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.