PRESTON — The Preston Junior High School biology teacher accused of feeding a live puppy to a snapping turtle in March was acquitted by a jury on Friday.
The teacher, Robert Crosland, was charged with one count of misdemeanor animal cruelty in June after a Franklin County Sheriff's Office investigation revealed Crosland had dropped a sick puppy into an aquarium, after which a snapping turtle then ate the animal.
“Obviously we didn't believe the facts amounted to a criminal offense when the law was applied,” said Crosland’s attorney, Shane Reichert, of Pocatello. “The reality was that there was a ton of misinformation and gossip that were not actual facts or evidence. Once the facts and evidence were received, a jury of his peers determined he was not guilty.”
Friday marked the second day of Crosland's trial at the Franklin County Courthouse and involved more than six hours of testimony from a special investigator with the Idaho Attorney General's Office, four students who witnessed most or all of the incident and two of Crosland's colleagues at the school.
While Crosland remained mostly emotionless during court proceedings Thursday, on Friday before the verdict was rendered he appeared in good spirits and was conversing with the four boys who were subpoenaed by the state to testify against him.
Prior to witness testimony, Friday’s proceedings began with opening statements from both the defense and prosecuting attorneys handling the case.
Crosland’s team of defense attorneys included Reichert and Stratton Laggis, both of Pocatello. State prosecutors from the Attorney General’s Office included David Morse and Christopher McCormick.
In his opening statement, Morse told jurors that the case was straightforward — that it was about Robert Crosland’s 25-year-old son, Mario Crosland, being given a puppy by a colleague because it was part of a large litter, prompting concerns that its mother wouldn't be able to produce enough milk to nourish it.
Morse told jurors that Mario Crosland initially took the puppy, which was anywhere between one and four weeks old, to his home to try and manually feed it.
After the puppy refused to eat, Robert Crosland brought it to school. During the early morning hours before students arrived for classes, he attempted to feed the puppy to a large, pet python that he kept in his biology classroom, Morse added.
In concluding his opening statements, Morse told jurors that Robert Crosland again attempted to feed the puppy, which was yelping because it was hungry, to a snake in his classroom around 4 p.m. after school, but he was unsuccessful. Robert Crosland then dropped the puppy into an enclosure where a snapping turtle grabbed it by the leg, dragged it to the bottom of the tank, waited for the puppy to drown and then proceeded to “rip it apart and eat it,” Morse said.
During his opening statement, Laggis reminded the jury that any statements made during opening arguments are not actual evidence and are rather the opinion or argument of the respective attorney. Laggis said that Robert Crosland did not dispute that he fed a puppy to a snapping turtle, adding that this was not a “healthy, happy-go-lucky puppy that is running around chasing its tail and chewing on your finger.”
“This puppy was sick, weak and wouldn’t eat,” Laggis said. “Overall it had no quality of life. Mr. (Robert) Crosland’s decision to feed this puppy to a turtle, he believes, was the best thing for this puppy. It was humane and the right thing to do.”
Following opening statements, Morse called six witnesses to the stand, starting with Mario Crosland.
Mario Crosland testified that he received two week-old puppies from a farmer who told him that the puppy was going to die and he figured Robert Crosland could take care of it. Mario Crosland and his sister attempted to bottle feed one of the puppies a supplement used for baby lambs, but the puppy refused to eat, Mario Crosland said.
Further, Mario Crosland testified that the puppy was in poor condition when he received it, with its eyes glossed over. Mario Crosland also testified that he was told the second puppy died of natural causes within a day of Robert Crosland feeding the first puppy to the snapping turtle.
It wasn’t until the defense team asked Mario Crosland to describe his father that he showed how large of an emotional toll this process has taken on him and his family, fighting back tears as he spoke.
“This guy will do anything he can to save an animal,” Mario Crosland said. “I’ve witnessed it my whole life. Any animal that suffers he will do what Fish and Game can’t, and he works with them and he has put his whole life to animals. To see (the state of Idaho) try to destroy him and put one animal above another is unreal to me.”
The next four state witnesses to testify were all juvenile students who were enrolled in either Preston Junior High School or Preston High School at the time of the incident.
