Corey Ledwell took Hilda with him on Gerda's final trip.
Corey Ledwell took Hilda with him on Gerda's final trip.
Margaret Downing

Stupid Pet Tricks

Corey Ledwell plops down in the light gray sandy dirt, drawing lines to nowhere with a twig. His German shepherd Hilda is nearby, squeezed into a slice of shade edging this clearing in the middle of a budding recreational development in Livingston. Ledwell's workers are a half-mile down the trail, working on a dam. It's blazing hot, and even the dense patches of East Texas trees don't provide much relief. That doesn't matter. Ledwell has a sad story to tell, a tale of betrayal and loss, a story that should not be hurried out of its details, and it will take pacing and Hilda to help him get through it.

On Thursday, June 28, Ledwell returned home around 8:30 p.m. from his son's baseball practice to be told by his wife, Chrystal, that his dog Gerda wasn't acting right. "At first we thought it was a joke. She ran right into that door panel," he says, jumping up and running his own body into a tree to demonstrate. They were laughing at first -- look at that silly dog -- but soon they weren't. "She spent the rest of the evening running into walls," he says sinking back down.

He got out his medical journal, a Reader's Digest one. It was for humans, but he's figured out that dogs and humans are a lot alike. "I thought it was some kind of cerebral thing. She throwed up once." She also went to the bathroom in the house, something, Ledwell says, Gerda would never do.

Next morning, he called the vets at Texas A&M and told them he was coming. Gerda, who was always ready to go for rides, hung back. He picked her up and set her in the truck. He carried her into the vet clinic and laid her on the floor. "She wasn't back there three minutes when they came out and asked, 'Has this dog got into any antifreeze?' " Ledwell told them no; he doesn't keep any at his place.

The vet came out saying more tests were needed, but they might cost $400 or $500. Ledwell said sure, whatever you need to do, do it. They ran an ultrasound test and the doctor said she'd have to do a biopsy on Gerda's kidneys to be 100 percent sure it was antifreeze. Ledwell asked her how sure she was already. She said 99 percent, and he called a halt.

That's when the vet told Ledwell it was too late, that she couldn't do anything for his dog, that Gerda, two and a half years old, needed to be euthanized.

"I went outside. Me and Hilda was outside. They brought her out. We took her home. We built a box out of plywood. We buried her in a grave in our backyard."

But, of course, that wasn't the end of it. Ledwell wanted to know where Gerda had gotten into the antifreeze. The day before, the two dogs had accompanied him to a job site. So he and his boy, Eric, set out to retrace their steps. "We backtracked anywhere we'd been that day." The vet had told him that based upon the time when Gerda started showing symptoms of poisoning, she would have had to be poisoned during the daytime. They'd been doing some work in the Cedar Point subdivision in Onalaska, along Lake Livingston. So they started walking there. Ledwell asked Eric to check the house across the street from where they'd been working.

"He came out with a bowl in his hand. It had green, oily-looking fluid in it. I got my knife out and stirred it around. There were chunks of meat inside." The bowl had been sitting in the cool shade under the deck of the home.

And Corey Ledwell, a man who loved his dogs so much that when his pedigreed Hilda gave birth to a litter of six AKC-registered puppies, he couldn't find it in his heart to sell even one of them because no prospective buyer was judged good enough, was filled with a consuming rage.

He'd lost his dog Gerda -- truth be told, his favorite of Hilda's litter -- and was left holding a $799.25 bill from A&M and a bowl of slimy death.

Somebody was going to pay. Somebody besides him and Gerda.

Most people would say something like "I took my dog, Hilda…" Not Ledwell. When he says, "Hilda and Gerda and me went to A&M," it takes a minute to register that there's only one human in that sentence. These dogs (Hilda, Gina, Duchess, Jaeger, Shadow and Bubba) are his companions and creatures he greatly respects. He's trained them and in return for their obedience, it would be unthinkable to him to not let them in his house, not take them to work with him, not take them to his son's baseball practices, his daughter's softball practices, not bring them along on family camping trips.

Not that he's lost all reason. The male German shepherds don't go to work with him because they're too macho, Ledwell says. He doesn't take his dogs to actual games because he doesn't want people to be intimidated.

But the simple truth is, Ledwell is very comfortable around his dogs and he likes being with them. It makes no sense to him not to take the females out to a job site in his truck that says "Corey's Concrete" on the side, to give them the chance to swim in the lakes, to rove the countryside, because they'll return with a simple quick call. He sees them as innocent creatures that no one would ever want to hurt.

