Unsympathetic suspect, but shelter policies may have been accessories to the alleged crime
COACHELLA, California––Riverside County Superior Court Judge Harold Hopp on August 14, 2019 sentenced Deborah Sue Culwell, 59, to serve 365 days in custody for abandoning seven puppies in a trash bin on a hot day in April.
Counting time already served since her arrest, Culwell will serve another 174 days, plus 36 months on supervised probation.
Culwell, who initially pleaded innocent even though the abandonment was captured on security camera video, changed her pleas to guilty to seven counts of felony cruelty to animals and seven misdemeanor counts of animal abandonment.
A Napa Auto Parts store surveillance camera on April 18, 2019 caught Culwell in the act of allegedly trying to cull seven three-day-old puppies, already placed in a plastic bag with the top tied shut, by driving up to a parking lot recycling center and tossing the bag into a bin in mid-90-degree heat.
Whether the Culwell approach to culling puppies was more cruel than the usual methods used by dogfighters, backyard breeders, and others among whom culling puppies is part of a cruel way of life can be debated.
It was, however, more blatant, capped by a defiant hair-flip as Culwell walked back to the white Jeep Wrangler she used to get to the recycling center and then make her getaway.
A homeless man identified only as “John” saw Culwell tossing the bag, thought her behavior was odd, found the puppies, and carried them to the doorway of the Napa Auto Parts store,. A second man carried the bag into the store, where a clerk called Riverside County Animal Services.
“MeoowzResQ, a Southern California-based organization specializing in kitten and cat rescue and fostering, agreed to accept the pups,” reported KNX 1070.
But Noni Boen Schirm, whose Facebook page identifies her as “Master Bottle Feeder/Critical Care at City of San Bernardino Animal Control,’ did not mention MeoowzResQ in a series of updates about the puppies, one of whom died, Schirm said, on April 24, 2019.
“No excuse for dumping puppies”
“There is no excuse for dumping puppies,” fulminated Riverside County Animal Services commander Chris Mayer. “Especially in today’s age when we or other shelters would be willing to get these animals to foster parents or rescue partners. This was a shameful act,” Mayer emphasized, in a statement much echoed by many other smugly self-righteous online commentators.
Unclear, though, was how Mayer or any of the others imagined that Culwell or anyone else in financial and personal distress was expected to know about the alternatives.
Surrender appointments required
Advises the Riverside County Animal Services web page on “Relinquishing a Pet,” last updated on Valentine’s Day, 2014, “The Department of Animal Services provides a relinquishment service to the public for pet owners who are unable to keep their pets. Each pet will be evaluated at the time of relinquishment.
“After completing an animal history form you will have a consultation with an animal care employee. If you come in before the designated time for consultations, you may be asked to come back later. Refer to the list of times per shelter below.”
In other words, Riverside County Animal Services either makes no provision for people in crisis to quickly relinquish animals they cannot care for, or does not publicize that exceptions might be made for people who, for instance, have a litter of puppies who might be adoptable if admitted to a shelter.
“Don’t surrender animals if you don’t have money”
Continues the Riverside County Animal Services web page, “A $118 Commitment Fee applies to all cats and dogs at the time of relinquishment at the shelter. Additional fees may apply if your dog is not currently licensed. You may be liable for retroactive or late licensing fees. Also, please remember to bring your pets medical records and vaccine history. If you cannot provide proof of current vaccinations, you will be charged for vaccines needed to surrender your dog or cat to the shelter.”
In short, if Culwell had taken her seven puppies to the nearest Riverside County Animal Services shelters, she would have had to bring at least $826 just to get the puppies in the door, after waiting perhaps several days for a surrender appointment.
Since the puppies were probably neither licensed nor vaccinated, there might have been additional fees––and, of course, there almost certainly would have been questions concerning the whereabouts of the mother dog, potentially leading to substantially more fees.
$5,300 to $10,000+ to go to the shelter
As the Culwell case developed, Culwell––unless she knew about emergency exemptions not mentioned on the Riverside County Animal Services web page––would have had to shell out a minimum of $5,300 and probably more than $10,000 to stay on the right side of the law.
Meanwhile, Culwell’s behavior and attitude captured by the surveillance camera practically dared a shocked and furious social media audience to catch and expose her, after Riverside County Animal Services released the surveillance video on Friday, April 19, 2019.
