Praying, dancing, what’s the difference?
Once the cock crows three?
Between right and wrong and weak and strong
There’s a line drawn in the dirt.
It’s where we come to kneel.
It’s how we stand the hurt. —from “Simon Peter’s Jig” by Jim McLean
My friendship with Carol Kathleen Abts started with the need to find my pet rooster, Janucz, a home away from my Hollywood condo. Janucz is a cantankerous, fat, one-eyed pirate, feathered in black and white stripes like a European prison convict — 12 pounds of girth, claws and shrieks — a bird inexplicably angry, given how he was hatched in my living room in an incubator, cradled as a baby chick, talked to and loved. Once, when he got out of his backyard pen, he held my neighbor hostage, backing him up against the garden wall and refusing to budge until I called him off. After Janucz started crowing — a passage into adulthood — I removed him to a farm in Van Nuys, where he quickly pounded 12 other roosters into submission. A week later, they got even, pecking out one of Janucz’s eyes, stifling his crow and leaving him for dead. So I brought him back home.
His dominance rudely shaken, Janucz suffered a bout of depression, though his cocky attitude eventually returned, along with his crowing. Once, having learned to navigate with one eye, Janucz blind-sided me with a swift, silent attack and returned to terrorizing the neighbors. Again, I needed to find him a home, far from other fowl, small pets, children and most of humanity.
Yvonne Rozsenich, the veterinary technician at L.A. Pet Clinic who helped me nurse Janucz back to health, directed me to her colleague Carol, who lives alone, owns no other barnyard fowl and agreed to provide a home for Janucz on a trial basis out near Fontana, at the edge of the Inland Empire.
Carol lives on nearly an acre, north of Foothill Boulevard, in a lonely, dilapidated 1948 one-bedroom wood-frame home located in an unincorporated area just north of the Fontana city limit. Approaching her house from two-lane Cherry Avenue, you’ll see fields of dying vineyards on the right and quadrants of new industrial warehouses on the left. There’s a vacant, grassy field to the north of her property. On the other side, a brick-and-terra-cotta wall separates Carol’s land from a Spanish-style clinic that’s actually a rehabilitation center for the mentally challenged. Carol’s home and that rehab center are the only residences in sight.
It’s the spring of 2002 when I first drive up to the property. A bug-eyed fellow in the clinic’s garden stares over the wall at me as I ponder how to reach Carol. Her house is set back behind a spacious front yard, which is sealed by a locked steel fence. In the yard, I notice an old van and a horse trailer. On one side of the house, a few goats bleat. On the other, half a dozen sheep poke their noses through a barricade. One has crossed and is baaing alone in the field. From the back of my car, my rooster, whom I’d been carrying in a dog cage, starts to crow. The sound fascinates the retarded fellow behind the wall, who stares at me and smiles.
Carol and I had arranged to meet at 2:30 in the afternoon. At 2:40, I call her name and hear no answer. I phone her from my cell, but her line is busy. Finally, I take a risk. With the mental patient amusedly watching, I shimmy over the fence, praying that Carol doesn’t own a guard dog. Approaching the house, I notice a number of small wire-and-plastic cages strewn around the trailer, and a potent stench of cat urine and bleach. Though the front screen door is closed, the main door is cracked open. Curtains block all the windows. I hear Carol inside, speaking on the phone. I call again, and she says she’ll be right out.
After about 10 minutes, a petite, 98-pound woman with gray-streaked red hair, dressed in sneakers, sweats and a pink T-shirt emblazoned with “I [heart symbol] cats” makes her squinting appearance in the glaring sunlight. After she unlocks the gate and lets me drive into her yard, we unload the dog cage, and out stride Janucz and his nest mate, a mottled hen named Dionysus, both of them scratching and pecking in patches of dry weeds.
