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NewCityNet Cat Killer

Feline blue in Janesville

By Sam Weller

AUGUST 17, 1998: 

Sam Weller chases the tale of the nation's most-punished animal abuser

In January of 1989, Barry Herbeck was convicted of first-degree sexual assault for performing oral sex on his 6-year-old stepdaughter.

There was no media frenzy or community uproar when the then-28-year-old Herbeck showed up for sentencing at the Rock County Courthouse in Janesville, Wisconsin, about an hour northwest of Chicago. No townspeople assembled outside to show their support for the little girl; no outraged citizens voiced their anger at the child predator. Quietly, Herbeck pleaded guilty and accepted his sentence of six months in the county jail and five years of probation. He was also ordered to undergo sex-offender treatment. Case closed, or so it seemed to the sleepy border town of 58,000 residents.

Nearly a decade later, on July 6, 1998, the scene outside the same courthouse is not nearly so peaceful. More than 200 angry people have jammed the halls and spilled outside the building, which sits atop a slope that ends in the churning murk of Wisconsin's Rock River. Barry Herbeck turns 37 today, but the mob is not here with cake and ice cream. They have arrived to watch Herbeck stand before a Circuit Court Judge once again - but this time on a very different set of charges.

"Your actions have offended the community, and offended the sensibilities of the community - as evidenced by the number of people here today," intones 50-year-old Judge Richard Werner from the bench. Herbeck, all of five-six and 140 pounds, looks on, stone-faced. "You have pushed this community and society beyond the limits of tolerance," Werner continues. "I have looked at the letters that have come in and particularly the letters from this community. This community has a threshold of acceptable behavior and your behavior passes way beyond that." With that, the judge sentences Barry Herbeck to twelve years in a Wisconsin penitentiary.

His crimes: five counts of mistreating animals leading to their deaths and one count of being a felon in possession of a weapon. In other words, Herbeck has just received the stiffest sentence in U.S. history for animal abuse.

That evening, across the Rock River, all but a few lights have been turned off at the Rock County Humane Society building and the ten employees have gone home. Calls are forwarded to a nearby answering service. Down the hall from the newly remodeled lobby, seventy-five dogs and 125 cats room in stainless-steel cages. A nearby freezer chest holds a large blue plastic container once used for recyclables. Today, it holds five cats killed by Barry Herbeck.

As sickening as it is to see these tiny, mutilated corpses, the sight isn't quite as disconcerting as the thought of a little girl being molested by her step-father. But who knows? When 200 people show up to call for the head of a cat killer, but no one bothers to express their outrage at the same man's child sexual abuse trial, it seems possible that American society has begun to care more about the lives of animals than their fellow human beings.

"We're not saying that animals are more important than humans," insists Cheryl Silha, kennel manager of the Humane Society. "All perpetrators of violent crimes, whether against children, adults or animals, should be punished to the fullest extent of the law."

Silha faced the gruesome task of inspecting Herbeck's five feline victims. The animals suffered a variety of extreme injuries: broken legs, smashed skulls, cracked necks, broken backs. One cat had been mutilated. Seminal fluid was found on the hind quarters of another. The rectum of the small black feline was severally torn. Barry Herbeck, by his own admission to police, had anal sex with the cat. He was also charged with killing an eight-month-old female German Shepherd puppy named Nikko.

Nikko was found in a container (the same one the cat corpses are now stored in) on Herbeck's second-story back porch. The dog had two layers of duct tape wrapped tightly around its snout. One side of its body was drenched in blood. According to a police statement given by his 8-year-old daughter, Alexa - whom he had custody of from a failed marriage - Herbeck became angry after the dog had urinated on the carpet. Enraged, he had taped the animal and left it in the container to die. Alexa says she was ordered by her father to leave the container alone as the whimpers of the little animal emanated from inside. Charges related to the death of the dog were dismissed, however. To this day, finger-pointing persists between the Rock County Humane Society, the police and assistant District Attorney Scott Dirks. The corpse of the animal was in such a rotted state of decay that the Humane Society destroyed it, which meant the charge had to be dropped.

"We were advised by the Janesville Police Department that we didn't need to keep the body," says Chris Konetski, executive director of the Humane Society. "The dog was getting... getting... liquid," she says with a shudder. "We had pictures, however. We also had a full-blown confession from Mr. Herbeck. That's why we believed we weren't required to keep the remains. That's why we disposed of it."

