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Dilworth man who let 32 pythons die in storage unit gets 30 days in jail

MOORHEAD - A Dilworth man who admitted to letting his 32 ball python snakes freeze to death in an unheated storage unit in Glyndon last winter was sentenced Monday to 30 days in jail and barred from owning or caring for animals during two years of supervised probation.

Henry Ward Atherton, 50, also was ordered to pay $1,085 in fines and fees.

With good behavior, Atherton will be out of jail in 20 days, Judge Galen Vaa said at sentencing in Clay County District Court. Atherton also was granted work release to continue his job with an insulation company.

Atherton pleaded guilty in May to one felony and two misdemeanor counts of mistreatment of animals. The lesser two counts were dismissed at sentencing.

During his plea hearing, he testified that he had moved from Florida to Dilworth last summer for a job that ultimately fell through, and he couldn't find anyone to take the pet snakes. Authorities found the dead pythons on Jan. 15 after someone reported a rotten odor emanating from the storage unit.

Vaa, calling it "obviously a unique case," said he doesn't think Atherton acted intentionally to harm the snakes, but noted "they certainly had to suffer for a considerable period of time." Vaa said there must be a jail sentence commensurate with the mistreatment of other animals.

"Even though many people find (snakes) to be not particularly attractive ... I think they are entitled to protection" similar to other pets, Vaa said.

Atherton's probationary jail sentence is less than the 45 days recommended by Assistant County Attorney Pamela Harris but more than the 21 days recommended in a pre-sentence investigation.

His attorney, John Goff, said the stay of imposition granted by Vaa is important because it means the felony charge will be reduced to a misdemeanor on Atherton's record after he completes probation. Harris had sought a stay of execution, which would have kept the felony on Atherton's record.

"He's taken full responsibility, and he didn't want any harm to come to these animals, but the way things turned out, it did," Goff said.