Veterinarian’s career in hands of state board; Decision in case against Dr. Leandro Gutierrez Jr. expected within 60 days
The professional career and livelihood of Roswell veterinarian Dr. Leandro Gutierrez Jr. will remain uncertain for up to 60 more days after a three-day disciplinary hearing this week before the New Mexico Board of Veterinary Medicine.
Gutierrez, who testified in his own defense for about 5 hours Thursday, was cross-examined for about 15 minutes Friday morning. His attorney, Mackenzie Hunt, and Assistant Attorney General Ari Biernoff then presented their closing arguments for about an hour in a Chaves County magistrate courtroom before the veterinary board went into executive session at about 11 a.m. Friday.
“They just advised they were going into executive session where they would discuss the matter and the written opinion would be provided within 60 days,” Hunt said. “And that after the executive session, they would go back into a regular meeting to adjourn.
“They have 60 days to issue a written ruling.”
The veterinary board is weighing the testimony given in the three-day disciplinary proceeding and the credibility of 44 complaints lodged [auth] against Gutierrez by animal rescue group members in a two-week period in the summer of 2014. The ramifications of the complaints could result in the revocation or suspension of Gutierrez’s veterinary license, or no disciplinary action at all.
Gutierrez is the former contract veterinarian for the Roswell animal shelter. Also the owner of Casa Querencia Animal Health & Consulting Center in Roswell, Gutierrez provided contract services at the city animal shelter for almost 10 years, until he ended his contract with the city of Roswell in July 2015.
Hunt said Friday that Gutierrez was pleased to have finally had the chance to defend himself against the complaints, more than two years after they were leveled.
“It’s a relief to be able to finally be able to address the board,” Hunt said. “I feel that Dr. Gutierrez has been vindicated. I think the truth has been presented and the people really know what’s going on. He was not denying pain management to the animals he saw. They did the best they could with the sheer number of animals they have to deal with.”
Biernoff could not be reached for comment after Friday’s proceedings.
Hunt said the anticipation of a decision has been difficult.
“This has been a tough, tough deal for him,” Hunt said. “I would say there’s some vindication that he was able to finally present the whole picture. But yes, there’s that anticipation. The unknown is there.
“We’ll see what they do. Nobody’s confident. It’s scary. It’s stressful. You hope, you pray. You’ve done your best.”
Gutierrez could not be reached for comment Friday. Hunt said Gutierrez was unwinding Friday afternoon after the intense disciplinary hearing.
Gutierrez testified for almost 5 hours Thursday, defending himself against each of the 44 complaints. He said he never denied pain medication and never let an animal suffer.
“We make animals’ lives better,” Gutierrez testified. “That’s what we as veterinarians do. That’s what pet owners do. There would be no reason to deny pain medication.”
Hunt said Gutierrez is the victim of a mean-spirited online smear campaign waged by animal rescuers, who have been outspoken critics of euthanizations at the city shelter. All of the 44 complaints lodged against Gutierrez originated from animal rescuers, with most of them coming from out-of-town residents, Hunt said.
“It’s all from Facebook,” Hunt said.
Sandy Evans, who had the task of euthanizing animals at the city shelter as its kennel manager, testified Wednesday she has been smeared online by the animal rescuers, and called names like Dr. Death, so she quit her job.
“They just said all kinds of things about me on Facebook,” Evans testified tearfully. “It was hard to do because I love animals and I figured somebody has to do it. I couldn’t deal with the rescue groups anymore and them writing about me on Facebook. I just had enough, I couldn’t take it anymore. I just got fed up. I hated losing my job because I loved the animals.”
Hunt said several of the complainants obtained their information about alleged shortcomings of the city shelter solely from social media.
“They are very mean,” Hunt said. “Not only are they mean, they’re unpredictable. You cannot predict what they’re going to blow up about.”
Hunt said one of the animal rescuers testifying as a prosecution witnesses on Wednesday perjured herself on the witness stand.
Sammye Leflar of Roswell testified that Gutierrez would not prescribe pain medication or provide proper medical care for animals at the city shelter. Leflar also testified that dogs held at the city shelter were “extremely emaciated,” although she said they looked healthy upon intake.
“I think Ms. Leflar had a lack of credibility and was dishonest, because she could not substantiate her claims and she lied on the record,” Hunt said Friday. “She made a false accusation of how she obtained the dog and she refused to acknowledge the condition of the kennel in which the dogs adopted under her name were kept, the deplorable conditions on which the dogs were kept.”
Leflar has had her own legal troubles resulting from her animal rescue efforts. Leflar was charged with three petty misdemeanor counts of dogs running/found at large and three misdemeanor counts of failure to vaccinate dogs after the June 11, 2014, pit bull attack of a 9-year-old Roswell boy. The pit bulls were rescued from the city shelter by a representative of Animal Welfare Alliance, a controversial Roswell-based animal rescue group whose representatives have been criticized by city leaders for their purported substandard containment and treatment of animals rescued from the city shelter.
