Wednesday, November 14, 2001, 12:00 a.m. Pacific

Canine con gets reprieve after 8 years

By Sara Jean Green
Seattle Times staff reporter

Word has escaped death row, but he's not exactly free.

The 11-year-old Lhasa apso — slightly bigger than a chihuahua — will live out his life at Pigs Peace, an Arlington animal sanctuary where he was transferred Saturday after an eight-year legal battle. Attorneys for Word's owner say the fight has cost taxpayers well over $200,000.

Word and his mother, Parshebe, were deemed to be vicious dogs by the city of Seattle and taken into custody in 1993. Parshebe died of cancer two years ago.

City officials gave Wilton "Angel" Rabon, the dog's owner, a Friday deadline to agree to send Word to the sanctuary. Otherwise, Word would have been put to death, said one of Rabon's attorneys, Eileen Weresch-Doornink.

Word's incarceration was not only Seattle's lengthiest animal-control case but the longest canine impound anywhere, said Harlan Dorfman, one of Rabon's attorneys. In light of that, Dorfman said, Guinness World Records had issued a certificate to Rabon's late attorney, Mitzi Leibst.

Still, the decision to send Word to Arlington was a tough one because Rabon was hoping his dog would be allowed to come home, Weresch-Doornink said. Her client can visit Word but doesn't own a car, so he will have to rely on friends for rides, she said.

"It's really sad it took so long because Parshebe is dead, Word is old and Angel's been deprived of his pets — of his 'family members.' He really loves those dogs," said Weresch-Doornink.

Rabon, who doesn't have a phone, could not be reached for comment.

The case, which went all the way to the state Supreme Court, was tied up in the courts until July, when the state Court of Appeals ruled the city had gone through proper procedures in deeming the dog vicious.

"I have to say I'm pleased Mr. Rabon finally decided to allow the city to send this dog to a secure facility," said Tom Castagna, who has worked on the case since joining the City Attorney's Office in 1998. "The city takes the position that public safety isn't a silly issue and attacks by vicious dogs are certainly taken seriously."

City animal-control officials contend Word is a threat to public safety. They say that on May 2, 1993, Word and Parshebe attacked two women walking on Capitol Hill, biting one woman twice. Two days later, another woman was bitten twice. Hours later, Word and Parshebe were picked up. Until Word's release — and his mother's death — they were locked in a 5-by-20-foot cage at the Seattle Animal Control shelter.

Rabon's lawyers say the attacks were hardly vicious: The bites didn't break skin and neither woman needed medical treatment. Neither woman, nor any other witnesses, showed up in court when Rabon was convicted of four counts of owning vicious dogs.

Rabon's lawyers had argued that it was Parshebe who "nipped" the two women; they contended Word was guilty only of barking. But because it was nearly impossible for people to tell the two apart, Word was wrongly impounded, said Weresch-Doornink.

Because of Rabon's case, the city has changed its ordinance, Dorfman said. The old law that put Word on death row was so broad that barking was enough to have a dog labeled "vicious," he said.

Castagna said that for years city officials tried to persuade Rabon to send his dogs to a sanctuary where they wouldn't be a danger.

But Weresch-Doornink denied that, saying she and other lawyers who represented Rabon for free had to file emergency motions with the Court of Appeals to stay Word's execution. It was they, she said, who fought for an alternative to euthanizing the dog.

The sanctuary will pay for Word's care.