Carol offers me a tour of her property — the outside anyway — introducing me to each of the goats and sheep with a running commentary on their personalities and medical histories. Carol loves to talk. Sometimes conversations drift through rambling ellipses. Never married, she says she knows five languages — English, French, German, Malay and Indonesian — and she’s still fluent in Malay from having spent two years in Malaysia with the Peace Corps when she was 30. Shortly after, she became a medic in the Navy, she says, to which she had transferred in 1980 from the Air Force and Air National Guard. She received her medical training at Great Lakes, Illinois, and was stationed at Bethesda Naval Hospital. Years after her discharge, she enrolled in a full-time veterinary program at Pierce College in the Valley, where she studied from 1991 to 1996. Now she applies her knowledge to helping animals, rescuing and treating them, and works part time at L.A. Pet Clinic, where she met Yvonne.
It’s hard to drive away. Carol literally hangs on to the car-door handle, still talking, even as I’m backing out. While pulling away, I see Carol stooped over in the front yard with her hands on her knees, scolding Janucz about something or other. He appears to be taking her seriously.
(top): Kitty shrine in the yard.
(bottom): mailbox shrine
It was well over a year later, in the summer of 2003, that Carol finally allowed me into her house. I had been a regular visitor to the property, bringing sacks of chicken mash, but I had never seen behind those curtained windows.
This occurred after Janucz charged me during a visit. To parry his attack, I hoisted him upside down by his feet — a hold that usually has a sedative effect. Instead, he arched his neck in a 180-degree twist and pecked me on the hand, drawing blood. Seeing this, Carol took me inside to treat the wound with an antibacterial.
Entering her house is like stepping into a dark, carpeted cave. Once I’m inside, the ammonia residue from cat urine strikes like a hammer, and on every windowsill and couch I see cats that Carol has rescued — not in cages, but with the run of the house. No dogs, no birds, just cats. There must be 30 or 40 of them, some sleeping in huddles, some loafing alone, some kittens, some with missing eyes and bandaged legs, some personable and tame, some feral. The creatures clearly respond to Carol when she calls or holds them. Dishes for food and water are situated throughout the house, as are fairly clean litter boxes, though some sand and dried feces have spilled out in places, onto the carpet. People keep dumping kitties on her, she explains. And she’s trying to get the healthy ones placed in other homes.
Medicine bottles and eyedroppers lie on and around the sink. From a cabinet, Carol finds a bottle of antiseptic, and, out in the front yard, with cotton wool, she dabs the cut on my hand, as Janucz watches.
Carol never curses. Once, when Janucz charged her, she called him a “booger.” That’s as severe as her condemnations get. Now, Janucz has forged an idiosyncratic bond with Carol. She has stopped approaching him with a large stick to defend herself. No need. He’s metamorphosed into her protector, her guard rooster. Carol’s built an expansive chicken-wire pen in the shade of a large eucalyptus tree, confining the birds, though they sometimes wander freely about the yard.
She confides that her toilet doesn’t flush because of a problem with the septic tank that she can’t afford to repair. Half of her $2,200-a-month Navy pension gets eaten by the mortgage, leaving her about $1,100 a month to pay the rest of her bills while feeding herself and her animals. So she uses the restroom at the McDonald’s down on Foothill Boulevard. Sometimes, in the middle of the night, she says, she pees in the open field.
Carol’s place made an indelible impression on me, but my memory of it doesn't square with the one San Bernardino County officials painted a mere six months later, when horrific conditions would be ascribed to Carol’s rescue operation and she would be charged with animal cruelty. Had something gone terribly awry in the intervening months? Had Carol slipped over the edge of a psychological cliff?
Fontana house of cats
On April 13, 1993,Vickie Rene Kittles was discovered keeping 115 emaciated dogs, four cats and two chickens on a feces-coated school bus she had been driving between Washington state and Oregon. After two years of hijacking the legal system with accusations of conspiracy and demands for new public defenders, Kittles was convicted in 1995 on 42 counts of animal neglect and sentenced to seven months in prison.
Patronek’s re-naming of “collectors” (which suggests a benign hobby) as “hoarders” (a pathology involving multiple psychological disorders, including addiction, attachment disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, zoophilia and derangement) is the starting point in HARC’s mission to cut through clichés and misunderstandings about the motives of people who take in more animals than they can support.
