The Harrison County Justice Court judge who dismissed charges of animals cruelty against a Saucier couple earlier this month said he could not comment on the reasoning behind the ruling, citing judicial ethics.
On April 1, Judge Brandon Ladner’s one-page order dropped all charges of animal cruelty against Sharon and Daniel Bertok and ordered 25 animals that were seized last year to be placed back under their authority.
“There’s a lot I’d like to say, but I can’t. I would be violating my judicial ethics,” Ladner said in an interview with the Enterprise on Thursday, April 8. “I am an animal lover, I can tell you that. But I cannot give my opinion.”
After the Bertoks were originally charged in March 2020, 108 of their animals were seized by law enforcement and placed in the care of three animal welfare groups.
Wild Acres, a McHenry-based animal sanctuary, took care of multiple birds including Bobo, a double yellow-headed amazon parrot, and Yoshi, a blue and gold macaw.
Not all the of the 108 animals originally seized will be returned, but the two exotic birds are among those released to the Bertoks' authority in the court order.
When the welfare groups were made aware, they were shocked.
Wild Acres owner Cody Breland said he could not believe the final decision and voiced his concern on social media.
Many people online were outraged that any animals were given back to the Bertoks, worried the animals would be returned to less-than-humane environments.
The concern was amplified when photos of the Bertok home were shown to the public. Many of the photos depicted messy and unclean cages with household items cluttered around where the animals lived. Many animals in the photos were physically unkempt. Welfare advocates later testified how sick and malnourished many of the animals were at the time.
Several animals had to be euthanized after they were seized, according to the welfare groups.
Ladner said just because he cannot give an official opinion does not mean he does not have powerful feelings about the case or does not understand why people are so upset.
“I could talk about this case for hours the way everyone has been in an uproar, but I just can’t,” Ladner said.
Ladner said the ultimate ruling results from hearing both sides of the story in court and the letter of the law.
“There are a lot of people upset by the decision, but the people who are upset did not sit through the whole case,” Ladner said.
Some critics of the decision have pointed out that if the Bertoks took all 25 animals back in their possession, they may violate a Harrison County ordinance that limits the number of pets that can be housed under one roof.
But Ladner explained he could not rule based on a land code ordinance because there was no charge of code violation presented before him in Harrison County Justice Court.
“The zoning did not have any bearing on this case,” Ladner said.
Ladner said if the Bertoks do not comply with the county’s ordinance they could be fined or charged in a separate case.
Ladner also said that his court order puts the Bertoks back in “authority” of 25 animals, but does not explicitly say the Bertoks must take physical ownership of the animals.
“The order does not say possession,” Ladner said. “The owners have the authority to decide the placement of the animals. The defense did bring up the issue that not all 25 animals will be going back to that home.”
Ladner said the order gives the Bertoks the ultimate decision to decide where the animals will go.
He said the Bertoks’ defense attorney, Michael Crosby, presented some evidence in court that several of the animals ultimately released actually belonged to other people in the Bertok family.
Crosby also told Ladner the animals are not going back the home they were originally seized from, according to the judge.
“As far as where the animals are going, I really don’t know,” Ladner said.
The Bertoks' defense attorney was not available for comment at the time of publication.