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Protesters Hound Owner Of Pet Shop

1-27-2008 Florida:

PLANT CITY - The flier on the door of the new pet store on Wheeler Street seemed innocuous enough: Anyone under 18 must be accompanied by an adult.

Few people in the community realized the true nature of the prohibition, or that it was required by law.

Many still don't, despite the controversy that has swirled for three years around Pet City Center and its owner, Gary Hicks, who recently packed up his snakes, fish, lizards and rats as protesters threw a victory party outside.

The "victory," he believes, will be short-lived.

"They slandered me," Hicks said. "We're suing them."

Some of the picketers were back Saturday, armed with signs protesting the opening of Hicks' new enterprise - a grooming parlor next door to his former pet store.

"Arrested for Animal Abuse," read one sign. "Sexual Predator," read another. "He's moved," announced a third.

The battle over Hicks' pet store began in March 2005. Hicks had just opened Pet City Center, weeks after his release from Calhoun Correctional Institution, where he had served less than a year of a 12-year sentence related to crimes against children.

That same month, the body of 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford was found buried beside her neighbor's mobile home in Citrus County. John Evander Couey, a convicted child molester, was charged with raping and killing the girl.

People started plugging ZIP codes into the state's sex offender registry in record numbers, searching for the potential pedophile-next-door. Some found Hicks, and the 37-year-old pet store owner suddenly became a topic of consuming community interest.

"It's all because of what happened to the little girl," Hicks said at the time.

Predator's Pet Store

Plant City police handed out fliers and knocked on doors, alerting residents that a registered sexual predator had opened up shop in the area - a pet shop just north of historical downtown Plant City, filled with the kind of critters that tend to attract kids like ants to a picnic.

Protesters picketed and rallied outside the store, seeking to shut it down.

State Rep. Rich Glorioso, a Plant City Republican, sponsored legislation meant to close a loophole in the law that allowed someone with Hicks' background to operate such a business.

Television journalist Geraldo Rivera came to town.

Hicks alternately denied ownership of the business and asserted his right to make a living from it.

Glorioso's new law was approved by the Legislature but was not retroactive and Hicks continued to run his business. The picketing subsided. Rivera went home.

In January 2007, Circuit Judge Manuel Lopez granted Hicks' request to terminate his probation nearly three years before it was set to expire.

"We adamantly objected," Assistant State Attorney Pam Bondi said. Prosecutors argued, to no avail, that Hicks' history and the nature of his crimes made him a strong candidate for continued supervision.

It was not the first time in a decade of legal entanglements the court system had favored Hicks' arguments. It wouldn't be the last.

He first came to the attention of authorities in 1998, when an investigation led to his arrest in three sex-related cases.

According to court records, one involved a 5-year-old boy Hicks molested in 1994. Another boy was molested between the ages of 14 and 17, beginning in 1995. The third case centered on a 16-year-old girl who later would become Hicks' wife and bear two of his three children. They have since divorced.

In that case, the state declined to prosecute Hicks for unlawful sex with a minor. The girl had been living with Hicks for a year, prosecutors said, and her father supported the union.

The parents of the boys, on the other hand, wanted to see Hicks prosecuted, but didn't want their sons to be put through a trial, said Mike Sinacore, felony bureau chief for the Hillsborough County State Attorney's Office. Instead, they approved an agreement in which Hicks pleaded guilty as charged to one count of attempted capital sexual battery against the younger boy and two counts of lewd and lascivious behavior against the older one.

On Sept. 27, 1999, Hicks was sentenced to two years of community control and eight years' probation.

He continued to own and operate pet stores in Brandon.

From Probation to Prison

Five years later, Hicks was arrested for violating his probation after he opened a pet kiosk near the food court at Westfield Brandon mall. He was sentenced to 12 1/2 years on the 1999 molestation charges.

Hicks had served 11 months when the 2nd District Court of Appeal overturned the sentence, saying the mall pet store didn't represent "a willful violation" of the terms of his probation.

One member of the appellate panel, Judge Craig Villanti, noted in a separate opinion "the need for a revision of the language of the standard condition of probation for sex offenders that allowed Mr. Hicks to sell fish and turtles in a mall, just feet away from Build-a-Bear and the Disney Store."

Hicks was released from prison in February 2005 and within weeks, was operating pet stores in Brandon and Plant City.

By April, the picketers and protesters were on the scene and an embattled Hicks declared that, despite the controversy, business was trending upward.

"We've increased the dog grooming department over the previous owners," he said at the time.

It was dog grooming, however, that would lead to his next round of legal troubles.

Animal Cruelty Charges

On Sept. 20, 2007, Hillsborough County sheriff's deputies arrested Hicks on two counts of felony animal cruelty and one misdemeanor count of improper confinement of an animal.

The first count stemmed from a complaint by first-time customer Linda Penny, who brought her 2-year-old Shih Tzu, Diva, to Hicks' store on June 2 for grooming.