The pit bulls rescued by a representative of Animal Welfare Alliance escaped a makeshift kennel in a barn and attacked the 9-year-old boy while he was performing his outdoor morning chores.
Leflar, who is associated with Animal Welfare Alliance, was found not guilty of all charges at a six-person jury trial in February 2015.
Hunt said Jo McInerney, another associate of Animal Welfare Alliance, testified accurately when she said Gutierrez was not obligated to examine each of the 6,000 animals brought into the city shelter annually.
McInerney testified she helped Gutierrez obtain his city contract in 2006. McInerney said she had a falling out with Gutierrez in the summer of 2014, around the time the City Council adopted a moratorium on animal rescues by in-state rescue groups after the 9-year-old boy was mauled.
“I think Ms. McInerney told the truth that Dr. Gutierrez and his contractual obligation was to provide euthanasia, first-aid supplies, cleaning and 24/7 on-call service, but that he does not provide vet care as every person who adopts an animal out of animal control signs off and agrees that the animal does not receive routine vet treatment,” Hunt said.
McInerney testified Wednesday that the city shelter was often unsanitary. However, on Thursday, Patty Goode testified the facility was always very clean. Goode said she stopped rescuing dogs from the city shelter because of the brewing hostility.
Goode, a Roswell school teacher, testified the animal rescuers have been badgering Gutierrez and shelter employees on Facebook in a concerted campaign of name-calling, threats and false charges.
“Not only were they going after him, they were going after some of the workers,” Goode testified. “I thought they were lies, so I stopped adopting.”
Roswell Police Chief Phil Smith also disputed claims of unsanitary conditions at the city’s 70-kennel animal shelter at 705 E. McGaffey St. Smith said he made frequent unannounced spot checks of the shelter.
“I’m impressed with the cleanliness,” Smith testified. “I’m impressed with how the animals are housed.”
Smith said some of the animal rescuers had an emotional response to city policies in the summer of 2014 that restricted the release of animals from the city’s animal shelter. He testified their complaints were third-hand, generated through social media and unfounded.
Smith said all of the 44 complaints filed against Gutierrez were submitted in a two-week period in the summer of 2014, around the time the City Council adopted a moratorium on animal rescues by in-state rescue groups after the pit bull attack on the local boy.
Smith said there were no other complaints against Gutierrez since Gutierrez started providing veterinary services for the city shelter in 2006. Smith said the allegation from Leflar and other animal rescuers that Gutierrez would not provide pain management for animals was “absolutely false.”
Another woman associated with animal rescue groups testified Wednesday that she wanted to withdraw seven complaints she filed against Gutierrez in the summer of 2014, when some animal rescuers were picketing City Hall in response to the city moratorium.
Brittani Rovedo of Roswell, a founder of the animal rescue group From Forgotten to Forever, said Gutierrez was being scapegoated for all the alleged deficiencies at the city shelter. Rovedo said she never would have filed her complaints if she had known they would have been used as part of a concerted campaign against Gutierrez that could cost him his veterinary license.
“At the time, I didn’t know we’d be going after one person with these complaints,” Rovedo testified. “I’m not after someone’s livelihood.”
Dr. Rebecca J. Washburn of Capitan, chair of the veterinary board, testified Wednesday as a prosecution witness. Washburn said she treated several animals that had been housed at the city shelter that were extremely skinny and suffered from respiratory infections.
Washburn said she initially was unaware the dogs had been housed at the city shelter in Roswell.
“I thought it was one of the shelters or animal shelters that didn’t have a veterinarian in charge,” Washburn testified.
Hunt was critical in the courtroom and after the proceedings of the attorney general’s office. He said numerous uninvestigated, unsubstantiated claims were filed with the veterinary board without vetting, at the encouragement of the attorney general’s office.
“The vet board’s investigator was never given a chance, none of the complaints were ever referred to the vet board’s contract investigator, and their facility inspector was never requested to come tour Roswell Animal Control,” Hunt said. “I think there’s definitely some questionable behavior when the attorney general’s office understands and learns that this complaint cannot be substantiated, yet they put it in writing and then submit the complaint as part of a notice of contemplated action anyway.”
Roswell veterinarian Dr. Michael Alber, a former member of the New Mexico Board of Veterinary Medicine, questioned the veterinary board’s process of handling the complaints against Gutierrez.
Alber, a veterinarian for 37 years, said the claims against Gutierrez were not investigated before being presented to the veterinary board.
“You also better look at those sending the complaints,” Alber testified. “We shouldn’t devastate a veterinarian’s reputation without saying this is real. I think to do that is an injustice.”
Senior writer Jeff Tucker may be contacted at 575-622-7710, ext. 303, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.