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Denied her animals by judge, Havre de Grace dog owner tells her story

Mary Root was jailed after failing to pay fines and appear in court for dogs 'at large'

BY DAVID ANDERSON, daanderson@baltsun.com

6:05 AM EDT, March 13, 2014

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A Havre de Grace-area woman is working to find her emotional footing after being jailed briefly last week for failing to appear in court and failing to pay fines incurred after her dogs got loose from her property in 2013.

"They treated me all right at the jail, but I didn't feel like I should have been there," Mary Magdalene Root, 81, said Wednesday, nearly a week after she was released from the Harford County Detention Center on a $2,500 bond.

"I didn't feel like I should have been finger printed or in stripes or with a number. . . . That's what hardest for me to try to understand in my heart and mind," she continued.

She wept at times while speaking to a reporter Wednesday about how she has struggled to deal with being labeled as a criminal.

"It's so confusing, because I've been in Harford County 47 years," Root said. "My husband and I always paid our taxes, never did anything wrong."

Root resides in the 4100 block of Oak Drive in the small community of Webster Village west of the city of Havre de Grace. Until her arrest March 5, she kept seven dogs at her property, which is at least 1.5 acres and includes a fenced-in yard where the dogs typically run.

Her husband and two of her four children have died, and Root described the dogs as her companions.

"I'm a widow and of course my dogs give me love," she said.

Four of the dogs are owned by her daughter Vatina Gifford of Cecil County; Root was keeping them for her daughter until Gifford could find a suitable residence for her and her pets.

Root and all seven dogs are currently staying with her daughter in Charlestown in Cecil County. They are looking for homes for several of the canines, which include Chihuahuas and her 14-year-old Shih Tzu.

"She is still with me right now in Cecil County because she is not going home without her animals," Gifford said Wednesday.

A neighbor who lives on U Way complained about the dogs getting off Root's property and took photos of the dogs when they got on his land on Feb. 16, 2013, according to a criminal complaint filed by the Harford County State's Attorney's Office.

Root has been charged with seven counts of having a dog at large, one for each dog.

Harford District Court Judge Mimi Cooper ruled during Root's March 5 bail review hearing that she could not keep the dogs on her property in Harford County until her case is adjudicated. Cooper also held Root on $2,500 bail, which was not posted until the following morning because the family didn't have the money.

Root said the dogs got out in February 2013 when a visitor came to the door to inquire about her granddaughter who does not live in the home; he then left the gate unlocked when he left the property.

"I let them out for their normal pee-pee time, so to speak, like I always do," she said of the dogs.

Root said she looked out her window later and did not see the dogs, and found them clustered around the rear of her property and her U Way neighbor's property.

She and her daughter, Gifford, have explained that she could not pay the fines because of financial difficulties and could not attend a November 2013 hearing on the civil citations – $75 each – for the dogs getting lose because of serious health issues.

Root said "the blessings are pouring in" from the community; a person she and her family do not know paid $250, the required 10 percent of her bond, to secure her release.

A dog groomer has also visited her in Cecil County and groomed several of the dogs for free. A Havre de Grace company also offered to fix her fence.

Olivia Spacco, who lives across the street from Root on Oak Drive, described Root as "a very nice neighbor and said she takes care of her animals."

Spacco, who has lived in Webster Village with her husband for decades, said she has known Root as an acquaintance for years.

She said Root always keeps the dogs in the fenced-in yard, and they are quiet unless someone is walking or driving by the property. Then, they start barking, "which is normal for any dog being out in the yard," said Spacco, who has a dog and a cat.

"I'm really astounded that something happened to her, because she's never done anything wrong," Spacco said.

Root is scheduled to return to District Court April 19 regarding the seven charges of having a dog at large, according to online court records.

She has also been charged with four counts of dog license violations and one count of having a dog at large in a separate case. She is scheduled to be in court April 9 on those charges, according to records.

Although Root said she is close to her animals and her daughter said previously her mother has taken in strays, another member of the family pleaded guilty to animal cruelty charges four years ago.

Root's great-granddaughter, Megan Dawn Wagoner, who is now 22, pleaded guilty to one count of mutilating an animal in 2010. Wagoner was living at Root's home at the time and was accused of killing a stray cat, then skinning it.

Wagoner spent two months in jail in 2011.She is currently on supervised probation and has a 17-month-old son.

Gifford said Wagoner, who is her adopted daughter and is the biological daughter of Root's grandson, did not kill the cat, but did skin it, and pleaded guilty on the recommendation of her public defender to get less jail time.

Gifford said her adopted daughter had been told by the person who killed to cat to skin it.

"She didn't think that she was going to do anything wrong, and she's trying to come forward with that," Gifford said.

Root said she met a number of younger women while in jail and found herself just as concerned about their situations.

"Going into the jail, it was even more of an eye opener, because I got to see these young girls . . . I felt more for them, more compassion," she said.