The expense of hoarding cases is borne by so many agencies — Elder Services, the District Attorney’s Office, Animal Control, Hazard Maintenance, Land Use, the local police or sheriff — that “there’s no one agency that says, oh, my goodness, this is expensive,” Patronek explains. “So communities don’t really know what it costs them.”
Studies have identified prevailing characteristics among hoarders: 76 percent are female; most are single, divorced or widowed, and almost half live alone; 46 percent are 60 years old or more; 65 percent hoard cats, 60 percent dogs; hoarders rarely mix species; men tend to collect dogs and big cats; women seem to collect small cats.
Patronek has little patience for common portrayals of animal hoarders as well-intentioned eccentrics.
“This is not about good intentions,” Patronek explains. “It’s about power and control, where the need to retain an animal supersedes the interest of that animal. There’s an enormous subconscious element; they don’t recognize the harm they’re doing even though it’s right in front of them, so it’s easy for a judge or a jury to accept at face value the good intentions. When you get underneath the surface, they’re not trying to rescue creatures at all. If an animal is being starved, it’s being starved.”
Patronek says the evidence suggests that the syndrome has roots in childhood, “a lack of stability in their lives so that animals were the only stable fixture they had, that they learned to rely on for support. Then, in adulthood, the chickens come home to roost, so to speak.”
Carol Abts was born prematurely on September 24, 1947, in Oregon, one of twins — the second and third of 10 children. She was reared in San Gabriel, where she attended parochial school.
“She was always tiny,” her sister Mary Jo remembers, “always being picked on, always a fighter. She did develop an intense desire to help animals early on. I can remember Carol used to put caterpillars on the curtain and watch them turn into cocoons. She was always bringing little animals home to care for them, little birds; she’s always had a gift for reaching animals. Carol would see that her animals would eat before she did. When I was growing up, she had like six cats at that time. We had a female kitty that gave birth quite a bit, and Carol would always be helping these animals. The idea of Carol being charged with [animal cruelty] just doesn’t make sense. She’s not a cruel person. She looks after her animals in earnest.”
Adds their mother, Mary Patricia Abts, “I think she was taken advantage of. The accusation is absolutely insane.”
Much of Carol’s life has been a string of mishaps. A spiteful child cut off her flowing ponytail just before her high school prom. She was supposed to have been married when she was in her 20s, but just before the wedding announcements were sent, her groom came to terms with being gay and ran away. Carol never got engaged again.
On November 18, 1981, after having worked the midwatch at Bethesda Naval Hospital, Carol was driving home in her Volkswagen Dasher on two hours’ sleep. She says her exit was approaching and she had put on her turn signal when another car rear-ended her. “The next thing I remember, I’m picking myself up and I see this kaleidoscope of lights. It was me, spinning, spinning. Suddenly I hit the center divider. I grabbed the wheel, jerked it, and the last thought before I passed out was, ‘Who’s going to take care of Critter?’ — one of the kitties I’d picked up.”
When the car settled, there were two people at the door. Carol felt warm blood on the left side of her face, where her head had lodged between the steering wheel and the wind wing. Carol suffered major multiple open and closed head traumas, though she claims that the lieutenant commander at Walter Reed Army Medical Hospital — the closest hospital — for some reason refused her admission. Instead, she says, she was transported to the Bethesda facility where she worked, which was 45 minutes away.
“They did some X-rays, stitched up my head,” Carol says. “All my teeth were fractured, there were traumatic cataracts, and now I have optic-nerve degeneration. After a stitch-and-sew operation, they took me home. Military people can’t sue.”
Two months later, in January of 1982, Carol says, she was raped and impregnated by a friend of someone she knew in the military.
“This guy broke into my house, took the phone out of my hands, threw me down, held my hands behind my back — I knew the guy,” she says, “he’d been in my house once before. He’d come in, sat on my couch, laughing, with a bong. He blew smoke in my cat’s face. I told him to get out. He came back two months later and raped me. I wasn’t right in the head, from the accident, but I do remember him saying that if I told anybody about what he did, he would plant some drugs in my apartment and call the MPs. So I called a girlfriend. We reported it to the C.O., who did nothing.”