Taeg Christensen, 14, was in seventh grade and enrolled in Robert Crosland’s life sciences class at the time of the incident.
Christensen said that he had witnessed Robert Crosland feed rats to his reptiles in the classroom in the past and was present in Robert Crosland’s room the day the puppy was fed to the turtle but that he left the classroom before the incident happened.
Christensen did not elaborate on why he left the classroom, but maintained his support for the embattled educator.
“I love his class, I love talking to (Robert) Crosland,” Christensen said. “It’s sad, but it’s true. The puppy (Robert) Crosland had was not going to survive.”
When asked by the defense if he believed Robert Crosland did anything wrong, Christensen said, “No.”
Dylan Otten, 15; Elijah Hammons, 12; and Gabe Hammons, 16, were the next students to testify. Each student said he remained in the classroom while the turtle ate the puppy. Otten and the Hammons brothers, though called as state witnesses, also offered their support of Robert Crosland, referring to the teacher by his nickname “Cros.”
“He is one of my favorite teachers,” said Otten, who was in high school at the time of the incident and was never actually a student of Robert Crosland’s. “I guess 'Cros' is one of my favorite people to talk to at the school.”
After fielding several questions from the state about the types of animals and the nature in which Robert Crosland feeds those animals to his reptiles, including several specific questions about Robert Crosland feeding rats to his reptiles, Elijah Hammons said, “This isn’t about the rat; this is about the puppy.”
The gallery erupted in applause and Magistrate Judge David A. Hooste reminded those in the audience that they could be held in contempt of court for any future outbursts.
Gabriel Hammons, who is currently a sophomore at Preston High School, testified that Robert Crosland was not only his teacher, but was also his friend. Gabriel said that Robert Crosland was helping him with his Eagle Scout project to provide medical kits to the junior high school, which is why he, his brother and Otten were in Robert Crosland’s classroom at the time of the incident.
“We talk, we text and I was his friend when I was his student,” Gabriel Hammons said. “I helped 'Cros' feed his animals every day. I would help him clean the cages and come in and make sure they had heat.”
One of the more compelling parts of Friday's proceedings occurred during the testimony of McCormick. During McCormick’s testimony, Reichert played the approximate 25-minute interview that McCormick conducted with Robert Crosland in April 2018.
At the conclusion of the interview, Robert Crosland said, “I honestly thought I was doing the right thing by putting it out of its misery. That is why this has been so hard. I was always taught to not let the animals suffer.”
Robert Crosland also admitted during that interview with McCormick to feeding a puppy to a different snapping turtle he owned that died of old age approximately 10 years ago, adding that he also fed his reptiles mice, rats and rabbits.
Both of Robert Crosland’s colleagues that testified Friday, Camille Jensen and Janel Boehme, teach science at Preston Junior High School.
Boehme said that it is because of Robert Crosland that she is no longer afraid of snakes and that in her 20-plus years of working with him, she never once took issue with the fact that he fed live animals to his reptiles.
Though testimony in Robert Crosland’s case lasted more than six hours, it took a six-person jury of Robert Crosland’s peers just 20 minutes to return the unanimous verdict of not guilty.
And while Robert Crosland said the process took an emotional toll on him and his family, he is going to continue teaching biology to his students in much the same way he has for the past 35 years.
Robert Crosland still owns reptiles, which are still housed at Preston Junior High School with no future plans of relocation. Further, Crosland will continue to feed his reptiles live food, simply because that's what the family of animals eat. Nonetheless, Robert Crosland is relieved.
McCormick emphasized during his testimony that Crosland's snapping turtle was an invasive species that he didn't have a permit to keep. The Idaho State Department of Agriculture euthanized the turtle about a week after the incident.
“I am extremely happy, greatly relieved and want to wish my sincere thanks to the community,” Robert Crosland said. “They have been so good and supportive of me, and it's what's got me through."
Reichert added, "The truth revealed itself and ultimately the correct verdict was reached, in our opinion. We are ecstatic for Robert and his family, because more than anything we do not believe he should have been subject to the scrutiny or harassment that he experienced."