By Monday morning, April 22, 2019, Culwell, hunted online by tens of thousands of people, might have at least temporarily become the most detested woman in the world––and that was before anyone other than some of the those trying to bring her to justice knew her name.
Animal control chief personally made the bust
Several social media users claimed to have identified Culwell to Riverside County Animal Services, but the agency said in a media statement that it had tracked her down by her license plate number, which was visible in the surveillance video.
“Deborah Sue Culwell of Coachella was arrested late Monday at the end of a three-day search after officers were able to secure an arrest warrant,” reported Sam Benson Smith of City News Service.
“Once the arrest warrant was signed,” Smith continued, “Riverside County Department of Animal Services commander Chris Mayer drove to Culwell’s residence and arrested her around 5:30 p.m. on seven suspected felony charges of animal cruelty. She also faces seven misdemeanor charges of animal abandonment.”
Not mentioned was why Mayer himself made the bust, which most large multi-shelter animal control departments would have delegated to the field officers responsible for the district.
But television cameras were rolling.
38 more dogs at home, seven of them pregnant
Culwell was jailed in Indio, California, just south of Coachella, in lieu of posting $10,000 bond, but bailed out late the next day after posting $1,000. Culwell was scheduled to make her first court appearance at the Larson Justice Center in Indio on June, 2019.
“ABC News was unable to reach Culwell, and it is unclear if she has an attorney,” reported Meghan Keneally of ABC.
“Animal Services also found 38 dogs at Culwell’s residence, all of whom were impounded, as officers were ‘uncertain who would care for the dogs after she was arrested,’’” Riverside County Department of Animal Services spokesperson John Welsh told Sam Benson Smith.
“Every day the 38 dogs remain in the care of Riverside County Animal Services,” Schirm posted, Culwell “is facing $570 in board and care fees. These daily fees do not include the cost of vaccinations, examination fees, medications, nor state-mandated fees.”
“Seven of the dogs found on the scene were pregnant,” Smith mentioned.
Pups probably terrier mixes
“Most of the dogs appeared to be in somewhat healthy condition, but some were aggressive or fearful,” said the Riverside County Department of Animal Services.
Riverside County Department of Animal Services hoped that the mother of the seven abandoned puppies might be among them.
The impounded dogs were taken to the Coachella Valley Animal Campus in Thousand Palms. Held as evidence, the dogs will not be available for adoption until they are either voluntarily surrendered or seized through court proceedings after a mandatory 10-day hold.
Dozens of other media reported on both the puppy-dumping and the Culwell arrest, without even visibly beginning to investigate why Culwell allegedly tried to cull the seven puppies, usually identified as “terrier mixes” and probably part Jack Russell, or why Culwell had 38 dogs in her home even after allegedly dumping the seven pups, or what real-world alternatives Culwell had if, for whatever reason, she felt she needed to immediately reduce the number of animals in her custody.
No other bona fide local “open admission” shelters
Checking the web sites of the several non-Riverside County Department of Animal Services shelters within an hour’s drive of Coachella, ANIMALS 24-7 found some that claimed to be “open admission,” but only for residents of their own communities, and found none that would not have charged Culwell, or anyone else, substantial surrender fees, or admit to accepting animals in urgent and immediate need from the public.
Surrender policies apparently adopted to “encourage responsible pet ownership,” in short, in Riverside County appear to mandate irresponsible behavior among people who for whatever reason do not have large sums of ready cash and for whatever reason feel they must give up an animal now, not tomorrow, the day after, or sometime next week.
The Culwell case is only the latest of several recently reported in Riverside County involving abandonments of puppies and kittens. Whether Culwell might have been involved in any of the earlier cases is currently unclear, as is her apparent motivation for allegedly abandoning the seven puppies while keeping the 38 other dogs.
Who is suspect Deborah Sue Culwell?
ABC News 7 reported that Deborah Sue Culwell “has a lengthy criminal history with convictions ranging from check fraud to drug possession.”
Online records indicate that Deborah Sue Culwell moved into her five-bedroom, 2,000-square-foot street corner Coachilla residence, built in 1952, after residing for some time in a smaller house just up the block.
Both houses had been owned by Lynda S. Cagle, 79, of Indio, who was apparently in the process of selling the larger house to the Culwell family.
Both houses appear to have been occupied at some point in recent years by members of the Culwell family: four generations in all. Among them were Jess Willard Culwell, 80; Myrle Ann Culwell, 73; Deborah Sue Culwell herself; a David Culwell, 55, who might have been her husband; Amanda Culwell Carrillo, her daughter; Joe A. Carrillo, her son-in-law; and a Carrillo child.
