Rescue, reflection follow Chugiak cruelty case

Wednesday, July 12, 2017 - 15:20
  • Photo courtesy Alaska Dogs Gone Wild Kathy Murphy poses with a photo of her dog, Rocky, after his retirement from the canine sport of flyball in spring 2016.
  • Kathy Murphy and her dog, Rocky, in April 2015. Rocky earned his Flyball Master Champion title before retiring the following year. (Photo courtesy Alaska Dogs Gone Wild)
  • Star photo by Kirsten Swann Christy Garrett walks her adopted dog, Rocky, at an Anchorage park June 19, 2017. Garrett rescued Rocky from Anchorage Animal Care and Control after he was seized from his former owner, Chugiak attorney Kathy Murphy.
  • Rocky, a 12-year-old lab mix, enjoys a walk at an Anchorage park June 19, 2017. After his former owner — Chugiak attorney Kathy Murphy — passed away in March, Rocky was adopted by another member of his former flyball team. (Star photo by Kirsten Swann)

Kathy Murphy always had a soft spot for the big dogs, her friends said.

Over the years, the Chugiak attorney kept towering Irish wolfhounds and muscular Rhodesian ridgebacks, then finally a broad-chested lab mix called Rocky. Her dogs competed in shows, ran agility and participated in other activities. When Murphy introduced Rocky to flyball — a sport in which dogs race across hurdles to catch balls — he played it enthusiastically for nearly eight years, until his hips began to creak and he was forced to retire.

“She didn’t just own dogs,” said Cindy Rabe, a longtime colleague and friend. “I mean, her life was her dogs.”

So when the Anchorage Police Department released a March 13 public statement announcing Murphy’s arrest on multiple charges of animal cruelty, the news came as a shock.

“Everyone in the dog community was alarmed,” said Curtis Smith, captain of the ADGW flyball club.

Murphy had deep ties there, according to friends and teammates. Rabe, a public defender, met Murphy through work nearly 20 years ago, she said. They shared affection for canines, and in the spring of 2009, Rabe said, Murphy introduced her to flyball.

“She told me to come out and watch a tournament, and so I did, then I was like, ‘Oh, sure, my dog could do that,’” Rabe recalled. “She actually got me into a lot of different things with my dog.”

Murphy was a well-known and widely respected member of multiple Alaska dog clubs, according to people who knew her. She was deeply involved with Pawsitive Synergy, Alaska Dogs Gone Wild, Alaska Kennel Club events and various training and breed groups.

Inside a secluded house in the heart of Chugiak, though, something had gone terribly wrong.

“Like a lot of us”

Murphy was a deeply private woman, according to friends and colleagues. She had no spouse; no children; no living parents; no relatives within a thousand miles. She lived alone with her pets.

Born and raised in Iowa, she’d earned degrees in history and law from the University of Iowa and the Creighton University School of Law, then packed her bags and headed north to Alaska. She practiced law in Petersburg and worked as an Alaska State Magistrate Judge in Unalaska, according to friends. After moving back to the mainland, she took a job for the Alaska Public Defender Agency.

“She’s like a lot of us that move up here,” said Shelley Chaffin, an Anchorage attorney who first met Murphy in the 1990s. “She just had her Alaska family.”

Together, Murphy and her Alaska family went out for work lunches, dinner gatherings and the occasional show. For a while, she was a regular at La Cabana, friends said. When the humorist Garrison Keillor came to town, she went to see him perform at the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts, Chaffin said.

Murphy was gruff yet deeply generous, friends recalled. Many years ago, when Rabe’s dog was recovering from surgery, Murphy purchased her an oversized crate so the dog could recover in comfort, Rabe said. She still has the crate.

A career attorney, Murphy was known for her sharp wit and dry, Midwestern sense of humor.

“She was very intelligent and knew what was going on in the world, which I really appreciate,” said Christy Garrett, a longtime member of the ADGW flyball club. “And she just loved dogs — she adored Rocky, and you could tell.”

When it came to her dogs, the normally reserved lawyer opened up. Especially when it came to Rocky, friends said.