Despite these setbacks, or maybe because of them, Carol continued to open her heart to what she sees as the world’s vulnerable creatures.
“Sometimes, the way she looks at things is not the most mature,” says Mary Jo, “but she’s got a huge heart. One time, not so long ago, she brought a lamb into our house. She had a kitten in her purse, she didn’t want us to know, and she was trying to hide it. I said, ‘Carol, how old are you?’ Just admit it, come on.
“She was not always honest about how many animals she was caring for. But she always took really, really good care of them. You have to be very patient with her. She’s very defensive. She doesn’t have a life with a husband or children. These animals, they’re everything to her.”
In the animal's interest?
Trouble seems to have followed Abts all the way to the Inland Empire. On May 1, 2003, somebody files a complaint with the San Bernardino County Land Use Services Department about Carol’s substandard property. Carol suspects it was her older brother, Richard, who’s trying to sell her property out from under her, she says. First he needs to find a way to get her evicted.
“How can he sell it out from under you if you’re paying the mortgage?” I ask.
“That’s right,” Carol says. “But my brother’s a sneaky one. He’s trying to say I’m crazy and incompetent so he can have this house and sell it.”
That night, I check online public records to find that Carol’s property is actually in her brother’s name. Though she purchased it on February 23, 2001, four months later, on June 27, it’s recorded that she signed it over to Richard in an “intra-family transaction.” What remains a mystery is how Carol can continue to pay the mortgage and property taxes on a house that’s in somebody else’s name. Over the phone, Carol says that Richard filed a fraudulent quitclaim deed, along with a deed for power of attorney over her, and that she’s trying to get them nullified with the help of an attorney named John Rager, who is working for Carol pro bono.
Explains Rager, “At some point, she deeded the property to her brother Richard. She doesn’t remember, but we checked the handwriting, and it is her handwriting. Now we have to demonstrate she was bullied, or didn’t know what she was doing, or both.”
In a court complaint, Richard refers to his sister’s “pathological obsession with animals,” saying he tried to help Carol find a place to live in late 2000, suggesting that she rent two adjacent apartments in the San Fernando Valley, one for her and another for her 20 cats. They finally agreed on the Fontana property because it afforded her some land, and Richard claims he gave as much as $22,000 (Rager figures it was closer to $15,000) in cash and expenses to help his sister move in. Because he couldn’t get approval for a mortgage due to bad credit, Richard writes that he had an agreement with Carol: In exchange for his investment, she would deed him the property. Carol says no such agreement existed and that her brother reported her to the authorities out of spite after she contested Richard’s quitclaim deed and power of attorney over her.
In mid-June 2003, Richard posts a three-day eviction notice against his sister, as though she is his tenant who has allowed his property to fall into chronic disrepair — even though he has contributed nothing toward the property’s upkeep, and Carol has been meeting the mortgage payments for 29 months.
On August 13, 2003, with the quitclaim deed as evidence, a Superior Court judge rules in favor of Richard, awarding him full title to Carol’s property.
To prevent Carol’s impending homelessness, Rager makes several attempts to mediate a settlement between Richard and Carol with the help of their mother. Rager hopes to distribute the assets from a sale of the property between the two siblings, so that both can walk away with something and get on with their lives. However, brother and sister are now at war.
In 1997, Fairview Heights, Illinois, police confiscated 26 catsand 17 dogs from Cheryl Dashke. Her former landlord was quoted as saying that 10 years earlier, he’d had to use a shovel to remove animal feces and urine from her kitchen floor. By 2000, Dashke had moved to Granite City, Illinois, where, in her mobile home, she was found harboring 88 dogs, 51 cats, inbred and malnourished, plus nine dead animals wrapped in her refrigerator. “She loved those animals, and she didn’t want us to take them,” Cheri Hutchings of the Metro East Humane Society told GraniteCity News.
