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Veterinary staff at the Rocky Gorge Animal Hospital in Laurel came forward to prosecutors almost a year after the Capital Gazette shooting to tell them thy believed the gunman behaved oddly when he took his starving cat in to be euthanized before the deadly attack.
Veterinary staff at the Rocky Gorge Animal Hospital in Laurel came forward to prosecutors almost a year after the Capital Gazette shooting to tell them thy believed the gunman behaved oddly when he took his starving cat in to be euthanized before the deadly attack. (Alex Mann / Capital Gazette)

Documents unsealed after the Capital Gazette shooter pleaded guilty to the deadly attack revealed that about a month before the shooting he took his cat to an animal hospital in Laurel, where veterinary staff determined the animal was starving. He had it euthanized.

The man who murdered Gerald Fischman, Rob Hiaasen, John McNamara, Rebecca Smith and Wendi Winters told veterinary staff that he hadn’t been feeding the cat, according to court papers. One veterinary technician with the Rocky Gorge Animal Hospital believed Jarrod Ramos did not understand that his failure to feed the cat would lead to its death, the documents show.

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Three forensic psychiatrists, who are not part of the trial and wouldn’t discuss specifics of the case, said evidence of animal neglect would prompt them to dig further for a clue into a defendant’s state of mind leading up to and during the crime.

Ramos, 39, has asked a jury to determine at a trial in March whether he was insane when he plotted and carried out the deadly attack on June 28, 2018.

“Mr. Ramos made remarks to the technicians at the animal hospital that the cat wasn’t eating and that he wasn’t feeding it,” prosecutors wrote in court papers. “In the lay opinion of one of the veterinary technicians, Mr. Ramos did not seem to connect the idea of his not feeding the cat with the cat’s starvation.”

Attorneys for Ramos appear to have supplied their experts with more information about the cat, as they were granted court orders requiring two veterinary clinics to turn over records related to his pet.

The orders came months after somebody relayed information about the interaction to a support staff member of the Anne Arundel County State’s Attorney’s Office in late April at a “social gathering," according to the records first reported by the University of Maryland Capital News Service.

Crystal Montanye, the hospital administrator at Rocky Gorge, declined to comment. Spokeswomen for the State’s Attorney’s Office and for the Office of the Public Defender also declined to comment.

Forensic psychiatry experts said such information could be helpful when testing for sanity — it could even indicate mental health issues — though they’d need more information to render any conclusions.

It would be important to know how a defendant who neglected a pet handled personal relationships, performed at work and conducted other daily functions, wrote Dr. Annette Hanson, director of the forensic psychiatry fellowship at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, in an email.

A thorough insanity evaluation requires following up on peculiar behavior — not just animal neglect, said Dr. Brian Zimnitsky, a forensic psychiatrist based in Annapolis.

“For instance, if somebody was usually taking care of their property and all of the sudden there were a lot of reports that everything was looking horrible on their property or where they live,” Zimnitsky said.

Ramos pleaded not criminally responsible — Maryland’s version of the insanity plea — and asked for the trial to be split into two parts, a first trial to determine whether he committed the crime and, if he was convicted, a second proceeding to determine whether he was sane when he blasted his way into the newsroom and killed the five staffers.

His guilty plea in late October nixed the first phase of the trial and was described by legal experts as a savvy move designed to prevent the jury from seeing gruesome evidence and hearing emotional testimony. The same jury would have decided whether he is criminally responsible.

To be found not criminally responsible a defendant must prove that he, because of mental disease or disorder, could not understand that his actions were wrong or could not stop himself from committing the crime. During a criminal trial, prosecutors must prove that a defendant committed the crime, while in the second phase the burden shifts, forcing a defendant to prove he was insane at the time of the crime.

Doctors with the Maryland Department of Health, ordered by Circuit Court Judge Laura Ripken to evaluate Ramos, said they believed he was sane.

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An expert hired by Ramos’ attorneys said after evaluating him she believed he was not criminally responsible. A doctor hired by prosecutors, who has not been granted the opportunity to interview Ramos, agreed with the health department experts after reviewing the evidence and interviewing collateral sources.

Peter O’Neill, a defense attorney based in Glen Burnie, has handled a number of criminal responsibility cases — though evidence related to someone’s pet factored into none of them — and said he expects the defense to include the information about Ramos’ treatment of his cat as they present their case at trial.

“Presumably, the expert hired by the defense would attempt to rely on this type of behavior as examples of his inability to think logically," O’Neill said.

Dr. Liza Gold, a forensic psychiatrist based in Virginia, said a person’s failure to understand that not feeding a cat would cause it to starve could be indicative of cognitive impairment.

Cognitive impairment impacts a person’s memory and ability to make decisions affecting their everyday life, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Somebody mildly affected still can conduct everyday activities, while somebody with severe cognitive impairment may lose motor functions and struggle to understand things.

Gold and Zimnitsky said it would be important to speak to a defendant who neglected a pet to gauge how they thought they were treating the animal, to check veterinary records for more animal neglect and to find out how the defendant handled other caretaking responsibilities.

Ramos’ attorneys asked prosecutors in May for “evidence and statements reflecting mental incapacity made by (Ramos)” to Rocky Gorge employees. Prosecutors subsequently disclosed an Anne Arundel County police detective’s redacted notes and report about Ramos’ dealings with the Laurel animal hospital. They also shared a redacted audio interview with two veterinary employees.

In an August court filing, Ramos’ attorneys said they’d received the audio recording from prosecutors and asked Ripken to subpoena the hospital for its veterinary records related to his cat. They also asked Ripken to order a veterinarian in Virginia, who the attorneys said treated Ramos’ cat between 2014 and 2019, to turn over files.

Ripken issued subpoenas requiring both veterinary institutions to disclose records and prosecutors have shared with defense lawyers at least three sets of veterinary records.

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Gold said her examination would key in on the veterinary staff who interacted with the defendant: "What were the remarks? Was the vet tech concerned enough to bring it to the attention of the vet? It can’t be that often that someone brings in a cat and indicates they starved it to death.”

By interviewing those from the animal hospital who interacted with the defendant, she’d seek to eliminate the possibility of hindsight bias, or giving meaning to something once you know how it turned out.

Forensic psychiatrists caution that it would be misleading to take it out of context.

“All this is is one data point on a graph," Gold said. "You need more data points to draw a line to any conclusion.”

Capital Gazette is owned by Baltimore Sun Media.

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