Dirks, a five-year public prosecutor, contends the Humane Society simply bungled the German Shepherd situation. "Under Wisconsin law," he says, "a defendant is entitled to inspect anything that is entered as evidence. The dog was destroyed and, subsequently, we couldn't use it as part of our case against Mr. Herbeck."

The animal-abuse case against Barry Herbeck was set into motion on April 9, 1997. Spring was popping in Janesville, Wisconsin. Buds appeared on trees. Robins hunted for worms on lawns still crusted with silver frost. The days were lasting just a little bit longer, the temperature was just a little bit warmer. Teri Smith, Herbeck's girlfriend at the time, was waiting for him at his apartment around lunchtime. Herbeck had phoned to say he would be home shortly. In the meantime, Smith began cleaning the kitchen.

She attempted to run some water through down the sink's garbage disposal, but something major was clogging the drain, according to the police report. Shoving her hand down the hole, Smith palmed a wet, fleshy substance and began pulling it out. When she saw she had withdrawn what appeared to be animal innards, she began to vomit. Not surprisingly, Smith is still not talking two years after the incident.

But even before her gruesome discovery, she was aware that something was amiss with her boyfriend, her police statement indicates. She once moved in with Herbeck, but soon left the tan two-flat on a shady street across from Janesville's 4th ward park. Today, decals of smiling Halloween pumpkins are stuck on one of the front windows. Smith moved out "due to some physical confrontations that took place between herself and Herbeck," according to the statement. Smith also explained that she had once been told by Herbeck's daughter Alexa that he had thrown a cat against a wall. Smith then checked on the cat and found its back broken. She confronted her boyfriend about the incident and he proceeded to bring the now-dead animal outdoors. But it wasn't until Smith found the entrails in the disposal that she realized Herbeck's violence toward animals was serial. She called the cops.

Scott Wasemiller, a twelve-year veteran of the Janesville police force, was the arresting officer the day Herbeck was charged with six counts of animal abuse and possession of a firearm by a felon. Wasemiller, a parent of two and the owner of a dog and a cat, struggled to keep his emotions in check. "It was very difficult," he says. "Keeping emotions aside is the most difficult part of law enforcement. You try to do the best you can professionally and just keep investigating until all of the elements of the crime have been gathered." Those elements included discovery of the dog in the recycling bin, a dead cat in the bathtub, another in a brown paper sack in the freezer and three in plastic trash bags behind the residence. Confronted with the evidence, Herbeck came clean. "He was hesitant to some extent, but he answered my questions," Wasemiller recalls. "He appeared to be remorseful." Why had Herbeck killed the animals? the officer asked. To relieve stress, Herbeck explained. He said he had been beaten as a child by his alcoholic father, and carried around a lot of pent-up anger as a result. He told Wasemiller that his father used to come into his bedroom and just start hitting him. He added that his mother had died when he was young and he had always been angry that she had left him. Somehow, killing the animals made him feel better. Herbeck explained that he gathered the pets via "free to good home" ads in the local paper. (As a result, the Humane Society and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals have begun asking pet owners to bring their animals to shelters if they must part with them.)

"He was this well-dressed man that would show up, sometimes with his daughter and one of her friends," explains the Humane Society's Silha. "He completely manipulated his child to enable his own perversion. The people giving the pets away thought they were really placing their animal with a caring individual. He would even tell a story about replacing their cancer-stricken family pet that they had to sadly put to sleep."

"We see animal abuse cases often," adds shelter director Konetski. "Cases of neglect like, 'I didn't know I needed to take it to the vet' or 'I forget to feed it.' But the Herbeck case is something totally different. Most cases are based in ignorance. This case was based in perversion."

