Luke was a rotund, sweater-wearing, 14-year-old cat and -- depending on who was describing him yesterday in a Loudoun County courtroom -- was either vicious or gentle. But both sides agreed that last Oct. 15, a series of events involving a trash can, a sandwich and a run-in with Peter J. Landrith's foot led to the marmalade tabby's demise.
Landrith said it was self-defense. A prosecutor called it a premeditated slaying.
In the end, the judge found Landrith, 39, guilty of felony animal cruelty, saying that no matter what happened that day, Landrith went too far. Now Landrith faces up to five years in prison.
Luke's death occurred while he was staying at Allyn Cornell's Leesburg townhouse, which she shared with four of her own cats, one of her sons and Landrith, her boyfriend. Luke belonged to her other son, who was away on his honeymoon.
During a three-hour trial in Loudoun Circuit Court, Cornell testified that she made Landrith a braunschweiger sandwich for lunch that day. She left for a meeting at 3:45 p.m., leaving Landrith home alone with the cats -- animals that Landrith disliked, said her son, Chad Cornell, 31.
Chad Cornell said he arrived about 4:30 p.m. to hear "piercing screams" coming from the basement storage room. There, he said, he found the 6-foot-3 Landrith pumping his foot into a trash can in the center of the room. A pair of latex gloves hung from Landrith's jeans pocket, Chad Cornell said. The trash can, he said, usually sat in the corner.
When he pulled Landrith's leg out of the trash can, he saw Luke lying on the bottom, his hind legs bloody, his chest heaving. Beneath the cat was a plastic garbage bag -- the kind usually stored upstairs, Chad Cornell said.
"I knew he was in trouble," Chad Cornell said of the cat, which had been declawed.
Landrith, he said, offered no emotion, only an explanation. "He said that Luke tried to eat his sandwich and when he shooed Luke away, Luke bit him," Chad Cornell said, adding that he saw no sandwich in the storage room. Allyn Cornell said that Landrith's sandwich was still on the kitchen table when she came home 15 minutes later.
Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Gigi Lawless argued that the gloves, the moved trash can and the garbage bag added up to one thing: a "carefully planned-out" slaying.
In testimony, Landrith told it differently. He said he warned the Cornell family that Luke -- who previously bit two people, witnesses agreed -- was dangerous.
He said he went to the storage room that day to look through boxes for computer equipment. He said he carried a sandwich -- "it happened to be a tuna fish sandwich," defense attorney Robert D. Anderson said -- but no latex gloves. As he searched, Landrith said, Luke leapt out and startled him, causing him to drop his sandwich.
Landrith said that when he reached for the sandwich, the cat latched on to his left ankle and bit him.
"When I felt the teeth of the cat going through my jeans, then I knew I was in real trouble," Landrith said. He said he lifted his foot, placed it in the two-foot-high trash can and "thrashed" until he "disengaged" the cat.
"This case is about the spontaneous reaction of an individual who was being attacked by an animal," Anderson argued.
Luke died on the way to a veterinary clinic. Veterinarian Clinton L. Pease Jr., who performed an autopsy, testified that blood filled the cat's abdomen. The cause of death: trauma.
Luke's owner, Brent Cornell, 25, acknowledged in court that the cat had bitten before. But he said the 14-pound cat was a passive animal who happily wore sweaters and Christmas hats. By last October, he said, Luke had become so arthritic that he grimaced as he descended stairs. "He would sort of melt in your arms," Brent Cornell said.
As he questioned attorneys, Judge J. Howe Brown Jr. noted that Virginia case law on killing animals in self-defense is thin.
Anderson tried to help: He referred to the 1943 case of a Virginia farmer who fatally shot dogs that attacked his chickens. The court determined that the farmer was right to protect his property.
"Certainly if it applies to chickens, your honor, it applies to human beings," Anderson said.
The judge was not swayed. As he read the guilty verdict, Allyn Cornell, who has broken up with Landrith, let out sobs. After the hearing, Landrith called the whole matter a "smear campaign."