“She wasn’t very effusive, but she would start talking about him, and you could just tell she thought he was amazing,” Rabe said.

“A good friend”

In April 2016, Rocky retired from Alaska Dogs Gone Wild, and the club gifted Murphy with a framed photograph of her dog in action, sailing over hurdles, tennis ball clutched between his teeth.

Though Rocky was too old to play any more, Murphy remained on the flyball club mailing list until this past January, Smith said. When she emailed him asking to be removed, they’d exchanged brief pleasantries, he said. He never heard from her again.

Meanwhile, her colleagues at court still saw her nearly every day. Nothing seemed amiss, they said.

“She was a good friend and a good lawyer,” Chaffin said.

After leaving the public defender agency some years ago, Murphy opened her own law practice, and she worked long hours out of a daylight basement office space just two blocks from Nesbett Courthouse. She was devoted to her job, friends said. In March, she had been working on a case with Rabe. She turned 59 on March 4.

Two days later, the police came calling. They’d found the bodies, they said.

For nearly a quarter of a century, Murphy owned a three-bedroom ranch-style home on a large, tree-lined lot on Oberg Road, nearly 25 miles away from the courthouse where she worked.

A retired neighbor was the first to notice something wrong. In early March, a thick crust of untouched snow surrounded the yellow house on the corner. A Ford Explorer languished in the front yard. Concerned, he went to investigate. When he saw a dead dog through the window, he called police.

Court documents described an ugly scene: Responding officers, worried they’d find a human corpse, entered Murphy’s home through an unlocked sliding door. The roof was caving in, cobwebs and mold coated the walls, and the floors were littered with dog feces and hundreds of empty wine bottles; police said they were overwhelmed by the smell of rot.

Reggie the whippet and Cairo the Rhodesian ridgeback were emaciated and stiff — one dead on the couch, the other inside a locked kennel scratched up by desperate claws and teeth.

The dogs had been that way for a while, Murphy later told police, according to court records. Near the end of a snowy winter, the snow was too deep to get in and out of her house, she told police, according to court documents. She’d retreated to her downtown office, but told officers she could only rescue Rocky.

They found her at her office that evening. Rocky — thin and sick — was seized by Anchorage Animal Care and Control. Murphy was arrested on two misdemeanor counts of cruelty to animals, then released on her own recognizance. An arraignment was scheduled for early April.

A week after her arrest, the Anchorage Police Department released a public statement detailing the misdemeanor charges against Murphy. Later, department spokeswoman Renee Oistad said the statement was issued in collaboration with animal control “to remind people that they have someone they can call not only if they think an individual is at risk, but animals too.”

Murphy had unspecified “health problems,” police announced in their public statement. Her dogs’ deaths quickly made headlines. The public condemnation was swift and vicious.

Days later, Murphy collapsed at her office. She never woke up.

Friends, family and police declined to comment on what led to her collapse, citing privacy concerns. After spending more than a week at Providence Hospital, she died on March 26. The State of Alaska dropped all charges against her.

“We all need to take care of each other”

Rocky, now 12, went to live with Christy Garrett, Murphy’s former flyball club teammate. He’s recovered fully and seems to be enjoying his new life.

“He’s happy; he’s really healthy,” Garrett said. “He’s gained a lot of movement and he plays all the time.”

Murphy would have liked that, said Garrett, who said it’s unfair Murphy’s final days were seen in such a harsh light.

“I think that it’s sad that the general world will remember her for that one report,” Garrett said. “In actuality, she loved dogs and she took excellent care of her dogs and was a really well-respected member of the dog community.”

After Murphy’s death, her friends celebrated her life at the Whale’s Tail at the Hotel Captain Cook. Dozens of people turned out to remember her – her friendship, her wit and her unfailing love of dogs.

“She was so private; she didn’t realize there were so many people willing to help her,” Garrett said. “Any one of us would have helped. Any one of her friends would have helped in a minute, and she just lost the idea that that was possible.”

Her arrest was a shock, said those who knew her. Her death was a tragedy.

“It drove home the fact that we all need to take care of each other,” Smith said.

Contact reporter Kirsten Swann at [email protected]

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