It wasn’t the island’s most gruesome crime: Similar massacres have occurred in the past.
But for a few weeks on Martha’s Vineyard this summer, as rumors swirled and accusations flew, it seemed the whole island was obsessed by the question: Who killed Mal Jones’ chickens?
Partly it was the horrific nature of the crime -- body parts and feathers strewn all over a bloodied coop.
Partly it was the accused. Sabrina, a beautiful 2 1/2-year-old malamute-collie mix, has a silvery tan coat and deep brown eyes that radiate friendliness, not murderous intent.
But mainly the crime grabbed attention because for the first time, in these parts anyway, DNA was used by the prosecution to implicate a dog.
Hair from the coop matched that of Sabrina.
But was that enough to convict her of the alleged murder of seven chickens -- a crime punishable by death for dogs in these parts?
Sabrina lives on Red Pony Farm, a pretty 13 1/2-acre horse farm in rural West Tisbury, far from the beach resorts thronged with tourists. She spends her days trotting through barns, foraging for food and napping under a table in the tack room.
“Sabrina likes eating and sleeping, not killing,” said owner Karin Magid, who was on a trip to Europe when the slaughter occurred. “She might have munched on a dead chicken. But I’m sure she didn’t kill one.”
Magid points out that Sabrina, who is epileptic and has cataracts in one eye, has no criminal record. “She’s never been in trouble in her life.”
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the rest of her clan.
Her uncle Tigger, who died a few weeks ago, and her mother, Lola, terrorized island goats and deer. Her grandmother, Nanou, was a hell raiser too.
But the worst offender was her sister, Betty Blue, who was euthanized last year after killing eight sheep and four lambs at Whiting’s Farm.
Sabrina has long been considered the family wimp. Even an animal psychic who often communicates with Magid’s horses said Sabrina doesn’t have the bloodlust to kill.
“Sabrina is taking the rap for all the bad things other members of her family have done,” said Magid, who suspects that what really happened was another dog came around and asked Sabrina to go for a run.
“She’s young and doesn’t have much sense,” Magid said. “She was led astray.”
Malcolm Jones is 70, with long silver hair, leathery skin and a purple bandanna tied around his head. He lives about two miles from Red Pony Farm, on a sprawling 180 acres that are littered with his inventions and collections -- James Cagney’s former hunting cabin, a shipwreck from Nova Scotia, a 16-foot-long steel submarine Jones built in 1965, an underground solar bunker built in the 1970s.
On the island, he is known as a wealthy eccentric who lives in a solar-paneled house in the woods, where he hosts conferences about everything from global warming to population control.
He describes himself as “an experimenter” and leaves it at that.
Jones’ eyes narrowed as he recounted the day of the crime.
It was March 20, the day the U.S. invaded Iraq. Jones had just rolled home after an early morning antiwar demonstration. First thing he noticed was the deathly quiet. When the roosters aren’t crowing, he knows something is wrong.
He headed straight for the coop.
“It was a massacre,” he said.
In the middle of the carnage lay the red and orange remains of Henrietta, a Rhode Island Red hen that Jones’ 20-year-old daughter, Carina Koury-Jones, had nursed back to health after finding her frozen in the snow just a week before.
Jones felt awful. How was he going to break the news to Carina?
Jones has been known to shoot trespassing dogs in the past -- something he is legally entitled to do.
But Jones always felt a bit guilty about it. After all, the dogs weren’t at fault. They were just doing what some are bred to do -- herd and kill.
This time, Jones thought, he would go after the owner. He would demand $50 for every dead chicken.
First, though, he had to identify the killer.
And then he spotted it, a thick clump of dog hair stuck in the wire of the coop.
“DNA!” he thought. “That’s my proof.”
When Mal Jones asked Animal Control Officer Joanie Jenkinson to help him get DNA from dogs, she thought, “Yikes! I’ve never done that before.”
Jones called the hair and fiber department of the FBI, which offered to do the testing for $1,300 a hair. He got a better deal from a California lab, which charged $100 a hair.
Jenkinson’s job was to pluck samples from Sabrina.
Jenkinson is 58 with wavy blond hair, manicured nails and a crinkly smile that lights up her face, charming animals and people alike. She grew up on the island, married her high school sweetheart, a lobsterman, and can pretty much name every horse and dog in town.
Mostly, her job involves returning strays to their owners or mediating barking complaints. But every year, Jenkinson gets half a dozen cases involving dogs killing or maiming livestock. It’s a serious offense in this town of 2,700, where farmers are tormented by suburban dogs allowed to roam free.
Jenkinson’s recommendations, which must be approved by the three-member Board of Selectmen, range from a fine for the owner to death for the dog.
“It’s a horrible thing to have to put a dog down,” she said. “But you also have to consider the poor chickens. That is a terrible death.”
Once Jenkinson started thinking about DNA, she got kind of excited. She’s a fan of Court TV. She was intrigued by the idea of using state-of-the-art forensics to solve an old-fashioned barnyard crime.
Jenkinson suspected Sabrina from the start -- given the dog’s breed and genes.
So on March 22, Jenkinson drove to Red Pony Farm, dug her fingers into Sabrina’s coat, and yanked out some hair.
In the interest of fairness, samples were also taken from Tigger and Tucker, a golden retriever from Edgartown who was visiting the farm the day of the attack.
Sabrina was a willing donor, wagging her tail, nuzzling her inquisitor.
How was she to know that Jenkinson was the same officer who had committed her sister to death a year before?
The DNA results came back in early June. Things did not look good for Sabrina.
“If this were a courtroom,” stated the report, “the prosecutor’s explanation is that the evidence (Chicken-house hair) and the reference sample (Sabrina) match because they came from the same source, in this case, the same dog.”
Still, DNA proved only so much.
“Hair in the chicken coop doesn’t mean the dog killed the chickens, just that it was at the scene of the crime,” Selectman Jeffrey “Skipper” Manter said at a July 9 public hearing on the issue, a week before the board delivered its verdict.
It was a week of frenzied anticipation. Newspaper and television reporters flew in from Boston and New York. Dog lovers and chicken lovers swamped Magid and Jones with calls of support. Jenkinson even received threats.
“If you euthanize the dog, we’ll euthanize you,” said one particularly nasty message left on her machine.
Magid offered to settle the matter by paying for the chickens -- viewing it as a form of compensation for the trouble that Sabrina’s family had caused in the past. But she refused to pay the $400 DNA bill, saying circumstantial evidence did not make Sabrina a killer.
Selectmen meetings are held in an old gray clapboard building and are generally relaxed and friendly: The secretary passes around raspberry and lemon tarts before they begin.
But even the tarts couldn’t mask the tension July 16.
Inside, Jones and his daughter sat grimly on a bench. Outside, Sabrina dozed in her owner’s van, awaiting her fate.
Aggressive animal complaints are among the most difficult issues to come before the board, whose members own dogs and chickens themselves.
“The dog cannot defend itself, and owners never want to believe their pets are vicious,” said John Early, chairman of the Board of Selectmen. “So it really boils down to us making a life-or-death decision.”
In Sabrina’s case, they voted 2-1 for life -- at least for now.
An audible sigh of relief seemed to sweep through the room.
The board simply approved Jenkinson’s recommendation that Magid pay a $200 bond to be returned after a year if Sabrina doesn’t get into trouble again. Magid also wrote Jones a check for $375 -- covering half the DNA testing and $25 per chicken.
And Sabrina was given a stern warning: Any more chicken attacks and she would meet the same fate as Betty Blue. She was also slapped with a lifetime restraining order.
Meaning, of course, she must be leashed at all times.