So after finding the antifreeze, he didn't hesitate to call the chief of Cedar Point security, who took pictures and videotaped Ledwell telling his story.

Next, Ledwell called the Polk County sheriff's office, which sent out Sergeant Tom Sheffield. "He walked up and said, 'That's antifreeze all right,' " Ledwell says. They searched together and found three other plastic butter bowls filled with the poisonous mixture, as well as a little cup with dry poison in it. Sheffield poured it all into a bucket to dispose of it. Ledwell says he asked him if they shouldn't save some for evidence, but the deputy told him no, he'd seen it. The deputy told him he didn't need anything else, that he was on the case, Ledwell says.

Still, that wasn't enough for Ledwell. He didn't know anything about the owner of the property, but there was a for-sale sign in front of the brown-and-beige lakefront home with a name on it. So he called one J.D. Wiggins in Splendora at the number listed.

"I asked him, 'Do you have a house for sale?' He said, 'Yeah, yeah.' I said, 'What are those bowls down there for?' He said, 'It's meat and antifreeze.' I said, 'Why do you do that?' He said, 'I do that to kill the coons tearing the paper off my house.'

"I asked, 'Do you realize you killed something very precious to me?' He said, 'I didn't mean to. Sorry.' And I said, 'Well, I filed charges against you, and I hope they come and pick you up.' "

Except that Ledwell didn't hear back from Sheffield. So he looked him up in the phone book and called him at home. He says Sheffield told him he'd filed his report with the district attorney's office and it was up to its prosecutors to accept or reject it. And Ledwell thanked him for doing his best.

A couple of days later, though, Ledwell found out that wasn't so. Ledwell found out that Bob Lavery, who lives next to Wiggins's weekend home, had heard about Ledwell's case and suspected that his five young cats who'd died recently might have been poisoned as well. Ledwell urged Lavery to make a report; the sheriff's department sent out a car as a courtesy, and that's when Lavery found out the case was dead. Lavery told Ledwell he'd talked to Sheffield and he hadn't filed a report; that there was nothing he could do about it. He hadn't actually seen the dog being poisoned from that dish; no one had. "Sheffield knows you love Gerda. I think he's afraid to tell you," Lavery told Ledwell.

Ledwell confronted Sheffield, who he says confirmed that there was nothing he could do and had meant to say that he'd gone by the D.A.'s office and talked to some people there -- not that he'd filed charges. "He did not have the intent to kill your dog. His intent was to kill coons," Ledwell says Sheffield told him.

Contacted at his office, Sheffield says he thought he could file a reckless endangerment charge, but there is no such thing. "I'm sorry it happened," he says. "I done the best I could for him."

Feeling betrayed by law enforcement, Ledwell decided right then to go another route. "If I can't get that man arrested to face his trial, then I'm going to try to get him exposed so everyone knows what he is."

J.D. Wiggins is a retired judge living in Splendora with an Onalaska weekend home. Contacted at his home, he is clearly exhausted by the whole incident and alternates between saying he's sorry for Ledwell and insisting that no one can prove it was his antifreeze. The 79-year-old man has a certain standing in the community -- a 30-year career with Brown & Root followed by 11 years as a Splendora municipal judge. The Sunday school teacher has been publicly embarrassed, and he doesn't like it.

In fact, Ledwell tracked down Wiggins at his Splendora Assembly of God Church one Sunday. "He followed me to church one morning. He just walked right up to me and started taking my picture. I was getting my coat on and Bible out. That's when he snapped my picture. He said, 'You're the man who killed my dog,' " Wiggins says.

Ledwell told Wiggins he was going to use the pictures in flyers he was having made up to let people know what he'd done.

This exasperates Wiggins, who insists: "I don't feel like I'm guilty." Within a few moments, though, Wiggins muses that the dog "must have been thirsty and gone underneath" his deck and found the poison there. Later, though, he says he doesn't understand why the dog would be thirsty after swimming in the lake.

"The coons were just absolutely ruining my insulation," Wiggins explains. He and his wife would come for a weekend stay and find they couldn't sleep at night, the raccoons were making so much noise climbing around the rafters.

He didn't know what to do until a friend suggested the antifreeze and meat. Asked why he didn't set traps for the raccoons, Wiggins says he doesn't know.