The efforts of attorney Ledy VanKavage, a lobbyist for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, led to Illinois’ being the first, and so far the only, state to have animal-hoarding “companion legislation” attached to animal-cruelty laws. In Illinois, if there’s any hoarding element to an animal-cruelty verdict, the law requires a counseling component, and allows the police to do spot checks to ensure the syndrome doesn’t return. New York is now considering such legislation, but there’s nothing on the horizon in California, VanKavage says. “California is eventually going to have to deal with this problem.”
Patronek, however, is skeptical. “The follow-up is poor. If counseling is ordered, we don’t know if it’s carried out. And the counseling varies in different territories.”
Dr. Randy Frost, a professor of psychology at Smith College, is studying the relationship between the hoarding of animals and the collection of objects. He identifies one common thread among animal hoarders: the belief that they, alone, can give better care to an animal than anybody else — a belief also described by veterinarian’s assistant Terilynn Mitchell, who was Carol’s colleague at L.A. Pet Clinic, until Carol’s car broke down and she couldn’t make the drive to Hollywood.
Terilynn has been one of Carol’s most ardent supporters, driving out from either L.A. Pet Clinic or her Mojave Desert home to help place Carol’s seized cats, and to attend pretrial hearings in Fontana.
“Carol always knows best,” she says, with a mix of affection and exasperation. “Sometimes, at work, it was difficult to deal with. A cat is on one medicine, and Carol insists it should be another. Sometimes that’s why she’d take yet another cat home. Nobody knows how to take care of an animal except Carol.”
For her part, Carol insists that when she moved to Fontana with her 20 cats, she was doing fine, and that when I first saw her home, harboring what she says were 30 cats, she was still in control of the situation, functioning as a clinic and placement center. But in late 2003, she admits, something slipped.
Stoked by Santa Ana winds after a particularly dry summer and triple-digit temperatures, four wildfires sweep across Southern California on Tuesday, October 21, 2003. At about 2:30 in the afternoon, the Grand Prix fire erupts at the upper end of Cherry Avenue, north of Fontana, with flames soaring 70 feet into the sky. Though its inclination is to climb north into the mountains, away from homes, it also spreads west as far as La Verne, taking random licks at freeway embankments and vacant fields adjoining Baseline Road and Foothill Boulevard from Claremont to San Bernardino. The Internet shows the up-to-the-minute block-by-block progress of the cauldron’s sweep. On October 24, Carol’s property is ringed by fire. In a phone conversation, she says she’s scared, but fine, overwhelmed by orphaned “critters” with upper-respiratory maladies caused by the smoke.
She claims strangers keep dumping cats on her property. She knows she’s in trouble when she can’t recognize some of her cats. She says the number of cats on her property has rocketed to 80, though there are credible reports that the number of cats is well over 100 by now.
As Carol stares down the barrel of homelessness while inundated with notices of violation issued by Animal Control and Land Use Services, plus threats of arrest by the Sheriff’s Department, panic starts to cut through her good cheer. She careens between bouts of depression, illness and resolve, through which she continues to accrue yet more cats, orphaned by the fires.
On November 12, Rager takes the offensive, legally, filing a lawsuit on Carol’s behalf against Richard, charging him with conspiracy and fraud.
At about this time, the dogs start showing up — violent huskies attacking Carol’s sheep and goats. Carol says that somebody keeps breaking the lock on her fence to let the dogs in. Early one morning, Carol awakens to hear both chickens screaming. Janucz is confined in his pen, but Dionysus has been sleeping, unprotected, in the yard. Carol watches a husky chase Dionysus out into the field and take her down in the low grasses. Carol runs after the dog to find the bird’s ravaged corpse. Janucz crows day and night for about a week, even through ferocious gusts of wind and dust, until he loses his voice.
In February of this year, tiger-sanctuary operator John Weinhart of Colton, California, was convicted of 56 counts of animal cruelty and child endangerment after authorities found dozens of dead tiger cubs in his freezers, adult-tiger carcasses on the property of his Glen Avon compound, and an alligator swimming in a bathtub.
