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Published May 31 2012

Dilworth man says job loss paved way for leaving 32 pythons to die in unheated storage unit

MOORHEAD – A man who moved from Florida to Dilworth last summer admitted today that he allowed his 32 ball python snakes to freeze to death in an unheated storage unit in Glyndon last winter.

“I just couldn’t find any place to put them,” 50-year-old Henry Ward Atherton Jr. said in Clay County District Court.

Atherton pleaded guilty to all three charges against him: one felony and two misdemeanors counts of mistreatment of animals.

He entered open pleas, meaning they weren’t part of a plea agreement with prosecutors. His attorney, John Goff, said they weren’t satisfied with the plea agreement and sentencing recommendation offered by the Clay County Attorney’s Office, which would have kept the felony conviction on Atherton’s criminal record for life.

Judge Galen Vaa will sentence Atherton on July 9. Atherton faces up to two years in prison and a $5,000 fine for the felony charge and up to 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine for each of the misdemeanors.

During today’s plea hearing, Atherton testified that he didn’t intend for his snakes to die.

He raised the pythons as pets in Florida and owned more than 100 at one time, he said. He sold all but 32 of them before moving to Dilworth. He put the 32 snakes in containers and was keeping them in the Glyndon storage unit until he could find homes for them, he said.

Atherton said that when he moved to the area, he ended up living in a motel for longer than planned because a job he was promised fell though. Unable to keep the snakes at the motel, he called pet stores, but they refused the pythons because he wasn’t a licensed breeder, he said.

He offered to ship the snakes to other people he knew but was turned down, he said.

Atherton said he routinely returned to the storage unit to feed and water the snakes, but in November he discovered they had all died from the cold. He said he left them frozen in the unit with plans to bury them in the spring.

“I couldn’t justify just throwing them in a Dumpster somewhere,” he said.

The dead pythons were discovered by authorities on Jan. 15 after someone reported a rotten odor emanating from the unit.

Assistant County Attorney Pamela Harris pointed out that, according to the complaint, Atherton told a detective that when he visited the storage unit in November, only some of the pythons were dead and he thought the rest of them would die from the cold. But Atherton maintained in court today that he told the detective all the snakes were dead.

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528