It was three months of terror for the Morales family, which ended in an act so horrifying that two years later they are still reeling and in immense pain. Even before the courtroom doors opened, the tears began to fall. It all began in 2016 when they rented a house in Oceanside. Thrilled the owner allowed them to have pets, they happily let their two dogs, gorgeous Siberian huskies named Estrella and Cocuyo, run freely in the backyard. The days of bliss were short lived though, as they were soon the target of escalating attacks.

On December 16, 2016, the family returned from breakfast and found Estrella and Cocuyo in the backyard disoriented and lethargic. A veterinarian told them it appeared like marijuana poisoning. Two months later, their dog Cocuyo went missing. He was eventually found on the Camp Pendleton military base by a good Samaritan. On February 24, 2017, Maria Morales arrived home after dropping her children off at school and discovered the dogs crying in great distress and appearing wet. Someone had poured a chemical agent on them, causing intense burning. Following this attack, the Morales family decided they would keep their dogs inside. Throughout these months, they also found their tires repeatedly slashed on their vehicles. In one frightening instance, tires exploded while Mrs. Morales was driving, causing a near accident. Who hated them and why? But the worst was yet to come.

On April 28, 2017, Maria Morales arrived home with her young son. What she found still haunts her and her son to this day. Cocuyo was laying in the kitchen with an unknown liquid on his face, so weak he could barely lift his head. Liquid poured from his mouth. He had again been attacked with a caustic agent. She went upstairs and was horrified to see Estrella walking towards her, blood pouring from her eye. Unbelievably someone had gouged out her eye! Mrs. Morales frantically called 911 and both Cocuyo and Estrella were rushed to emergency care. The family moved out immediately.

A month later, a new family moved into the residence. They had two dogs Prince and Lala. They lasted two short days. On May 30, 2017, the family found both their dogs missing. Prince was later found nearby, but Lala, a gentle golden retriever was gone. A HOA surveillance video revealed Lala being driven away by their neighbor, Navy veteran David Herbert. Herbert’s car was subsequently searched, and Lala’s blood was discovered inside. A baseball bat with Lala’s blood was also found in his home. To this day, Lala has never been found, and is presumed dead, breaking the hearts of all who loved her.

On August 31, 2018, after a trial in which Herbert represented himself, he was found guilty of this reign of terror. He was convicted of six felony counts of animal cruelty, one felony count of burglary, and four misdemeanor counts of vandalism.

On his day of sentencing, March 15, 2019, David Herbert, now 37, appeared in dark blue jailhouse scrubs with his court appointed attorney James Weintre. As the hearing began, Judge Carlos Armour denied both his motion for a new trial and motion for pretrial mental health diversion. In denying the pretrial mental health diversion, Judge Armour not only found it untimely as it should have been filed before trial, but ruled Herbert was too dangerous to be considered for the program. Further, Judge Armour did not believe his mental health issue of depressive disorder was a substantial factor in committing the crimes, a required element for such relief.

Next came the victim impact statements, each one rendered through countless tears and choked voices. Mr. Morales, the owner of Estella and Cocuyo, was attired in a sharp suit jacket with a crisp white shirt beneath it as he became the first at the podium. He talked about the emotional damage to his family and said the cruelty towards his animals “hurts more than anything to our family.” He said his son still asks, “When are they going to return our little dog’s eyes?”

His beautifully attired wife, Maria Morales followed her husband. She told Judge Armour, “I am here to ask for justice for my family.” If she could turn back time, she would never have lived there she stated. She will never forget her four-year-old’s face and what she saw that day she said through sobs. When her son now asks when Estrella’s eye will be returned, she does not know how to explain how a human being could get to that magnitude of cruelty. She revealed she has been going to a psychologist for two years but is still hurting the same.  She said your home is supposed to be your safety and that has been taken away. She closed by again asking for justice saying, “They are not animals, pets, they are part of my family. They know how much I love them. I only ask for them.”

Michelle Plaketta, the owner of Prince and Lala stood at the podium crying and unable to speak for a long time. At last able to begin, she said, “The pain doesn’t go away,” and her children still cry at night. The terror is still real. She looks over her shoulder to see if Herbert is following them, and gets up in the middle of the night, to check the windows and doors. “He terrorized us” she stated. As her tears became heavier, she said, “Lala is not replaceable,” and described Lala being there for her daughter through the death of her father. So heartbroken, her daughter won’t entertain having a new dog. She said within 48 hours Herbert attacked. “You didn’t even give us a chance to unpack.” She asked the court to give him the maximum sentence.