But the Herbeck case is not unique. Daphna Nachminovitch, a cruelty caseworker for PETA, says Herbeck-style animal abuse has been going on for a long time. Even as Herbeck sits in Janesville County Jail awaiting transfer to a state facility, four young men in Kansas City, Kansas, are set to stand trial for allegedly videotaping the torture of a Yorkshire terrier. Police say the men hanged the six-pound animal and lit it on fire. "Animal abuse is just starting to become more acknowledged," Nachminovitch says from her office in Norfolk, Virginia. "People are becoming more responsible and reporting it." Part of this acknowledgment and early recognition is, undoubtedly, due to the high profile of animal-rights groups like PETA. Unfortunately, as with most activist organizations, PETA has a difficult time drawing the line on how far it should go to prove their point. In this case, the group posted photos of Herbeck's feline victims at www.execpc.com/~anlob/index.html.

Both PETA and the U.S. Humane Society defend posting the photos online as a way to alert the world to the existence of sick individuals such as Herbeck. Both organizations also adamantly insist that cruelty to animals is a precursor to sadistic behavior against human beings. In fact, the USHS recently launched a "First Strike" campaign aimed at educating people about the threat posed by animal abusers and their proclivity to victimize humans.

Serial killers and animal cruelty do appear to be linked, at least according to FBI supervisory special agent Alan Brantley. When asked how many serial killers had histories of abusing animals, he replies, "the real question is, How many have not?" In FBI interviews, 46 percent of convicted murderers admitted that they killed and tortured animals as adolescents. "We believe that figure to be much higher," Brantley says.

"Dahmer and Speck started off with animals," adds Konetski. "And Barry Herbeck showed that his behavior had been escalating. The cat that was mutilated and the cat that was sodomized were later. He was showing all the classic signs."

Herbeck is estimated to have killed as many as twenty cats. "It could well even go into the hundreds," offers Silha. "After he was arrested, people from all over southern Wisconsin started coming forward to say that he had shown up in response to ads in the local newspapers." But he's never been convicted of - or even charged with or held under suspicion of - killing a human being. Have we reached the point in the United States where courts are willing to practice a type of predictive sentencing?

In his confession, Herbeck described how he would dispose of his animal victims behind the carpet and rug store where he worked as a contract installer. At Carpet One on Janesville's Milwaukee Avenue, salespeople scamper behind long rolls of shag to avoid discussing the case. While the citizens of Janesville are all too familiar with the grisly tale, few people want to talk about it. "You'll get sick reading this," a Janesville police officer says, handing over the thick report filed after Herbeck's arrest.

But no matter how sickening the crime, Herbeck attorney Tod Daniel - described by Konetski as "the town's hot-shot defense lawyer" - is still troubled by the lack of public outcry in cases where the victims are people. "It's disappointing when the public is not as concerned about cases that involve human beings," he told reporters after the trial.

Even prosecutor Dirks is surprised at the lack of community anger when cases do not involve pets. "I wish this sort of attention was paid to assaultive behavior on human beings," he says. "I've handled sexual assaults, homicides, domestic violence cases... and I could count on one hand the number of calls or letters that I've gotten on any other case that I've handled." Dirks' comments to the press have animal-rights activists up in arms. Even worse, when the prosecutor agreed to strike a plea agreement calling for a four-year sentence in exchange for Herbeck's guilty plea, the activists went ballistic. So did many other Janesville residents. "The community was not happy with Mr. Dirks," insists Konetski. "And they certainly weren't happy with Mr. Daniel, who simply suggested probation as enough punishment for Barry Herbeck."

Judge Werner, however, was swayed by the impassioned pleas of outraged residents. In his two years on the bench, the former Janesville defense attorney has developed something of a "Maximum Bob" reputation. He refuses to comment for this story, saying his sentence speaks for itself. In the past, a high school football star busted for first-offense marijuana possession earned six months in county jail from Werner. The judge sentenced the defendant in one domestic violence case to forty years. In keeping with that hard-line stance, Werner set aside Herbeck's plea agreement and gave the cat-killer twelve years behind bars. He will be eligible for parole after eight.

"It was my job to get a conviction," says Dirks in defense of the plea bargain. "It was my job to put Barry Herbeck in prison, and I did that."

When word spread of the stiff penalty handed down by Werner, animal-rights activists gathered at the courthouse erupted in applause and celebratory cheers. "We hope sentences like this will become a trend," says Jenny Brown, Midwest spokesperson for the U.S. Humane Society. But Dirks isn't so certain the Herbeck case will lead to harsher sentencing of animal abusers nationwide. "It's hard to say if it will set a precedent," the prosecutor says. "This is a very unusual case."

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