CANTON - Chad W. Karka stood in the Stark County Courthouse lobby Wednesday, his eyes moist with emotion as he apologized profusely for burning a cat to death.
Karka, a 40-year-old former Alliance resident, said he has only a "fleeting memory" of the incident because he was severely drunk at the time. Nonetheless, he doesn't deny the accounts of witnesses who said he threw a cat into an outdoor fire, where it perished in January.
"I love animals," said Karka, who now lives outside of Stark County. "I would definitely not do something, knowingly, like this."
Karka said he has been sober for 90 days and fully understands why his actions outraged the public.
He said that's why he pleaded guilty Wednesday to a felony count of prohibitions concerning companion animals and a misdemeanor count of animal cruelty. He faces up to one year in prison on the more serious charge, a fifth-degree felony. A maximum fine of $2,500 also is possible.
Stark County Common Pleas Judge Chryssa Hartnett will sentence Karka on May 24.
At the hearing, the judge said she will allow Karka to apply for probation but said she is not promising to grant the request. A presentence investigation will be conducted.
"I'd like to learn more about your background and the facts of this case," Hartnett said.
Companion animal law
On Jan. 19, police were called about 5:45 p.m. to an Alliance residence. Karka said he was burning pieces of wooden cabinetry and had been drinking alcohol heavily. "Basically," he said, "I didn't want to be alive. I couldn't stop (drinking alcohol)."
He said his dog doesn't like cats and had pinned down his wife's feline. Karka said he doesn't recall the details of what happened afterward.
Investigators say that passersby saw the cat on fire running around outside. Witnesses said they also saw Karka poking at the cat and forcing it into the fire, where it later was found dead underneath charred wood, said Hope Konovsky, an assistant Stark County prosecutor. Witnesses had told police that Karka threw the animal into the backyard fire and placed other items on top of it.
Konovsky said that initially it had been unclear whether the fatally burned animal was a cat or dog.
"I have no reason to doubt (witness accounts)," Karka said after Wednesday's court hearing, pausing to wipe tears from his eyes.
"The only thing I can think is I didn't want my dog to be taken or euthanized (for attacking the cat)," he said.
Konovsky said this is the first time she has been involved in a case involving the companion animal-related charge. The section of Ohio law was added last year, she said. Prior to passage of the legislation, such a case would have been limited to the animal cruelty charge, a first-degree misdemeanor, she said.
The law applies to the cruelty, torment or torture of a companion animal, which is defined as one that lives inside a home and any dog or cat regardless of where it is kept, including strays, Konovsky said.
April Bible, of the Stark County Public Defender's Office, represented Karka at Wednesday's proceeding.
Conditions of his bond and jail release include attending at least one Alcoholics Anonymous class weekly; he also cannot be in close proximity of an animal.
Karka said he is prohibited from contact with the dog he formerly owned and had to give it up to police and the Stark County Humane Society following his arrest.
His prior criminal record includes a 2014 Summit County Common Pleas case. Karka was indicted on charges of theft of drugs, possessing a dangerous drug and possessing drug abuse instruments, according to records. He pleaded guilty to the charges and has received drug intervention in lieu of conviction, court records indicate.
Karka spoke softly when discussing the death of the cat.
He said he used to drink "day and night ... to oblivion."
"I was blackout drunk," Karka said of the January incident, which he said forced him to confront his alcohol problem. He said he has been attending Alcoholics Anonymous sessions daily.
"This was enough to knock me back and realize that I had a problem," he said. "My life had become unmanageable."
Karka said that "I accept my alcoholism and the damage it has done, and I just want to stop ... and be a better person, first and foremost for my loved ones."