Deputy District Attorney Teresa Pham began by saying, “They want justice.”  Then asked the piercing question, “What IS justice?” The families had “no peace, safety or security and they didn’t know it was their neighbor right next door” she said with rising emotion. Herbert studied how he could break into their houses, torture their dogs, and get away with it Pham declared. Looking right at Herbert she said he had a lack of remorse and displayed despicable behavior during trial, telling witnesses they had “a sob story,” calling them “scumbags,” and saying they “deserving everything they got.” He showed a complete lack of empathy throughout the entire case, never once thinking about the victims she said with disgust. Moving to the emails Herbert sent to his HOA, Pham stated they showed a “great glimpse of his mindset.” Having been written up for violations, Herbert wrote a series of emails stating if the HOA fines were not removed he would “settle the problem in the streets,” “rip up this block,” and to “expect WW3, not just in my front yard but within the entire f***ing neighborhood.”

Herbert decided the dogs were barking too loud, too much and reached a point where he was NOT going to exist with anyone who disturbed him Pham pronounced. Knowing the huskies at times ran into his yard, he put antifreeze in a bowl hoping they would drink it and called this “fair game.” In fact, Herbert had done computer searches on how to get a dog to drink antifreeze. Again asking, “What is justice for a defendant that does this?” Pham finally answered her own question. Justice would be 15 years she proclaimed, the maximum time, and “he earned every year of it.”

Herbert’s attorney, James Weintre, rose and gave his best arguments. He emphasized these were only three months in an otherwise law-abiding life, and Herbert was a decorated combat veteran, having served six years in the Navy. He received six awards, including a Good Conduct medal, a Combat Action ribbon, and an Iraqi Campaign Award, before being honorably discharged. Herbert was deployed to Iraq and was “shot at, withstood mortar attacks every night and dodged grenades!” he exclaimed. As a corpsman he rendered aid to the injured in battle, seeing horrible things, including blown off limbs. Weintre said Herbert had a “major depressive disorder,” veterans deserve extra consideration, and under Penal Code Section 1170.9, he should be given probation and treatment. He also disclosed Herbert suffered “childhood abuse” which was addressed in the psychologist report filed under court seal. If Herbert were to be given prison time, it should be no more than five years he concluded.

Herbert asked to address the court. In a very soft voice, he said, “I am sorry that any of this happened. God knows I’m sorry.” As he started to say more, Judge Armour stopped him and told him to confer with his attorney before continuing. After their whispered discussion, Herbert said that while he was out of custody (Herbert posted a 1 million bond and was out of custody for approximately a year), he sold his house and rented a home next to people who had pets, and that he did not think to harm them. At last showing contrition to the victims, he said, “I apologize to them.” No one deserves to have their animals hurt, there was no justification, and it should never have happened he continued. During his speech, he even offered his help. At this mention, Michelle Plaketta immediately raised her hand and asked if she could ask a question. An Oceanside police officer sitting behind her told her she could not speak right now, and then moved next to her to console her as she began to weep. 

It was finally time for judgment. Judge Armour began by saying in his 43 years in the criminal justice system, as an attorney and judge, and presiding over murder trials, he found this case to be “particularly shocking.” He said this was a “planned and sophisticated effort to bring pain and suffering to other people though the suffering of their pets.” Pets are members of the family he emphasized. Herbert’s acts were “cruel and sadistic,” and the children are going to suffer “for a very, very long time,” he pronounced. Herbert researched how to break in, to torture, and in his opinion used a scalpel to gouge out Estrella’s eye. Finding tremendous victim impact in this case, Judge Armour stated he would not have mercy by granting probation. He ruled the community needed to be protected from Herbert, and no matter what happened in the military, it was not a reason to go torture animals. He then sentenced Herbert to nine years and eight months, the maximum he could give under the mandatory sentencing guidelines. Herbert also received a $10,000 fine.

Following the sentencing, Michelle Plaketta spoke with a reporter. When asked what she wanted to ask Herbert when she raised her hand, she replied, “Where is Lala?”

The families are left now to try to heal from the days of madness. But what really caused Herbert to engage in such continued violence? Was it the effects of childhood abuse? Or was it the result of all the trauma he had witnessed so closely in battle? Or was it something else? I will be doing a show for Del Mar Television on Animal Cruelty and will be talking with a psychologist who will address this case, as well as discussing why people hurt animals and what society can do to stop the abuse of innocents.

To see photos of David Herbert and media coverage of the case, please go to the following link: https://www.nbcsandiego.com/news/local/Veteran-Convicted-of-Torturing-Neighbors-Dogs-Sentenced-507226431.html