While six hoboes in the Columbia County Detention Center await their day in court, their four-legged traveling companions are awaiting a reunion.
The six vagabonds were arrested March 16 by CSX Railroad police when caught aboard a freight train in Grovetown. Though they have little prospect of paying their $1,100 bonds and being released before their court date next month, the four dogs accompanying them won’t be adopted or euthanized in the meantime, said Columbia County Animal Services Manager Linda Glasscock.
William Robert Jackson, 26, of Graham, Wash.; Dennis James Kist, 24, of Okeana, Ohio; Jayson Arthur Willard, 23, of Williamston, Mich.; Megan Rose Tuck, 23, of Fort Worth, Texas; Jo Ann Heilberg, 23, of Florida; and Heather Bermudez, 22, of New Hampshire, were charged with hiding on a train for the purpose of stealing a ride, a misdemeanor. All are listed as homeless.
The four dogs are Sheila, a golden retriever mix belonging to Tuck; Ami, a pit bull belonging to Jackson; Raleigh, a German shepherd mix owned by Willard; and DP, a basset hound mix owned by Heilberg, said Glasscock.
“I’m keeping them safe and secure and sound until they get out,” she said.
Columbia County holds misdemeanor court arraignment once per month, with the next court date set for April 23, said Madonna Little, an assistant district attorney.
During the arraignment, defendants can plead not guilty and be given a later court date, or plead guilty and be sentenced. By then the six would have been in jail for 38 days, but there’s little way of knowing whether any of them would be sentenced to time served and released, Little said.
Typical misdemeanor sentences “run the gamut,” she said. “Obviously it depends on their history, what they’ve done, if there were any damages, that sort of thing.”
Misdemeanor charges in Georgia carry a maximum penalty of $1,000 fine, one year in jail, or both.
Jackson has an extensive criminal record, including convictions in Washington state for domestic violence, malicious mischief and obstruction of an officer; a domestic assault conviction in Missouri; and criminal trespass convictions in Texas and Indiana, according to Columbia County Sheriff’s Office Maj. Rick Whitaker.
Kist has been convicted of felony and misdemeanor drug possession and misdemeanor theft in Ohio, and criminal mischief and graffiti in Texas, Whitaker said, while Willard and Tuck each have a past conviction for public drunkenness.
Bermudez and Heilberg have no prior criminal offenses, Whitaker said.
The six had gotten on a stopped train in Atlanta with the intention of riding to Savannah for St. Patrick’s Day, but were discovered when the train stopped in Grovetown, according to a police report.
Romantic notions aside, riding trains illegally isn’t a crime the railroad takes lightly, said Gary Sease, a spokesman for CSX Railroad.
“It’s certainly illegal, but more than that it can be deadly,” Sease said.
In 2012, 442 pedestrians – which includes those attempting to ride trains – were killed on railroad property, he said. Georgia ranked ninth in pedestrian deaths with 14.
“We’re very much focused on preventing it,” Sease said of train-hopping, “and when it happens, we’re very much focused on prosecuting.”
CSX police made 1,387 arrests for trespassing in 2012, Sease said. That number includes those caught illegally riding trains.
Keeping the pets at the shelter until their owners are released is far longer than animals generally are held, but Glasscock said she took special interest in them when she saw the pets’ conditions.
“If these animals had not been as well taken care of as they are, and not have been vaccinated, microchipped, had come in here in horrible condition, I would not be doing what I’m doing today,” she said. “These animals are better taken care of than some that we have in this county.”
Under normal circumstances, animals brought into the shelter are kept a minimum of five days before being evaluated for adoption or, if deemed unadoptable, euthanized. That won’t happen with these four dogs, Glasscock said.
“These people, that’s their only partner in life is that animal,” she said. “I don’t want to take that from them. That’s what one of the guys told me; that’s all he has to talk to, maybe for days on end, him and that dog.”
Glasscock visited the owners at the jail to discuss the pets, and during the conversation got to know more about the subculture of young travelers. The six weren’t traveling together until they all boarded the same train in Atlanta.
“They have this big network of people, apparently,” she said. “It’s amazing – I’m learning a lot. They’re just wayward children who want to go do their own thing. They’re all over the United States; they have this network with each other. They all have cell phones.”
One thing they don’t appear to have is money, either for bond or for the cost of their pets’ care at the shelter.
The county charges a $30 fee for pets picked up as strays, plus $10 per night for their care until the owners pick them up. That represents the county’s expense, Glasscock said.
But the four dogs are considered confiscated rather than stray, so she said she isn’t sure how the costs are accounted for.
Family members of two of the owners have called to offer to help pay for the animal’s care, she said, and citizens have called the facility offering to make donations for the pets.
“I’m not going to put them down,” she said.