By MIKE DONOGHUE
For The Essex Reporter
The son of an Essex farmer linked by police to nearly two dozen dead cows this spring will not face public prosecution for cruelty to animals.
Officials said the case of Jonathan Matthews, 34, of Essex is being sent to the Court Diversion Program, a secret program that allows people to avoid criminal convictions often by doing volunteer work, offering apologies and possible other steps proposed by a community panel.
Matthews was due for arraignment in Vermont Superior Court in Burlington on Tuesday morning, but his name was off the schedule when the courthouse opened for the day.
Essex police said on May 29 that after conferring with the Chittenden County State’s Attorney’s Office, they were directed to order Matthews into criminal court for arraignment.
Police said they worked on the month-long investigation with various state officials and Chief Deputy State’s Attorney Sally Adams, who focuses on animal abuse cases for the office.
Adams, one of two prosecutors in the courtroom Tuesday morning, told The Essex Reporter the Matthews case was being sent to court diversion. When asked about the charging records, she said the file was confidential.
The court clerk’s office said it did not have any paperwork filed in the Matthews case. While court diversion paperwork was considered public record for many years to allow proper public monitoring, the legislature changed it to make the process and records confidential.
“Diversion was the appropriate offer,” Chittenden County State’s Attorney Sarah George later said in an email to The Reporter. She said charges were filed but then sent to diversion when Matthews accepted the offer.
“The defendant is 34 years old and has no criminal record. He was extremely cooperative with the investigation both during and after the initial complaint,” George wrote. “After extensive review of the case, the state did not find that defendant’s actions were malicious or intentional.”
George said she was not sure if Matthews has a defense lawyer.
Essex Police Chief Rick Garey said Matthews took control of his father’s farm at 278 Chapin Rd. after Earle Matthews, 75, was severely injured in his barn in January.
A neighbor said the senior Matthews was seriously burned and hospitalized. The state said the site, also listed as the Matthews Brothers Farm, ceased milk production on its own volition effective January 3, the Vermont Ag Agency told The Reporter. The agency says the co-ops notify the state when a farm shuts down.
Chief Garey said the investigation showed an apparent lack of proper food and water over time.
“Matthews reported that a combination of financial issues, long severe winter and problems with farm equipment made it so he could not properly take care of the cows after his father’s injuries,” Garey said in a news release.
“Jonathan reported that he quickly became overwhelmed, that he could not take care of the cows and they started dying. Interviews with the Matthews’ large animal veterinarian revealed that the cows were all alive, thin, but generally in good health during the last visit during February 2018,” the chief wrote.
Officials have said the scene was one of the most horrific in recent memory.
Authorities found 21 dead cows inside the barn on April 27 after an unidentified person reported the situation to the Essex animal control officer, police said.
Police found 13 other live cows in the barn but in very bad condition, the chief said. Authorities later determined two of them had to be put down due to malnourishment.
“The barn of this property is apparently filled so full with manure that responders had to excavate a path through which the live animals could be led out and rehomed,” Dr. Kristin Haas, a state veterinarian for the Vermont Agriculture agency wrote. “So, it is a mess, to say the least.”
There also was a possible concern about water quality issues there, according to records released by the state in response to a Vermont Public Records request.
“The barn literally has a stream underneath it and the pit is likely full if the barn is full,” Laura DiPietro, director of water quality within the ag agency, said in an email.
The site is about 250 acres and covers both sides of the road. It is about three-quarters of a mile from the Essex-Westford line.
The day after the police raid, Earle Matthews agreed to relinquish ownership of the 11 remaining live cows in the barn. Essex Police Cpl. Christina Ashley, who is specially trained in animal cases, eventually found a Westford farmer to take the 10 heifers and one calf for care and rehabilitation.
Investigators later learned another 13 cows were grazing on other land maintained by Earle Matthews. Those cows were considered thin but not in life-threatening danger, police said. They also were surrendered to the Westford farmer, police said.