Patronek, VanKavage and Frost agree that animal hoarders shouldn’t be lumped into one category. HARC has identified at least three types: sociopaths with no capacity for empathy; those with genuinely good intentions who let a borderline situation slip out of control; and those in between, with a network of enablers. But where VanKavage and Frost see hope for reform in milder cases, Patronek doesn’t: “Carol may be in the middle of the road, with some quasi-business, quasi-rescuer effort. I’ll bet it’s a situation that will continue to deteriorate over time. Eventually, the more legitimate aspects of their activities fade away.”
The situation may well have reached the point of no return by the morning of December 7, when Animal Control Officer Heather Muschwitz shows up at the property to re-check conditions after a September 29 notice of violation. Muschwitz sees more than the maximum four goats and sheep allowed by county code, plus at least 12 cats in the windows. The front gate is locked, so Muschwitz honks her horn and shouts to Carol, who doesn’t answer. A homeless woman approaches Muschwitz by the gate. This woman is Melissa Speaks, one of Carol’s younger sisters, described by Carol as nothing but trouble — a depiction corroborated by their sister Mary Jo.
According to Muschwitz’s report, Melissa tells him that she’s living in a vehicle parked on Carol’s property, and she asks if he intends to arrest Carol.
“Why would I arrest her?” Muschwitz replies.
Melissa then “climbed over the fence and walked to a vehicle parked on the property and got in.”
Muschwitz calls for backup from both the Animal Control and Sheriff’s departments. According to Muschwitz’s report, when Deputy Sheriff R. Young arrives, Melissa gets out of the vehicle, climbs back over the fence and starts speaking with the sheriff, who tells Melissa that he’s already notified Carol of a warrant for her arrest (based on a 1991 traffic violation. According to the public record, this warrant was quashed in September 2001, and its related attendant traffic violation was dismissed one month later).
Melissa then traverses the fence once more, according to Muschwitz’s report, and summons Carol from the house, where Young arrests her “coming out the front door.”
After posting a notice of seizure on the front door, Muschwitz impounds 26 of what she describes as an estimated “100 plus” cats in the house, and reports them to the Animal Emergency Clinic in Grand Terrace. Six are euthanized on arrival. The remaining 20 are transferred to the San Bernardino Animal Shelter in Devore.
Among a litany of hellish descriptions in her report of the scene, Muschwitz writes the following: “The house was filthy, with what appeared to be dried diarrhea as well as fresh diarrhea on the floor and counter tops. Some stool was of normal consistency, however, appearing very old. A strong odor of feces and urine filled the house. The smell was nauseating . . . In a back bedroom, there were approximately six filthy litter boxes filled with cat feces and stacked one on top of each other . . . I estimated over 100 cats running loose in the house. All of the cats were sneezing, had runny eyes, and runny noses. Some of the cats had hair loss with open wounds. The cats appeared to be underweight. Some of the cats had labored breathing. I also saw a stack of cages next to the refrigerator. These cages contained approx. 14 kittens in various stages of illness.”
When Muschwitz returns the following day with two other Animal Control officers and Deputy Young, to deal with the rest of the cats, they observe that the front door has been kicked open, traps have been set all over the house that weren’t there the day before, and that all but a few feral cats have been removed — certainly not by Carol, who is still in jail.
According to a December 9 report by Animal Control Investigator Douglas Smith, Melissa is now occupying the house and won’t say which of “Carol’s friends” removed the cats. One of those “friends,” whom I’ll call Dorine, spoke to the Weeklyon condition of anonymity. She said that many of the cats were hers and that word of Carol’s arrest had spread quickly among the animal-rescue subculture.
“I rescue strays,” Dorine explained. “I lived in a part of Fontana where people were dumping animals left and right. That’s real common. It’s not the best of neighborhoods, so when I see an animal starving or hurt or injured, what can I do? Rescue groups that are licensed get filled, so that’s how I got involved with Carol. I know both sides; I’ve seen news stories where people have way too many. I understand that point of view. At the same time, I don’t believe in Animal Control killing the animals unnecessarily. They put mine to sleep. There was no reason for that. I did identify three or four that I knew were mine. They said they couldn’t give them to me then but they would call me. They never called, and they put them to sleep.”
