Brian Garrison, Libby Dodson, Chris Mann, Kim Valentin, and Thomas Wright, who in his absence asked the mayor to read a statement on his behalf, urged Watson to return Lucy to the Blanton family.

“It’s been an embarrassment to this city,” said Garrison. “My opinion is that the dog needs to be given back.”

“I’ve had e-mails and phone calls. I had one e-mail from Finland. Someone in Finland is asking about this. California. New England,” said Mann. “I was embarrassed that there was a dog at our last meeting walking around on the table. I’ve been asked what I would do. I would give the dog back.”

“This has gone on way too long. It’s been embarrassing to the community,” said Valentin. “I think you should have been the better person and given the dog back. Had it been my kids, I would have probably come to your house and just taken it.”

Bagwell also addressed Watson and the full audience, saying he believes the Easley community knows how he feels about this matter.
“I’m a dog lover. My dog of 15 years passed away in July,” said Bagwell. “Dave knows exactly how I feel. It would be hard for me, knowing that the dog didn’t belong to me, and these children know it’s their dog, to not give it back. Those are my feelings.”

Watson, during his first opportunity to address fellow council members and the community, discussed the successes of responsible pet ownership day at Hagood Park — an event he sponsored and promoted by bringing Gracie (Lucy) to last month’s city council meeting. The photos of the dog at the meeting were how the Blanton family found Lucy.

“It was an extreme success and amazing how many people showed up who didn’t even know we had a dog park. Hopefully this is something we will be able to do annually,” said Watson. “In reference to Gracie, quite frankly it’s not the city’s business, and I have no intention of discussing her here at the city council meeting. It is a personal matter between myself and the Blantons.”

Allison Underwood, a 14-year resident of Easley and Blanton family supporter, compared the Watsons’ refusal to return Lucy to kidnapping a child. As an elected official, she said, his behavior should be above reproach, and he should demonstrate neighborly love and generosity.

“Since the Watsons have willingly admitted that the dog in their possession belongs to the Blantons, why has their property not been returned to them?,” asked Underwood. “Why did the police not return their property? The job of the police is to serve and to protect. That means protecting people who have had their property taken away from them.”

Cathy Weisner, another Easley resident, thanked council members for publicly acknowledging their feelings that Watson should return Lucy to the Blantons.

“I’ve watched you smile and I’ve watched you smirk like you are above everything,” Weisner said to Blanton. “You’re above morals. You’re above ethics.”

Another Easley resident, Tracey West, who addressed Watson specifically, said “You sit here and you smirk. The negative publicity has not been brought by us. It has been brought by you. Every bit of it. These people are ashamed to say that they are from Easley because of you.”

Many of the speakers who addressed the council expressed concern for the negativity surrounding Easley as a result of Watson’s refusal to return the dog. Others questioned the legality and morality of Watson’s actions.

Lifetime Easley resident Lisa Hinton asked Bagwell and city council why Watson has not been arrested for theft, since he has publicly admitted to knowing the dog belongs to the Blanton family.

“Mr. Watson’s request for $400 and up to $533 for the return of Lucy supersedes reasonable care for her and should result in a charge of extortion. Why has this charge not been made?” Hinton questioned. “It seems that the police in the city of Easley do not want to deal with this because Mr. Watson is a member of city council.”

In light of the negative publicity brought upon the city of Easley, Hinton said she believes Watson should be relieved of his council position.
Mary Ann Routh, a 17-year resident of Easley, said that the matter at hand is actually quite simple and boils down to making a choice about right and wrong.

“Mr. Watson, you’ve made some choices. When you found the dog, you made a choice to do the right thing — to help the dog and give it food and shelter. You’ve demonstrated that you have the ability to discern right from wrong and make that decision,” said Routh. “All we’re asking now is that you do that again. Make that same right decision and give that dog back to the rightful family. And failing that, sir, I hope people in this area would make choices with their consumer dollars, where they spend their money and how they vote. “

Duane Aaron Butler, the youth pastor for the Blantons’ youngest children, Meri and Will, at Lakeview Baptist Church in Pickens, attempted to appeal to Watson’s compassion by asking him to consider the feelings of the children caught in the middle of the issue.

“Thank you, Mr. Watson for taking care of Lucy and showing that you care and have compassion. Please understand that the only thing these children understand at all about this is that Lucy has been found, and the man who found her won’t give her back,” said Butler. “I ask that you would consider that and do that. Please understand from the children’s point of view. When I watch them cry, it does get personal. Please do the honorable thing and give the dog back.”

Kerri Blanton, with husband Keith at her side, sat, crying, as Butler held up a photograph of her youngest daughter’s face huddled next to Lucy.

At the meetings close, Watson, who did not want to appear on news cameras, said that his only concern was about Gracie, because he and his wife received information that the dog may have been mistreated while in the Blanton’s care.

“Like the man prayed earlier, I am speaking for the animal that can’t defend itself. I’m concerned about the safety of the dog,” said Watson. “I pray I’m wrong.”

There remains no winner in the fight for the dog. The Blantons and the Watsons are scheduled to have their cases heard before a Pickens County magistrate on October 23.