Editor's Note: On May 28, Alabama veterinarian Jerrry Handley was charged with second-degree arson, seven felony counts of animal curelty and a misdemenaor charge of filing a false report. Shortly after this story went to press, Handley allegedly confessed to police that he started the April 24 fire that killed two dogs and five cats at his veterinary clinic, and he shot himself to make it look like an attack.
On May 30, Handley was released on a $100,000 cash bond and was taken to a mental-health treatment facility as ordered by the district judge handling the case, according to the court. A preliminary hearing was slated for June 27.
Here is the original, fabricated story he told DVM Newsmagazine and other media outlets.
Gadsden, Ala. — Dr. Jerry Handley grabbed the gun from his truck before entering his rural Alabama practice by way of the back door, already ajar.
It was after hours and the mixed-animal practitioner, no stranger to drug-seeking break-ins, knew something was amiss. Yet he never expected to encounter a man 6 feet tall and weighing at least 230 pounds. The intruder smelled of grease, like a mechanic, with dark hair and a tribal tattoo on his right bicep, Handley says.
"I was shocked. I didn't know anyone was there, to be honest. I just walked in," Handley recalls of the April 24 attack that reduced his practice to ashes and nearly killed him. "Just when I realized something was wrong, someone from behind hit me in the back of the head." The blow from a second intruder stunned 51-year-old Handley, giving the assailant time to snatch the veterinarian's gun and shoot him in the arm and leg.
Handley struggled and recovered the weapon, only to be struck a second time before losing consciousness. What happened next is unclear. Handley came to long enough to fire shots in the robbers' direction, but not before they doused the building with an accelerant and set it ablaze with the veterinarian inside, authorities believe.
"I thought I was going to die," Handley says. "I kept blacking out. Fire was all around me. I could hear my cats crying, I just couldn't get to them."
Eight animals — seven owned by Handley— died in the blaze. Trapped by flames and blacking out, the practitioner called his wife and whispered that he was shot. She dialed 9-1-1.
"When I woke up I was talking to the 9-1-1 operator," Handley says. "I don't know how that happened."
The operator, who called Handley's cell phone, kept him on the phone for 12 minutes, long enough to hear Etowah County Sheriff Todd Entrekin enter the burning building, call out for the veterinarian and drag him to safety.
Handley was taken by emergency helicopter to a nearby hospital, where he was treated for the gunshot wounds, head injuries and severe burns on both legs.
Authorities continued their search for the assailants at press time. Waiting on the arrests does little to help Handley, now recovering at home, to sleep at night. He refuses to rebuild despite an insurance payout that "is not enough." For the time being, he sends clients to area colleagues, but with two kids in college, he's considering opening a mobile practice.
"I could never walk into that place again at night," Handley says of his practice. "I lost everything in the fire. It's too hard to go back."