ROWAN COUNTY, NC (Michael Gordon/Charlotte Observer) - Four years ago, Eric Hillard took aim on the wooded backyard of a neighbor's home and fired a .22-caliber bullet into the neck of a 3-year-old, bird dog mix named Jake. The shot slammed into the dog's spinal chord, leaving the 80-pound pet of Karen and Chris Haussmann without the use of his back legs.
Now, according to a ruling this month by the N.C. Court of Appeals, Hillard finally has to pay.
In a unanimous opinion last week, a three-judge panel upheld an earlier court decision tagging Hillard with almost $11,000 in restitution. The Hausmanns will use the money to offset the cost of what they describe as years of near-constant care for their injured pet.
On Wednesday, Karen Haussmann said she locked eyes with Jake when she learned of the court's ruling. She told the Observer that her reaction was bittersweet. She said there was some satisfaction that Hillard will finally be penalized for what he did, and that the restitution payments will just about cover what the family already spends each month on Jake's special needs.
But she said she would have preferred a happier ending, when at the close of the long court fight, "Jake gets up and runs away."
"But he can't. He's still paralyzed," Haussmann said. "I'll have to spend this money taking care of him for the rest of his life. And at the rate he's going, he's going to have a long life."
The search for Jake's shooter ran on for months. The Haussmanns offered a $5,000 reward. They also put posters along the Fourth of July parade route in their rural community of Faith.
Two days after the anniversary of the shooting, Hillard was indicted on a felony cruelty to animal charge. Court documents say Hillard offered no motive. He had no previous interactions with the Haussmanns.
Under an agreement with prosecutors, he pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor animal-cruelty charge in October 2016. During Hillard's sentencing hearing, the Haussmanns presented a detailed work sheet of their dog's medical expenses. Karen Haussmann also told Superior Court Judge Christopher Bragg that the couple could not bring themselves to put Jake down simply because he had become an inconvenience.
Hillard told the judge that he lived with his mother, hadn't worked full-time for four years, suffered from diabetes and other afflictions, and owed hundreds of thousands of dollars in back medical bills. He also said he earned about $180 a month cutting yards with his riding mower. He estimated he could afford to pay $50 a month toward Jake's care.
Bragg came up with a different calculation. The Union County judge set restitution at $10,693.43, and he ordered Hillard to pay almost $180 a month for the length of his five-year probation.
In November, his attorney, Sean Vitrano of Wake Forest, argued before the appeals court panel that Bragg had erred by handing down a restitution amount not justified by the evidence. Vitrano said Bragg also had overestimated Hillard's ability to pay, documents say.
The court of appeals panel disagreed. In their ruling, the judges pointed out that the Hillard and his trial attorney had failed to challenge the medical costs for Jake when the Haussmanns first presented them. The judges also said Bragg correctly assessed Hillard's financial condition before setting the restitution – even offering to extend Hillard's probation an extra three years to lower his monthly payments, documents say.
When contacted this week, Vitrano declined comment about the ruling.
Reid Acree, a Salisbury attorney and animal lover who assisted the Haussmanns in bringing their dog's shooter into court, said the case still strikes him as heartbreaking, so much so that he recently removed the photo he carried of Jake in his phone. He says Karen Haussmann now spends most of her days at home, seeing to the needs of her partially paralyzed dog.