On the night of Jan. 6, as temperatures fell to -2 degrees in Norristown and wind chill brought it down another 20 degrees, a pit bull named Champ froze to death and died just feet away from warmth and shelter. Now his former owner of two years, Cecelia Ann Johnson, 64, is charged with aggravated cruelty to animals, a felony, for allegedly leaving him in an outside on a freezing night and causing his death from hypothermia.
“This dog Champ suffered as he froze to death just because his owner did not take him inside on one of the coldest nights of the winter," Montco DA Kevin Steele said in a statement released on Wednesday. "She left him outside without food, without water and without adequate shelter. Treating an animal so inhumanely is a serious crime, and we are going to seek justice for Champ’s death.”
The Norristown Police Department received an anonymous tip of a dead dog in the yard of a home on the 1200 block of Swede Street and arrived just before noon on Jan. 6, the morning after a Code Blue had been declared in Montgomery County. Officers discovered Champ's body on the ground wedged between his doghouse and the neighboring fence, frozen solid and visibly dead, according to the affidavit of probable cause.
The findings of a necropsy (animal autopsy) on Champ released last week showed that Champ's death was caused by "hypothermia due to prolonged exposure to low ambient temperatures" due to neglect. The dog was also found to be underfed and dehydrated, with water unavailable because of "freezing environmental temperatures," the autopsy found.
Johnson had been the subject of four previous animal cruelty complaints to Norristown police for wellbeing checks on the dog being left outside. After officers located Johnson, she told them "she occasionally takes the dog inside and owns a crate for him. She said she last fed the dog two days ago and last had the dog inside over two days ago, which coincides with the lack of visible dog tracks in the snow outside," according to the affidavit.
Members of a Facebook group, Justice For Champ, claimed that concerned locals had offered Johnson supplies to care for her dog.
"I helped her with everything she needed. There was no reason for him to die," said Terry Carfagno, a Collegeville resident and animal rights activist.
Carfagno said she met Johnson in early 2017 and started buying her animal food and other supplies after seeing pictures of Champ suffering from exposure in early 2017 on Facebook. One dog-lover even bought Johnson an insulated doghouse, she said, and they said they informed the SPCA about the situation. But Champ continued to be kept outside into the winter of 2017-18, when he eventually died.
"That dog loved her," Carfagno said. "That's what breaks my heart more than anything in the entire world. When I was in that house, that dog was like a protector of her. That's what makes me sick to my stomach."
Johnson was released on bail of $10,000 and her preliminary hearing is scheduled for April 19. She could not immediately be reached for comment.