2017-02-16 / Front Page

Ex-councilwoman defends taking dog from Newport panhandler

Szepatowski’s lawyer says city official asked her to rescue animal

News that former Jamestown Councilwoman Barbara Szepatowski took a dog from a Newport panhandler has made national headlines in USA Today, but her lawyer is saying a government official tipped her off about the vulnerable animal.

According to attorney Guy Settipane,

Szepatowski and Sandra Whipple had shared custody of Meatball, a 3-year-old Staffordshire terrier, since 2014.

“Barbara is very giving,” said Settipane, referencing Szepatowski’s longtime animal activism and civic duty on volunteer boards in town. “She picked up the dog regularly. She took it to the vet.”

In October, with pressure from the Newport police, who told Whipple that having the dog at the median of Admiral Kalbfus Road is dangerous, Szepatowski took custody of Meatball. Whipple, Settipane said, had again become homeless and couldn’t take care of the dog. It was a mutual agreement, according to Settipane.

Roughly three months later, Whipple told Szepatowski she had secured living arrangements. Szepatowski agreed to return Meatball on the conditions it shouldn’t be on the median or outside in the cold.

On Feb. 4, a Newport city official called Szepatowski and told her about two distressed seagulls in the city. Szepatowski drove from her home to Newport, gathered the birds and took them to the wildlife refuge in North Kingstown. During that trip, however, Szepatowski received a second call from the city about Meatball being leashed at the median in freezing temperatures.

Numerous news agencies, Settipane said, incorrectly reported Szepatowski discovered the dog while driving past by the area.

“That’s not true,” he said. “She wasn’t even in the city at that time.”

When Szepatowski arrived on the scene, Settipane said, Whipple was nowhere to be found. The dog was with another panhandler who voluntarily gave Meatball to Szepatowski. She then drove to the Newport police station to tell officers she had Meatball.

The following day, however, Szepatowski received a phone call from Merrie Scott, a Newport police officer, demanding the dog be returned, Settipane said. Szepatowski refused and was arrested. She pleaded not guilty Feb. 7 to a misdemeanor charge of stealing a domestic animal.

Settipane said the next court date is March 1, which is when he will reveal the city official who solicited Szepatowski to rescue Meatball.

“This is just a bad situation all around,” he said. “The whole thing is unfortunate. This is not a put-down to those who are struggling without a home. It’s not Barbara versus the homeless. It’s just about making sure the dog was safe.”

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