"I could have used a trap. I just didn't think about it. If I'd have known a dog or cat would be roaming about…The dog wasn't supposed to be over there. There aren't any dogs running loose over there," Wiggins says.

"I told Mr. Corey I was sorry about his dog."

But that didn't settle things, especially when the two of them ended up debating the issue on the Tom Martino show on KTRH and Wiggins said Cedar Point neighbor Paul Kibodeaux had seen antifreeze dripping from Ledwell's own truck. Ledwell vehemently denies such a thing ever happened.

On Sunday, July 15, Ledwell reappeared at the Splendora church, this time with Lavery in tow. The two of them spread flyers on car windshields in the church parking lot. Then Lavery made his way into the church, which prompted several members to pour forth and order them off the property. Ledwell delivered more flyers in Cedar Point, and a church officer phoned him later to tell him to never come back.

"They called here threatening me. They said I broke the law," Ledwell says. "I didn't break any law. As soon as the usher told me to leave, Bob and me left."

He emphasizes that he never threatened Wiggins, never got ugly with him. The worst thing he ever did was call him "the devil" one time, he says. He even had an attorney go over his flyer before he distributed it and took out the one accusation he couldn't make: that charges had been filed. He didn't put any flyers in mailboxes -- he knew that violates federal law and told Bob the same. As he sees it, he was drawing attention to an egregious wrong, and to do so he'd be relentless and creative in tracking people down and holding their feet to the fire, but he would not step over the line.

Kibodeaux sees it a little differently. "Corey was working here pouring some concrete for me. He lets his dogs run loose. Dogs aren't supposed to be running loose in Cedar Point." The dog could have gotten into antifreeze just about anywhere, he says.

Kibodeaux didn't like it that Ledwell started showing up at Wiggins's property, saying he would "glare at him from his truck."

"The guy, in my estimation, he's almost lost his mind over this."

There is no fence around Wiggins's lakefront home, nothing to keep any animal, any child, from walking right on in. The deck is raised so that even an adult only has to bend at the waist to duck under. It's cool there, at least 20 degrees cooler than under the glare of the sun.

When Lavery's cats turned up dead, he assumed some kid had done it. He's certain now that it was his neighbor, and he's mad -- mad because he let Wiggins use his pier once, mad because the cats died lengthy, agonizing deaths and he's feeling guilty about not having them euthanized.

"I've been here six years. I never had a problem with raccoons. I haven't even seen a raccoon," Lavery says.

"I've seen squirrels dead. I've seen snakes dead. I've seen birds dead, two ospreys. They don't have a mark on them like they would if a cat got them. They're just dead."

He has a little dog and three cats left. They do not go over to Wiggins's yard, he says.

It's now three weeks after Gerda's death, and Ledwell has done an about-face. It's not that he mourns Gerda any less. It's that he realizes he let himself get sucked into a maelstrom of bad feelings and needs to get out.

"I'm not calling him anymore," he says of Wiggins. He's finished. He contacted the media, set out the flyers, and wants to let it go. "If I do anything, it's going to be helping change the laws for animals or helping people adopt animals who need good homes. I found myself coming up with all these different ideas to upset this man. Why do this? I want to use my energy to do a more positive thing."

"I don't want to be down to his level. I don't want to turn mean." Ledwell leaves this week on a family camping trip with his remaining dogs. He says he still catches himself calling out for seven dogs, and had thought about getting another dog to fill the missing space, but now says he can't take any more.

Not surprisingly given their backgrounds, both Ledwell and Wiggins called upon God to do the final judging in this, though the tones of their approaches diverge sharply.

"If I wronged my fellow man, I try to make it right. I try to make God forgive me. I never intend to put out any more antifreeze," Wiggins says.

"He'll get his punishment when he faces a higher power," Ledwell says. "There's someone he's got to answer to."

An old man just trying to get rid of a problem does something exceedingly thoughtless and dangerous. He's incredibly lucky that he doesn't have the death of a young child on his conscience -- a child who could have just as easily crawled under that cool deck and been drawn to the green liquid.

A young man loses a prized companion and spins like an out-of-control gyroscope for a while before setting himself to rights. Law enforcement says it can't fix it. Truth is, nobody can fix it. Maybe the best to hope for is that people could be just a bit more caring and a lot less stupid. But then, that's asking a lot, though, isn't it?


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