Jim Kenyon: NH, Vt. police still working to collar the dog accused in chicken-killing

Valley News Columnist
Published: 12/5/2021 6:54:40 AM
Modified: 12/5/2021 6:55:11 AM

Ruby is still on the lam.

In a case ripe for a true crime podcast, a dog named Ruby (a country song in the making) is accused in a quadruple-chicken homicide outside a Norwich home.

So far, no eyewitnesses have materialized in the case. Video evidence is also lacking. A home security system, however, picked up audio of the attack. On the recording, there’s the sound of wailing chickens and a dog barking. A female voice is then heard calling “Ruby.”

It’s not a lot to go on, but that hasn’t stopped Norwich police from launching a cross-state investigation.

Eric Picconi, a Spanish teacher and cross country coach at Hanover High School, came home on the afternoon of Nov. 15 to find three dead hens and another with mortal wounds in the run of his family’s backyard chicken coop. (A fifth hen survived, but her clucking hasn’t been much help to police.)

Three days after the attack — enough time for Ruby’s owner to have apologized and offered restitution — Picconi still hadn’t heard from anyone. So he wrote about his chickens’ demise on the Norwich Listserv. After his first-ever post to the email list, he received about 15 messages from people offering support. But not a peep from Ruby’s owner.

“I suspect the publicity is making them more reluctant to come forward,” Picconi told me Thursday.

I have no idea how this whodunit will end. I’m just relieved the Upper Valley is talking about something other than Target coming to West Lebanon.

“They’ve probably renamed the dog by now,” a Norwich resident quipped when I mentioned the dead chickens.

Upper Valley Facebook and Norwich Listserv devotees have been posting with fervor. Some have shared their own canine-poultry encounters that ended badly. Others insist the blame lies not with Ruby but the irresponsible owner. Then there are the social media commenters who theorize the real villain was a wild predator. (A fox, an owl or maybe even Ricky, the raccoon?) In that scenario, after just happening upon the grisly scene, Ruby is taking the fall.

I’ve watched enough Hannibal Lecter movies to know gruesome cases often can only be cracked with expert help.

With that in mind, I called Paula Bergeron, owner of Good Dogma, a canine rehabilitation and training center in Grafton. She works with dogs that have a history of biting and other anti-social behaviors.

Don’t assume Ruby is a cold-blooded killer, Bergeron warned. “It wouldn’t need to be a vicious dog,” she said. “There are dogs that are perfectly fine around chickens, but if a chicken is startled and starts flapping its wings. That’s a big trigger for many dogs.”

“Many of our beloved dogs” are capable of going into overdrive, Bergeron added.

Along with posting on the town Listserv, Picconi contacted Norwich police. Since the town doesn’t have an animal control officer, it made sense for police to get involved. I just wish their response hadn’t been so over-the-top.

When a review of Norwich dog license records failed to turn up any likely suspects, the cops widened their dragnet.

Picconi’s house on Turnpike Road abuts the town’s recreation fields at Huntley Meadow. It’s a popular spot for people to bring their dogs to scamper off-leash. Since dog owners from around the Upper Valley are known to frequent Huntley Meadow, I guess police figured that Rudy could have been an interloper.

Norwich police asked Hartford, Hanover and Lebanon police to turn over the names and addresses of all dog owners who had licensed a Ruby, or similar sounding name.

CSI: Norwich then went into full gear. A Lebanon woman told Valley News staff writer John Lippman that a Norwich officer visited her home on a Sunday, wanting to know the last time she was in Norwich.

It’s an old police trick. An armed officer shows up at a house unannounced, hoping to catch the resident off guard so they’ll spill the Kibble. It’s even better if the resident opens the door enough for cops to peer inside the house. They might catch a glimpse of incriminating evidence that can later persuade a judge to grant a search warrant. In this case, a dog burping up feathers or a KFC bucket by a dog bowl?

The “knock and talk,” as it’s known in police lingo, didn’t go anywhere this time. The Lebanon woman — and her standard poodle Ruby — had an airtight alibi.

Why are police putting this amount of time and effort into the case?

Particularly when Norwich’s animal control ordinance treats infractions involving unleashed dogs as a civil matter. Along with paying a fine of $50 to $100 to the town, the owner of a dog gone wild could be required to pay “fair compensation” to the owner of the domestic or farm animals that were attacked.

On Friday afternoon, I talked with interim Police Chief Simon Keeling who assured me that his three-officer department wasn’t about to give up on tracking down the culprit’s owner.

“I don’t see this as a trivial matter,” he said. “Someone’s property was destroyed.”

The dog’s owner needs to come clean, and make amends to Picconi and his family, Keeling said.

I agree.

But in what could only qualify as breaking news in a small town, the chief also told me that he hadn’t ruled out turning the case into a criminal matter.

How’s that possible?

Since it appears Ruby’s owner went onto Picconi’s property to fetch her dog, she (the owner, not Ruby) could be arrested for trespassing.

“I would prefer we don’t have to go down the criminal route, but that’s potentially where we’re headed,” Keeling said.

It seems a bit extreme.

Then again, the weekslong drama the deaths of four chickens has produced is a reminder that even with a Target, the Upper Valley remains one big small town.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.

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