Carol is held in jail for three days. When she returns on the morning of December 10, she says that her home has been looted, and her purse and ID, among countless other possessions, have been stolen. Carol says she filed detailed reports — including testimony by witnesses — to the Sheriff’s Department, which simply dismissed her, and her reports, as crazy.
At Carol’s request, I call a defense attorney I know in Riverside to see if he can help with her legal challenges. A week later, I follow up. His secretary answers dryly.
“I guess she didn’t tell you about the dead cats in the freezer,” the woman says.
“What dead cats?” I reply.
A week later, Carol and I huddle under the eucalyptus tree in a light rain. Janucz ambles to the center of the yard, clucking and digging for worms.
“So what about the cats in the freezer?” I blurt out.
Carol glares — the first time I’ve ever seen her flush with anger. “How did you find out about that?”
“You could have told me before I started calling lawyers on your behalf.”
“It looks bad.”
“It looks terrible.”
“I was going to get them taken care of. They were tagged. When you have that many critters, some are old, some are sick, some die. I can’t bury them all on the property. So I have to hold them until I can get them cremated.”
“You have paperwork with this place? You’re going to need it.”
“A whole list of cats. I took my lamb there after one of them dogs broke her back.”
Rain is now coming down in sheets. Janucz, dripping, wanders back under ?the tree.
On May 3 of this year, Carol’s lawsuit against her brother Richard finally comes to trial, with Judge Robert Fawke presiding. The court finds that Richard has a history of helping Carol, and other siblings, in times of distress, but also that Richard has a history of intimidation and coercion to get what he wants. The court finds that Carol appears to have been bullied by Richard and his then fiancée, Cynthia Arnold, into signing a quitclaim deed and power of attorney over to Richard, without a full understanding of what she was signing, or a fair opportunity to review the documents in private. The court finds no written evidence of any promise by Carol to deed her property to Richard in exchange for financial assistance, or any support of that claim in escrow documents. The court therefore nullifies the quitclaim deed, returning full title of the property to Carol. Furthermore, the court denies Richard’s demand that Carol pay $1,000 per month in back rent to him, since Carol has been paying the mortgage. Instead, Carol is awarded $50,000 in damages. Shortly after, Richard files for bankruptcy.
Also this year, all complaints by Land Use Services have been dismissed, based on evidence of Carol’s having cleaned up her property, though the septic tank still needs repair.
The animal-cruelty charge was never filed, but having rejected the D.A.’s plea bargain of a three-year probation without animals, Carol now faces a jury trial in October on one misdemeanor count of “failure to provide adequate care for an animal.” The charge carries a maximum one-year jail sentence and a maximum $1,000 fine. Terilynn and I attend a pretrial hearing at the Superior Court in Fontana. Afterward, she drives me to the train station, six blocks from the courthouse. I hang on to the outside of the passenger door, waiting for the train in the blazing sun.
“So is she pathological . . . or did she just get in over her head?” Terilynn asks.
“Well . . . We know she got in over her head. That much is clear.”
Terilynn remarks that whoever took the photos of Carol’s impounded cats had removed their collars and sprayed the fur with water, so they looked like drowning rats.
“And when you bring in any new cat with ringworm or mites or upper-respiratory problems, it spreads like dandelions,” she adds. “The trick is, you can’t really go over 10. I live in the desert with my roommate, and I'm at 10 cats, and I wanted to bring in just one more and I figured . . . Somewhere, you have to draw a line. Once you get into double digits, you’re talking about viral mutations.”
For some reason, I remember Carol complaining to me about how Animal Control had dug up dead cats in her yard and taken photos of them. “What’s that supposed to prove?” Carol had said. “That I abused them? That I killed ’em?” Hanging on to Terilynn’s door, I gaze down the train tracks.
“Sometimes I look at Carol,” Terilynn says, “and I think, there but for the grace of God...”