An Oceanside man accused of abusing the dogs of two neighboring families, maiming one pet and presumably killing another, pleaded not guilty Friday to a bizarre series of attacks that a prosecutor called "a war of terror."
After hearing the details of the abuse — including scalding two dogs with acid, burning their flesh — Vista Superior Court Judge Cynthia Freeland ordered bail for 36-year-old David Herbert to remain at $1 million. Herbert, who has citizenship in the U.S. and Jamaica, had hoped to lower it to $300,000.
"I do have concern for public safety," Freeland said. "The allegations are very egregious."
In laying out the facts of the case in court Friday, Deputy Dist. Atty. Paul Myers told Freeland that Herbert "has essentially waged a war of terror on two families."
Herbert faces six felony charges of animal cruelty, as well as a charge of residential burglary. Authorities say that on one occasion he entered a home and gouged out the eye of one of two pet huskies there. He is also charged with misdemeanor vandalism; a neighbor's tires were repeatedly slashed.
If convicted, Herbert — who served six years in the U.S. Navy and received an honorable discharge — faces 16 years in prison.
Deputy Public Defender William Mathews told the judge that Herbert has no criminal record and "has never been a violent person or aggressive in any manner."
Mathews mentioned Herbert's "mental health" and told the judge Herbert could turn over medical and other records "that would go to what happened in this particular incident." The defense attorney also said Herbert was receiving treatment from Veterans Affairs but he did not elaborate.
Herbert owns the home next to the house where the attacks occurred.
The attacks began in February, starting with someone feeding two pet huskies a substance that made them lethargic. The couple renting the home also started getting their tires slashed.
One of the dogs later went missing only to be found 10 miles away on Camp Pendleton base. Another time, they discovered that someone had poured acid on the two dogs while in the backyard.
Then on April 28, someone slipped into their home through an unlocked side door. The intruder gouged out the eye of one of the huskies and poured acid on the other.
The renters quickly moved out.
The next tenants, a family of six, also had dogs.On May 30, two days after they moved in, Lala, their 9-year-old golden retriever mix, disappeared. A concerned neighbor found their other dog, a 5-year-old toy poodle named Prince, wandering in the cul-de-sac.
Thirteen-year-old Natalie Lopez was crushed. It was three days before school got out for summer, and she had planned to spend every day with Lala, the therapy dog she adored. Her mom, Michelle Plaketta, called police to report the missing dog.
Oceanside police Lt. Val Saadat said she credits Sgt. John McKean and Det. Gabriel Nolasco with solving the case "because they stayed on top of it."
One key clue: surveillance video that showed Herbert driving off with the dog that was later found on the Marine base. Investigators soon had enough to get a search warrant for Herbert's car and home, where they found a bloody baseball bat.
It took a quite a bit of legwork, but McKean found what they needed at UC Davis, which is home to the only accredited forensic lab in the country dedicated to animal DNA profiling.
The lab found Lala's DNA on the bat. Authorities presume she is dead. Still, Plaketta said her family holds out hope.
"One of the great things I pray for is to know where he took her," Plaketta said Wednesday, hours after Herbert's arrest.
Plaketta and her family moved out a few weeks after Lala disappeared. They knew authorities suspected Herbert, a man who she'd never encountered. She said they lived with white knuckles during those weeks.
If she went upstairs, everybody had to go upstairs too. And she started taking Prince to work with her.
Plaketta said she is relieved an arrest has been made.
"I wish he could be charged as if what he had done to those dogs was as if it had been a person," she said Wednesday.
Plaketta attended Herbert's arraignment Friday and sobbed as she listened to details of the cruelty case.
Asked after the court hearing what the motive might have been, prosecutor Myers said that it is appears that Herbert did not like renters, especially those with dogs.