Why all the dogs?
ANIMALS 24-7 found no indication that any of the family were involved in any dog-related occupation, business, or “rescue,” or even mentioned or exhibited photographs of pets on Facebook.
But video of the inside of the house where Deborah Sue Culwell was arrested showed no indication, either, that any of the other Culwell family were current or recent residents of that particular house, unless their possessions were exclusively confined to rooms not shown, and did show many dogs of various small breeds or mixes, along with extensive property damage evidently done by dogs.
“Tile flooring inside was dirty and cracked, there were holes in the walls, and one of the rooms had a couch so damaged that only its wooden frame, springs, and a few mangled pieces of fabric were visible,” summarized Hannah Fry and Hailey Branson-Potts of the Los Angeles Times.
100 animals found at troubled “rescue” the same day
Amid the media storm surrounding the Culwell case, only Z1077 FM, “Community Radio for the California Hi Desert,” appears to have noticed citations issued earlier on April 18, 2019, the day the seven puppies were abandoned, to Moonlight Animal Rescue founder Jessica Gregory and Valeria Schultz, 20, a resident of the property in Joshua Tree, Riverside County, about an hour’s drive northeast of Coachella.
Responding to a call about “a civil disturbance between roommates,” Z1077 FM reported, sheriff’s deputies “found 20 to 30 cats in the main living area, as well as cages and animal feces.”
Altogether, Z1077 FM said, more than 100 animals were found at the scene.
Young mother “cited and released at the scene”
Schultz, mother of an 18-month-old child, “was cited and released at the scene for child endangerment,.” Z1077 FM summarized.
“Child and Family Services provided a safety plan to get the child to a safe and healthy environment, and the woman and child have since moved out of the home.
“Animal Control issued eight administrative citations to Jessica Gregory for county code violations,” the Z1077 FM report concluded.
Also known as Moonlight Ranch, the location is listed by AirB&B as a rental campsite six miles from the main entrance to Joshua Tree National Park.
As either Moonlight Ranch or Moonlight Animal Rescue, the organization appears to have never filed an IRS Form 990, detailing income and expenses.
It has,. however, had previous issues, including a December 2016 fire that razed a trailer on the property, killing four adult goats and three kids, according to Gregory, and an October 13, 2018 flash flood that inundated Gregory’s living quarters in mud.
Surrendering the Moonlight Animal Rescue animals to Riverside County Animal Services, had Gregory felt over her head, would apparently have cost her in excess of $10,000.
In my county, if a dog or cat is surrendered from the rural areas or the municipalities signing with the Humane Society, the county or municipalities pay in excess of $150 for each dog, puppy, cat, or kitten surrendered. Because there is a spay/neuter ordinance, the owner of a litter of puppies or kittens will be fined unless the dam is spayed.
The homeless guy that took them in should be rewarded fo what he did.
The piece of sh*t bitch who left them should be forced to pay the homeless dude a finders fee.
Elizabeth Clifton says
This sort of emotional reaction, while understandable, fails to address the underlying issues in any manner. Solutions for people and animals in crisis need to be made accessible,
ranging from low cost or free spay/ neuter to open admission shelter policies that don’t punish people for relinquishing animals, and including substance abuse and mental health counseling and treatment services.
(Merritt and Beth Clifton)
Another stellar example of why ANIMALS 24-7 is one of the best resources on the Net. You get to the bottom of these viral stories, examine backstories, and ask hard questions. Most animal-related news reports, even those from major media outlets, don’t even attempt to do this.
As I’ll admit to knowing the word “Coachella” as only a music festival, and not a region, I had previously been under the impression that this woman was a concert attendee who took time out from her reveling to dump a litter of puppies–which made the story even weirder.
We all know why shelters got to be the way they are–an obsessive focus on “live release rate” to the detriment of everything else–but how can things change? These agencies are blocking out the very communities that need them most…people who are desperate, people who don’t have options, those with low income, mobility, and education.
This. At my shelter We are full to the GILLS with pretty unadoptable dogs (mostly pitbulls) that we nonetheless offer for adoption. Upping the fees for surrender was a way to “discourage” people from leaving their dogs at the shelter. Appointments were necessary because we have literally no room and have to wait until a dog leaves. I get both sides of the fence, here. I get making a prohibitive fee to discourage people from treating the shelter as a dumping ground for irresponsibility. I see that a lot at our intake center. “I don’t want this dog no more, you take it, it’s your problem now”, etc etc.
