Judge Rich Melnick looked out into the courtroom. In several rows sat owners of injured cats. They had filed to the front and described the injuries inflicted on their pets, named Groucho, Amber and Scrapper.
One was shot in the eye; another one in the leg; another, the face.
In other rows sat the defendants’ family and friends, who gave another account: defendants Jaren Koistinen, 17, Mitchell Kangas, 16, and Riley Munger, 17, were never violent; they were model students, hard workers and had never had run-ins with the law, they said.
What compelled them to shoot at about 100 cats between March and June is still not clear, Melnick conceded.
But on Tuesday afternoon, the judge said he came to this conclusion: “I think they’re youth.”
He sentenced the most culpable, Koistinen and Kangas, to 1 year and 11 weeks to 1 year and 32 weeks in a juvenile institution, despite the fact the prosecution requested an exceptional sentence of just over two years. Munger, who participated in one night’s shooting, received a month in juvenile hall.
Koistinen and Kangas, who were students at Battle Ground High School, pleaded guilty Sept. 14 to 12 counts of first-degree animal cruelty and drive-by shooting. Munger, formerly a student at La Center High School, pleaded guilty to two counts of first-degree animal cruelty.
Tuesday’s sentencing ended a high-profile case that sparked dozens of phone calls and letters to the Clark County Prosecutor’s Office and to the judge.
“It’s impacted the community in ways I’ve never seen,” said Melnick, who, before becoming a judge, was a veteran deputy prosecutor.
Melnick, telling the courtroom that he has two rescued dogs at home, said he, at first, had considered giving the defendants the high range. But he took into account the teens’ impeccable records and the fact that psychologists determined they were a low risk to the community.
A psychologist told Melnick in a pre-sentence report that the teens don’t exhibit signs of antisocial behavior, nor have they ever been violent. Their actions show a lack of judgment, impulse control and empathy toward others — something that’s increasingly prevalent in juvenile men, said psychologist Kirk Johnson.
Melnick said the community would benefit more from the teens being rehabilitated by community service work and undergoing counseling than being incarcerated for a longer period.
The judge also ordered Koistinen and Kangas to be under community supervision until their 21st birthdays. In juvenile matters, probation officials determine the final outcome.
“To close this portion, I hope the healing starts,” the judge said.
The punishment would have been far greater had the teens been sentenced in adult court — Koistinen and Kangas would have faced about 10 years in prison. Senior Deputy Prosecutor Kasey Vu said he and Prosecutor Tony Golik had engaged in several meetings with defense attorneys Steve Thayer, Tom Phelan and Mike Foister. Vu said he wanted the teens to be held accountable, but he also wanted them to be rehabilitated.
They appeared remorseful at the sentencing hearing. Each one of them turned around to address pet owners, contrite as they apologized.
“I’m so sorry for what I’ve done,” Kangas said, before breaking down and weeping. “If we would have stopped and thought about it once, it wouldn’t have been repeated.”
The teens were arrested June 5 after a Battle Ground resident called police to report her cat had been shot. She saw the shooters and described their SUV. When the defendants’ SUV was stopped minutes later, two .22-caliber rifles and several hundred rounds of ammunition were found inside, prosecutors said.
Questioned by officers, Koistinen and Kangas admitted to shooting at 100 cats and two dogs, possibly injuring or killing about 50. Not all the animals were accounted for, Vu said.
Shelly Boyd of Battle Ground told the judge that her 17-year-old cat, Groucho, was shot in the eye. She found him at 1:30 in the morning one day last spring near her garage.
“My cat was laying at the front of the door with blood everywhere,” she said. “We didn’t think he was going to make it at all.”
“And he is better, thank God,” she added.
Like other victims who spoke at the hearing, Boyd asked for tough penalties, describing the crimes as horrendous.
But at hearing’s end, she made a surprising request to the judge.
Approaching the teens in tears, she said: “I just wanted to give you a hug and say, ‘I forgive you.’ ” She hugged each of them as they sheepishly returned the embrace, hanging their heads.
Then, the defendants embraced their parents, let custody officers handcuff them and were escorted from the courtroom.