When Rebecca Saxton arrived to work at the University of Kansas' Hilltop Child Development Center one Wednesday morning in March, she found that her classroom's pet rabbit, Carrots, was missing. A note was left in its place, she testified on Monday.
"I have your rabbit. I had an accident with it. He is OK, but I'm taking him to the vet. I will bring him back today and I hope we can talk," Douglas County District Court Judge James McCabria read from a copy of the note. "I'm truly very sorry, Shawn the custodian."
The letter was dated March 22, 2017, McCabria noted.
The custodian, Shawn Zuehlsdorf, appeared in court Monday morning for a preliminary hearing regarding the incident. After listening to three witnesses testify, McCabria determined there was not probable cause to justify the felony charge originally filed against Zuehlsdorf. Rather, he ordered the case to move forward with two misdemeanor charges, cruelty to animals and theft.
The same morning Saxton arrived to find Carrots missing, Pier Masterson said she was leaving Rock Chalk Park with her children and she saw something "unusual": a man standing near the woods with a cardboard box.
"As he stepped away I noticed a white and black rabbit," Masterson testified. "I told my daughter we're going to pick up this rabbit because it's not supposed to be here."
Masterson also snapped a picture of the man's car, reportedly Zuehlsdorf's.
As she approached the rabbit, Masterson noticed the small creature was bleeding. Its tail was missing, she said.
Both Masterson and a Rock Chalk Park employee made sure Carrots was delivered to a veterinarian that day. Around that same time, KU Police Officer Clinton McClure was investigating the case.
McClure took the report of the missing rabbit and examined security footage from the day care, he testified. In the footage, he saw Zuehlsdorf enter the area with a collapsed cardboard box, later leaving with the box assembled and apparently taped shut.
At the time, Zuehlsdorf was one of several KU employees who cleaned the day care after hours. He is no longer employed with the university.
McClure testified that he spoke to Zuehlsdorf, first over the phone and then in person a few days later.
McClure said Zuehlsdorf told him he had been "roughhousing" with Carrots when its tail came off in his hand.
"The rabbit had flailed or kicked and at that time he pulled the tail off," McClure said.
Afterward Zuehlsdorf took Carrots from the building, intending to seek medical attention, McClure said. But he later decided against that and decided to dump the rabbit in the woods.
"He hoped the rabbit would go off into the woods and not be seen again," McClure said.
Zuehlsdorf was arrested on March 26, after his interviews with McClure. He was later released after posting a $3,000 bond.
After the three witnesses testified Monday morning, Zuehlsdorf's attorney, Julia Butler, argued there was not probable cause to warrant a felony cruelty to animals charge. That charge requires a certain awareness or malicious intent, and his note indicated the ordeal was an accident, she said.
Prosecutor C.J. Rieg said the evidence still supports the misdemeanor animal cruelty charge, which refers to Zuehlsdorf reportedly abandoning the animal.
McCabria said he was unwilling to make any assumptions regarding intent or maliciousness in the case and some of the evidence was "ambiguous at best."
"I just think I need something more," he said.
Considering the strength of the case, McCabria did not order Zuehlsdorf to face a trial for the felony charge filed against him. He did, however, say the misdemeanor charges would move forward. He scheduled Zuehlsdorf to appear in court on June 2 for an arraignment. Butler indicated Zuehlsdorf may take a plea regarding the two remaining charges.
In the end, Saxton said she cared for Carrots at her home for several weeks, administering medication three times a day. Eventually, however, the stitches at the base of the rabbit's tail came undone and the most humane option, a veterinarian said, was to euthanize the rabbit.