But the fees, the overcrowding, it’s all about save rates. Every meeting we have is about live release rates and “save rates”. Keeping dogs that have been there for better than a year and are going kennel crazy, trying to adopt them out rather than make space for other, more adoptable dogs and trying to keep people from bringing in yet more dogs. We’re open admission. We have to take in strays, and most people can slide around the owner surrender fees and appointments by turning in what is obviously their dog as an untraceable stray since microchipping isn’t enforced and people that would pull that stunt have obviously not licensed their dogs.. But we’re also told and encouraged to do what’s best for the animals coming in. If a woman’s bringing in her old matted Lhasa Apso thing and threatening to release it into traffic, it’s better off with us. Taking in those puppies would be something we’d do with no fee attached, but we’d have the woman’s info. I’m a proponent for less financially punitive methods of dealing with things like this, mostly because the people attached to things like this will never have hope of paying it in their lives. One solution might be why not offer extremely low-cost/no cost spay and neuter services in-neighborhood for people from a region known for high volumes of animal intake? Incentivize it , make it easy to access. A lot of people who come in say they don’t want to alter their pets because it will be too much money to do so. Or they just can’t get somewhere to do it. Overpopulation is insane Get the problems at their roots, not their tips.
Ever since I was mauled on the job, I’ve been very wide awake to the unsavory policies that are springing up in a lot of shelters surrounding save rates, no kill, and bully breeds in general. I fell down the rabbit hole of this site but this is the first one I’ve commented on.
I have always felt that there should be an appointment givem to anyone who calls in, without their pet, and have a meeting with an even tempered well informed person, a worker or valued volunteer. They should be asked what the reason for giving up their pet is and if at all possible, tell them how to resolve the issue, maybe a trainer, maybe help paying for food. Maybe euthanasia for their elderly pet. Dog licenses are nothing to pay a huge amount of money for. Take all their legal info, so that in case they abandon their pet, you can find them. Burdening already poor people with problems is morally wrong. Any adoption of adult dogs should be spayed or neutered before they go to their new home, with a printed sheet on what to expect and how to care for an adopted dog or cat. About pits and pit mixes, they should be completely evaluated after being in the shelter a week to 10 days and a complete written report kept. Holding an energetic dog for months in a cage is worse than being euthanized on some levels–you are not running a warehouse. I hope your shelter has a huge exercise run for the pits and pit mixes so they can get out every other day or so. Running a good shelter is more important than running a “no-kill” shelter. I was Board of Directors President for 23 years and we had our policies geared towards the safety of the animals in our care–we didn’t and don’t charge people for things they can’t afford–the animals are our priority–look it up at Humane Society of Westchester in New Rochelle. ( am now retired) and we have fund raisers, service 19 communities as their shelter, we now have a small spay/neuter clinic on premises, ferals are free. We have a healthy well-screened adoption program and RTO program. I retired as a volunteer, so many of the wonderful new programs were done since I retired–I don’t mean to take any credit that is not due me. I care greatly about homeless or lost pets need serious efforts made on their behalf–that is the first priority.
Merijoe Axe says
“Whether the Culwell approach to culling puppies was more cruel than the usual methods used by dogfighters, backyard breeders, and others among whom culling puppies is part of a cruel way of life can be debated. ”
what difference does THAT make? That was a cruel and deliberate murderous intention to rid herself of unwanted living things period. No one is talking about or cares “what’s the cruelest method” She did a horrific thing and needs consequences for her actions. period, no debate here.
Merritt Clifton says
From the humane perspective, the comparison to the methods used by dogfighters and backyard breeders may be irrelevant. From the perspective of what generates moral outrage, though, it is noteworthy that far more people are upset over the behavior of one woman with a history of substance abuse & economic issues, who had no evident access to an open admission shelter, than even give a thought to how common similar behavior is among others who dispose of puppies, but keep their activity out of sight. From a legal perspective, it is also noteworthy that in most states culling puppies by a variety of means is not only widely done, but is entirely legal, and in many states is actually exempted from prosecution as a “routine agricultural practice” when done on a commercial scale, or when other species are culled, such as calves, piglets, and newly hatched male chicks, of whom billions are culled each year.
