Atwater animal shelter investigation concluded

Determination on Last Hope Cat Kingdom could take weeks

rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.comAugust 21, 2013 

CW Cat Kingdom Investigation

CHRISTOPHER WINTERFELDT/cwinterfeldt@mercedsunstar.com A cat lays under a truck, near a cat carrier box, in front of Last Hope Cat Kingdom, on Friday (6-28-13) in the McSwain area near Atwater.

CHRISTOPHER WINTERFELDT

— The county's investigation of the Last Hope Cat Kingdom concluded Friday with evidence being handed to the Merced County District Attorney's office. Officials say it could be several weeks before a determination is made.

The Atwater-based animal rescue became the subject of a criminal investigation after Merced County Animal Control officials said they found scores of sick and dead animals at the facility in June.

Complaints received by The Humane Society of the United States led to the search and seizure of 301 animals, including 295 cats and six dogs.

About 200 animals were euthanized because a team of veterinarians determined they were too sick to survive, and 74 animals were found dead at the rescue.

Rick Blackwell, Merced County animal services manager, said his staff met with officials from the District Attorney's office on Friday to turn over the evidence.

"We've concluded the main investigation on Last Hope Cat Kingdom and forwarded our findings to the DA for review," Blackwell said. "It could be at least another month before any decision is made."

The case has been assigned to Supervising Deputy District Attorney Steve Slocum, who said Wednesday that he's started reviewing the file.

Slocum is working on an upcoming homicide trial for the next couple weeks, which could delay the process for Last Hope Cat Kingdom's case, he said.

"Once I get through that, I'll have time to read all the reports and go through the evidence," Slocum said. "I anticipate we will have a chance to review the file and make a final determination by the end of September."

Slocum said the investigation's findings include witness statements, photographs and video. He anticipates that county animal control will send him additional evidence in the next few weeks.

Other group gets a look

Blackwell said his agency is currently investigating an off-site rescue group that worked closely with Last Hope Cat Kingdom. The group hasn't violated any health or safety standards, he said, but doesn't have the required permits.

"We're working with them to get that established," Blackwell said.

Last Hope Cat Kingdom co-founder Renate Schmitz said Wednesday she wasn't aware the investigation had been completed.

"I'm surprised that they didn't say anything yet," Schmitz said. "They didn't tell me anything."

Schmitz said her group is no longer accepting new animals, but people continue dropping off animals at her gate — both dead and alive.

"Please don't dump animals here," Schmitz said. "That's animal control's business, not ours."

Blackwell also urged the public to refrain from dropping animals off at Last Hope Cat Kingdom.

"At this point, Last Hope Cat Kingdom is pretty much suspended in animal intakes until this matter is resolved," he said.

"If you have an animal you're trying to place, please bring it to the shelter. We have a very good rescue network," Blackwell added.

Slocum estimated the trial that he's working on will be concluded about September 13.

Schmitz is no longer being represented by Merced attorney John Garcia. She declined comment on her current representation.

Reporter Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.com.

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