The Exterminator and a Dog: Murder, Law, or Absurdity?

Times Staff Writer

It's been more than a year since Pooh the poodle died, but for the last week, the death of the Bel-Air dog has been the subject of a fervent criminal courtroom drama in downtown Los Angeles.

To the defendant, the case is an absurdity. To the prosecutor, it's an important point of law. To Pooh's mistress, the misdemeanor is like a murder.

The Los Angeles city attorney's office, charging that the poodle was poisoned by pesticide, is seeking criminal sanctions against Dewey Pest Control Co., one of the largest exterminating firms in the state.

At his lawyer's table, garbed in his company uniform, sits co-defendant Wendell Davis, who, in the course of an extermination job, placed rat bait blocks designed for sewers in the lush flora next to a canyon-area house in March, 1984.

Both Davis and his employer, Dewey, one of the largest exterminating firms in the state, are accused of two misdemeanor charges stemming from the subsequent death of the dog, an apricot-colored toy poodle owned by next-door neighbor Teri Redack.

If convicted of unlawfully employing the poison contrary to label directions and of endangering "non-target" animals, Davis and his employer could each be fined $2,000. Davis, an 11-year Dewey employee, could also be sentenced to one year in jail.

At the heart of the tale is the state-registered labeling on the bait blocks, which reads: "Suggested use: For control in sanitary and combination sanitary and storm sewers. . . ." The labels also say, "Caution: Protect bait from children, pets and domestic animals."

Deputy City Atty. Keith Pritsker said he could not recall another trial involving the improper use of rodent poison in a residential neighborhood. If Dewey officials had admitted their mistake and agreed not to use rat poison again in the same manner, he added, a trial would probably not have been necessary.

"Consider: We do jury trials for things like less than an ounce of marijuana and many other examples that, in the scheme of things, are of less consequence than the misuse of pesticide," Pritsker said. "I've heard figures that it costs $3,000 a day to run a courtroom . . . but this money is well spent."

Redack agreed that a guilty verdict may "prevent something like this ever happening again because when people are dealing with poisons, they have to deal in a responsible manner."

The defense counters that the prosecution case is hogwash.

'Waste of . . . Money'

"It's an absolute absurdity, a waste of taxpayers' money," said Dewey executive Ronald Pelham, during a lunch break this week.

Defense attorney Richard Moore, charging that the prosecution's bark is louder than its bite, predicted, "Dewey will be completely vindicated . . . (because) there was no violation of any law."

The case is expected to go to the jury in Municipal Judge Mel Red Recana's court early next week.

Pooh, 9, died three days after Redack rushed her to a veterinarian because of labored breathing. Although no autopsy was performed, blood tests showed that the poodle's illness was consistent with that of poisoning caused by rodenticides.

State and county health and agriculture officials were called into action when Redack, as her dog lay ill, learned that the pest control firm had placed new rat bait blocks next door just a day or two previously.

During the investigation, Dewey employees confirmed that they had used the bait blocks and insisted that their use was lawful.

'Suggested Use'

The prosecution is charging that Dewey broke the law by using the bait in an area that is not sewer but is instead 18 inches from the ground in a honeysuckle bush, according to Pritsker.

The defense counters that the bait blocks can be employed outdoors because their labels say "suggested use."

Besides, Moore said, "there is no way for anyone to say with medical certainty the dog died from (the poison)." What is more, the defense contends, Pooh should not have been in a position to ingest the poison because there is a leash law in Los Angeles.

Dewey did not seek to settle the costly case out-of-court, Moore said, because "to walk away is ill-advised because it could injure the reputation of the company."

Redack is convinced that it is a clear-cut case of canine-icide and is bothered that the firm has shown no remorse.

"Pooh was like our child; we have no children," said Redack, sobbing as she spoke of her poodle.

"It's not only an animal. When you love something it just doesn't make any difference, and we loved her very dearly and something very dear was taken from us very needlessly and pointlessly."

No New Pet

The loss has been so overwhelming, Redack said, that she and her husband, Jay, who produced the TV game show "Hollywood Squares," have been unable to bring themselves to purchase a new pet.

At this point in the trial, witnesses have included Redack, county agriculture officials and a training expert from a rival pest control firm who testified that he would not place sewer rat bait blocks in a residential area.

Pritsker has also called a neighbor, retired FBI Special Agent Elmer F. Linberg, who told the jury that he has seen deer, fox, rabbits, coyotes, raccoons and other creatures--all of which could die if they ate rat poison--in the verdant canyons of Bel-Air.

After his brief courtroom appearance, Linberg, who once headed the Los Angeles bureau's criminal division, asserted his belief in alternative extermination techniques.

"I have a cat that does the job," he said. "He's a 16-pounder named Lucifer. . . . He's better than bait blocks. . . . He brings them in on the lawn and eats them."

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