Student faces misdemeanor charges after dog kidnapping

by Parker Richards | 6/23/16 6:53pm

It was a hectic few weeks for Fred. He was removed from an overcrowded shelter in Texas by commercial jet to New York, then flown privately to rural Vermont — and all that was before he was abducted from his kennel at the Rutland County Humane Society last week.

A light russet terrier mix with a prominent white stripe across his face, Fred went missing from the RCHS in Pittsford, Vt. around 12:30 p.m. on Thursday, June 16 at the hands of a group of three people that included Melanie Vangel ’18. Vangel has been charged with a misdemeanor count of petit larceny and said she is set to appear in court on June 25.

Fred was returned to the shelter by Vermont State Police in the evening of the same day following Vangel’s arrest after a six-hour sojourn with Vangel and others attending the Rainbow Family of Living Light, an egalitarian and pro-peace group, in the nearby Green Mountain National Forest.

“I liberated Fred,” Vangel said. “He was happy as could be; don’t let the press deceive you, because he was stoked to be liberated.”

According to RCHS executive director Gretchen Goodman, three young adults in eccentric clothing entered the shelter in the early afternoon and inquired about adoption processes at the facility before asking to use the restroom. While one member of the group went to the bathroom, the other two absconded with Fred, whose kennel was nearby.

At the time, most RCHS adoption center staff were busy and did not initially notice the missing dog until they were alerted by a different department’s staffer. Once Fred was confirmed missing, RCHS immediately contacted local and state police and announced Fred’s disappearance on social media. A Facebook post made at 1:15 p.m. read in part “AN ADOPTABLE DOG, FRED, HAS BEEN STOLEN” was shared 1,495 times and garnered hundreds of likes and comments, most expressing outrage and sympathy with the shelter.

The incident was also heavily reported by Vermont and New Hampshire news outlets, including local television, newspapers and radio.

Vangel said she decided to take Fred after RCHS staff were unresponsive to her inquiries. When she attempted to “scope out doggies” with her friend and a hitchhiker named Ray she had picked up en route to the shelter, most of the organization’s staff were occupied or on the phone, she said.

“They were just ignoring me still, so I was like ‘alright, I’ll just have to take matters in my own hands,’” she said. “They made it inconvenient to adopt a dog.”

Vangel planned to take Fred with her back to the Rainbow Family’s gathering in the forest, which she described as “camping, hippies, tie-dye, et cetera.”

The Rainbow Family is a loose collection of individuals committed to environmental stewardship, egalitarianism and non-violence. It lacks an official website or central organization. Many leaders in the group are referred to by pseudonyms when they blog or post about gatherings in online message boards. The most prominent website associated with the group, the Rainbow Family of Living Light Unofficial Homepage, appeared to have been left un-updated for a period of at least several years and featured no contact information for leaders of the group or the site’s creators.

The news that Fred’s alleged abductors were going to a Rainbow Gathering was welcome for Goodman.

“From the moment the police officer said that he believed these people were heading toward the Rainbow Gathering, I felt less worried,” she said. “There are bad people who would steal a dog for bad reasons and I didn’t feel that was the case here.”

For her part, Vangel said she simply wanted a dog and believed she could provide a “better home to him than 99 percent of people, including probably the people who have him now.” She was critical of the fees required at RCHS and the structure of the adoption process, which she found to be overly cumbersome.

“I really wanted a dog and I knew that I would take wonderful care of a dog,” Vangel said. “Fred was beautiful, he was just so chill.”

She believes she was ignored in part because of her appearance. While Goodman said Vangel and her associates were dressed “kind of like hippie[s],” she identified herself as “an old hippie” as well.

Vangel said Fred’s conditions at RCHS were like jail, and, when he was removed from her by the police, she was saddened that he “had to go back to jail.”

Goodman said RCHS takes excellent care of the animals it houses, noting that each dog is walked three times per day and usually spends a large portion of each day interacting with other dogs in large, open play spaces. While dogs like Fred are kept in kennels, that is not inconsistent with most animal shelters.

Fred was brought to RCHS several weeks ago from an overcrowded Texas shelter, Goodman said. The practice of bringing animals from southern shelters northward is common in the humane society community. Since most northeastern animal shelters are no-kill and tend to be less crowded, it is commonplace for them to rescue animals from the south that might otherwise be put down.

According to Goodman, “Fred actually was in process of being adopted at that time and we had to inform the potential adopters that he had been taken.” Following his return, he was successfully adopted, which Goodman said she had predicted,

“He was a dog that we knew would go home very quickly. He had not been here very long,” Goodman said.

However, Vangel disputed Goodman’s account of Fred’s adoption status.

“They had no plans for Fred. That’s not a true fact,” she said. “Fred was just sitting in jail.”

The charge against Vangel — petit larceny — is defined under Vermont Statute chapter 57 as the theft of property not in excess of $900 in value. An individual convicted of the crime can be ordered to prison for no more than one year or be fined not in excess of $1,000, or both. The statute was most recently amended in 2009.

Vangel was the only person charged in the incident. Vermont State Police — who Vangel described as “actually really nice guys” — arrested her when they took Fred away from her and her companions while they were walking along a roadside.

Vangel defended her actions in taking the dog.

“I was the one that was doing the right thing, just in an alternative way,” she said.

The charges against Vangel are for a misdemeanor. She said she is not resentful or angry at either the police or RCHS staff, and that if the police choose to adhere to their laws, she will accept the misdemeanor. She expressed regret over the situation’s unfavorable outcome.

“I understand the circumstances, but I think it is unfortunate because I would have given him the most perfect home that a dog would have,” she said.

RCHS will reevaluate its security measures following the abduction of Fred, Goodman said. Although there have been only two thefts of animals during Goodman’s 12 years at the shelter, the incident with Fred — which she characterized as “bizarre” — could prompt the shelter to place security cameras on its premises.

“We are reviewing how we let people in but it’s also important that the public be allowed to see our animals,” Goodman said. “We don’t want to get in the position of hiding anything or not letting people go visit the animals.”

Vangel said she will “probably go back eventually” to Dartmouth but has no immediate plans to return to campus.

“I love Dartmouth and it’s an amazing place, but there’s a lot more to the world and I think the rest of the world is a lot more open-minded,” she said.

College spokesperson Diana Lawrence directed inquiries about Vangel’s disciplinary status at the College to Dartmouth’s standards of conduct, which state in part that students found guilty of a legal infraction in any local, state or federal jurisdiction will be subject to disciplinary action at the College.

Vangel was previously a member of the women’s varsity soccer team. Athletic communications director Rick Bender wrote in an email that Vangel had “parted ways with the team” following the conclusion of its most recent season and will therefore not be subject to any athletic department disciplinary actions.

Vermont State Police public information officer Scott Waterman did not respond to repeated requests for comment by press time.