Allan Drusys says
We do not require appointments for owners to surrender pets; we simply request that they come to the shelter between 1 and 3 in the afternoon, when we may be less busy for such activities. Perhaps some confusion could lie with other jurisdictions in Riverside County which may require appointments for field and/or shelter owner surrenders.
Nor would we have charged Ms. Culwell $800 for the litter of puppies or upwards of $10,000 in total. The department does have a charge for owner surrenders but rest assured, most, if not all charges would have been waived in cooperation with the owner. We sometimes literally spend years assisting residents, who find themselves ‘over their heads’ with pets, in the effort to rehome and reduce the fertility of their pets. To my knowledge the department does not have a history with the accused or the address in Coachella.
Allan Drusys, D.V.M., MVPHMgt
Director and Chief Veterinarian
Department of Animal Services
County of Riverside
Merritt Clifton says
Has it occurred to Riverside Department of Animal Services that most people who are either employed or in school, who are the overwhelming majority of people in possession of animals, might have to wait several days just to be able to visit between 1:00 p.m. and 3:00 p.m.? Is there any other public emergency service, e.g. police, fire department, or hospitals, that operates in this manner, or for that matter keeps shorter open-to-the-public hours?
As to whether Riverside Department of Animal Services really would have charged Culwell more than $800 to surrender the puppies or upward of $10,000 to surrender all of her animals, most of the world presumes that the advertised price of a service is the price of the service. The Riverside Department of Animal Services web site offers no clue to visitors that it will do anything for anyone surrendering an animal except to soak that person the max.
Indeed, the Riverside Department of Animal Services has issued a statement pertaining to Culwell’s other dogs, stating that “Every day the 38 dogs remain in the care of Riverside County Animal Services, the woman is facing $570 in board and care fees. These daily fees do not include the cost of vaccinations, examination fees, medications, nor state-mandated fees.”
As of this moment, that would be $3,990, with the meter still running, while the suspect has yet to be charged with any offense in connection with those dogs.
No doubt trying to wring blood out of turnips is politically popular, but it is not effective public policy, and this approach to law enforcement has been overturned many times by appellate courts.
Carol Moulton says
I just wrote this comment for another situation, but it illustrates your point very well…….I knew a person, who lived in another state, who was half-heartedly feeding some feral cats around her house. I recommended low-cost s/n clinics to her, but to no avail. She told me she often saw new litters, but some of the kittens would just “disappear.” I guess she assumed they went off to that farm in the country where so many unwanted dogs go. Once she told me a cat gave birth to a litter of four on her porch, and then Mom disappeared. She said she watched them die one by one over a period of a week. I just about went insane. I asked why she didn’t just put them in a box and take them to a shelter. She said she couldn’t do that because the shelter wanted you to pay to turn in an animal. I said “then just put the box on the front desk and run away! They aren’t going to follow you and track you down, but they will do something for the kittens. Even if it’s humane euthanasia it’s better than just leaving them on your front porch to die of starvation and dehydration.” My point being – you never know what kind of situation the animals were in or what kind of human being brought them – good or bad – but don’t scare people away. At least at your shelter you have a chance to help them and they no doubt desperately need helping.
Merritt Clifton says
Few people in animal welfare have had longer tenure in leadership and teaching roles, with a variety of national and regional organizations, than Carol Moulton.
Jamaka Petzak says
Thanking you as ever for updating this important story, and as always, for being the voice of reason and logic when it comes to “real world” situations involving animals.
It is my contention that most, if not all, “hoarders” started out caring very much about the animals they took in. People who don’t care about animals do not, as a rule, have them in their care in any numbers. But when financial, physical, and/or mental health problems overwhelm the caregivers, everything is out of control, with the results we see far too often. Not saying these people started out “perfect” — just giving my perspective on these particular vilified people and asking others not to sit in judgment, but to consider all of the background and facts known, and to do what presumably we all want — HELP the animals and the people, if possible.
“…Moonlight Animal Rescue founder Jessica Gregory and Valeria Schultz, 20, a resident of the property in Joshua Tree, Riverside County, about an hour’s drive northeast of Coachella.
Responding to a call about “a civil disturbance between roommates,” Z1077 FM reported, sheriff’s deputies “found 20 to 30 cats in the main living area, as well as cages and animal feces.”
Altogether, Z1077 FM said, more than 100 animals were found at the scene.” I pray they found some form of safe haven and would appreciate an update if possible.