Penny told authorities she first noticed one of the dog's claws had been cut to the quick when it bled on the car seat after leaving the store. The dog's condition seemed to decline over the weekend, Penny said, so she took her to the vet a few days later. The veterinary report notes the dog suffered razor burns to its face and genitals.

When Hicks and his 19-year-old girlfriend, Heather Morrison, were arrested at their Dover home in September, authorities said they found an emaciated boxer that was tied up without access to food or water.

Hillsborough County Animal Services investigators seized the boxer and also took into custody a German shepherd-mix that was wandering the property, unconfined.

Hicks was charged with the additional felony and misdemeanor counts related to the boxer's condition. Morrison also was charged with cruelty and confinement without food or water in regard to the boxer.

Hicks denied all the cruelty charges. Penny, he said, probably slammed her dog's foot in the car door and was looking for a grooming refund.

The boxer, he said, was rescued by Morrison and "was already in that condition" when it was taken into her care.

"The people at Animal Services will do anything, including lie, to cause me trouble and take away my livelihood," said Hicks, who calls the agency's actions "a vendetta" against him because of his child molestation convictions.

Officials at Hillsborough County Animal Services said they would prefer to see Hicks get into another line of work - not because of his history as a sexual predator, but because they had received complaints about injuries to animals at Pet City Center for several months before his arrest on the animal cruelty charges.

One case involved another Shih Tzu named Cooper that was choked when it was brought to Hicks' store for grooming. Hicks said the dog had slipped from the grooming table while his employees were trying to restrain it and was suspended, momentarily, by a noose around its neck.

Hicks received a civil citation in that case in August. This month, County Judge Nick Nazaretian dismissed the case, saying there was no way to determine who had caused the dog's injuries.

"From our department's perspective and numerous investigations we've been involved with in his current and prior facility, we have genuine concerns about his facilities," said Sgt. Pam Perry, investigations manager for animal services.

The courts apparently have not shared those concerns.

Animal services lost the first round of the animal cruelty case when Nazaretian on Oct. 11 ruled Animal Services did not have enough evidence to establish Hicks was not properly caring for Lexie, his female German shepherd-mix.

He returned the dog to Hicks, ordering him to pay $50 in court costs, to purchase a county rabies tag and to have Lexie treated for heartworms within 10 days.

The unnamed boxer also was infested with heartworms, as well as tapeworms, and quickly gained more than 25 pounds after treatment while in the county's custody. He has since been adopted.

The state declined to prosecute Hicks because there was no way to directly link him to the boxer's condition and a key witness - Morrison's mother - recanted her statements about how long the couple had possessed the dog, prosecutors said.

The state also declined to pursue charges related to Diva because Hicks did not personally groom the dog and was not at the shop at the time. The cruelty cases against Hicks and Morrison were dropped in December.

Protesters Return

That has not deterred Penny, Diva's owner, from pursuing the matter.

She and as many as 30 others in the community revived the weekend picketing of the pet store that had fallen off in the past year.

She also has filed a claim in county court for vet bills and other damages related to Diva's injuries. Hicks countered with a lawsuit in circuit court seeking at least $15,000 in damages to his reputation.

The suit, filed by Hicks' attorney Jeanine Cohen, claims that Penny "has on several occasions made knowingly false statements concerning Mr. Hicks' character and business practices to customers and potential customers ...

"As a result, Mr. Hicks was injured in his good name, credit, and reputation."

Penny, a truck driver by trade, said she hasn't said anything that isn't based on facts, and that she has never suggested that Hicks himself groomed her dog.

"The law says he's responsible for what happens in his store," she said about her claim for damages.

Bearing a hand-lettered sign that read, "My dog butchered here," she continued to picket with a handful of protesters outside the store until Dec. 29, when community activist Judy Cornett - who launched the first protests in 2005 - called for a "victory" rally to celebrate the closing of Pet City Center.

A new pet store, Pick-A-Pet, operated by a local family, has since taken its place.

Hicks' three-year lease expired Dec. 31 and was not renewed by his landlord, Ray Delfino. According to an affidavit filed in county court, Hicks was evicted for failing to pay six weeks in past due rent.

"I think it's a victory, because there are a lot of day cares and schools in that vicinity," Cornett said. "I feel he's still a threat to our community."

It is a community that Hicks said he was born into and where he intends to stay. His future lies in Plant City, he said.

Hicks has leased, with an option to buy, an old filling station next door to the old Pet City Center location. The small building, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, has been vacant for some time and Hicks has been busy since the first of the year fixing broken windows and making other repairs.

It is the perfect setup for a drive-through pet grooming parlor, he said. The new Pet City Center will cater to the elderly, who sometimes have difficulty getting their pets in and out of cars. The grooming shop also offers pickup and delivery of cats and dogs.

"At least kids aren't coming in and out of his pet store," said Cornett, who did not participate in Saturday's picketing. "It shows he's moving in the right direction."

Hicks opened for business Friday.

"No matter what obstacles come my way, I'm going to push forward and run a business to support my family," he said. ..more.. by JAN HOLLINGSWORTH, The Tampa Tribune

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