From Animal Welfare Act violations to Las Vegas shoot-out, cases tend to link to Karl Mitchell’s tenure
PAHRUMP, NEVADA––Nye County, Nevada, in 2000 hired as animal control director exotic animal trainer Karl Mitchell, 48, a man who might not have been elected dogcatcher anywhere else.
The previous Nye County record on animal care and control issues may not have been good, but since then it appears to have only deteriorated.
Unincorporated Pahrump, a city of 25,000, and Nye County, surrounding it, have over the past 22 years hosted more animal hoarding situations, more breeders and keepers of dangerous animals, and more fatal and disfiguring attacks by dangerous dogs and exotic pets than any other U.S. jurisdiction of comparable human population.
(See Pahrump dog breeders Platunov & Higgins allegedly starved 300 Ovarchkas.)
Why was Mitchell hired?
Mitchell had in 1985 copped a plea bargain to lesser charges after allegedly ramming a vehicle driven by two California Fish & Game officers who were trying to arrest him for alleged poaching.
Becoming a law enforcement officer himself does not have appeared to changed Mitchell much, if at all.
In April 2001 the USDA Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service fined Mitchell $27,500—then the maximum–for repeated violations of the federal Animal Welfare Act, and revoked his permits to exhibit exotic cats.
At about the same time, Pahrump resident Kathy Diaz charged Mitchell with theft for allegedly taking her two silky terriers from her porch.
Mitchell told Nye County sheriff’s deputies that the silky terriers died.
Skeptical, the deputies and two other county employees excavated a landfill and inspected 40 to 50 dog carcasses before determining that the silky terriers were not among them.
Returning to Mitchell’s house, they found both silky terriers.
Mitchell was additionally charged in May 2001 with allegedly stealing a cockatoo and three pit bulls.
Altogether, Mitchell was eventually charged with 14 alleged offenses during his tenure as animal control director, including some involving firearms, use of illegal drugs, and annoying a minor with unwelcome touching, solicitation of prostitution, and open and gross lewdness.
Leopard bit off helper’s finger
Yet Mitchell kept his job until June 2001, when the Nevada SPCA evacuated many of the estimated 200 dogs he was said to have held in a kennel built for 50.
Helping to look after Mitchell’s animals while Mitchell himself spent three years in prison for offenses allegedly committed as animal control director were a man named Steve Benson and a woman named Sandy Alman, identified by USDA inspection reports as Mitchell’s girlfriend.
Six African lions and three leopards were removed from the property, which belonged to Alman according to the USDA reports, after a leopard bit off one of Alman’s fingers in March 2005.
The International Fund for Animal Welfare paid for transporting the big cats to the former Wild Animal Orphanage sanctuary near San Antonio, Texas, closed in 2009, after which the surviving Mitchell animals were relocated to Big Cat Rescue, near Tampa, Florida.
Bought animals from “Tiger King”
Karl Mitchell upon release from prison continued to find Pahrump a congenial place to do business, beginning by purchasing animals from Joe Schriebvogel Maldonado Passage, the notorious “Tiger King” himself.
(See Carole Baskin & Big Cat Rescue win custody of “Tiger King” Joe Exotic’s tigers.)
The Pahrump Regional Planning Commission in December 11, 2009 refused to grant Mitchell a conditional use permit to keep seven Bengal tigers, but he was still in the vicinity, still keeping exotic cats, when the Netflix television documentary series Tiger King debuted on March 20, 2020.
Mitchell had further history of note, exposed by George Knapp of KLAS-8 in Las Vegas on May 20, 2020.
“As far back as a 1996 interview,” Knapp mentioned, “Karl Mitchell felt he’d been unfairly targeted by the government, police, animal welfare groups, and the media.
“Mitchell has moved from place to place in Nye County over the last 25 years,” Knapp summarized, “but there are common threads. He always has a caged menagerie of exotic animals, in particular big cats, in facilities that fail to meet even the bare minimum standards.
“According to one of his former wives, Kari Bagnell, he was banned from working on Hollywood sets because of animal cruelty. Mitchell was accused of breaking her ribs.”
Leaving Mitchell, Bagnall went on to found the Jungle Friends sanctuary for exotic primates in Alachua County, Florida. Housing about 250 monkeys as of October 5, 2021, according to Bryce Brown of the Florida Alligator, Jungle Friends has itself struggled to meet Animal Welfare Act facilities standards in recent years.
Continued Knapp, “Tiger owner and former heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson hired and then fired Mitchell.”
Hair stylist Katie Taylor told Knapp that Mitchell beat a chimpanzee on the set of a Super Dave Osbourne TV shoot.
In February 2019, claiming his tigers were “therapy animals,” Mitchell won a conditional use permit from Nye County to keep ten tigers.
Karl Mitchell was apparently still the Nye County animal control officer when Zuzana Kukol and Scott Shoemaker arrived in the Pahrump Valley with an eight-year-old, 350-pound white tiger, a 10-month-old, 110-pound African lion, an ocelot, and a bobcat.
Kukol, according to her own online biography, “was born and raised in a former communist Czechoslovakia, in the Slovak republic. After spending a year in a political refugee camp in Italy, she came to the U.S. as a political refugee and is now a U.S. citizen.
“She has been keeping reptiles and dogs since the early 1980s, and big cats since the mid-1990s, with emphasis on lions and tigers.”
Shoemaker is a former U.S. Army officer.
Kukol furiously opposed the impoundment of Mitchell’s animals in 2005, vehemently attacking first Wild Animal Orphanage founder Carol Asvestas online, and then attacking Big Cat Rescue founder Carole Baskin.
In 2008 Kukol and Shoemaker formed an organization called REXANO, “committed to protect the rights of animal owners. We support responsible private ownership of exotic animals in any form, be it non-commercial pet or sanctuary, as well as commercial breeder or exhibitor.”
REXANO won federally recognized nonprofit status in 2009.
Like Mitchell, Kukol and Shoemaker resurfaced in connection with principals in the Tiger King documentary series, in their case as recipients of two tiger cubs who in 2018 were impounded from former “Tiger Bus” exhibitor Jeff Lowe, after Lowe was convicted for taking tiger cubs to Las Vegas petting parties without possessing the proper permits.
(See “Tiger Kings” lose stripes in Nevada, Oklahoma, & Texas.)
Gert “Abby” Hedengran
Other exotic cat owners converged on Pahrump, including Gert “Abby” Hedengran and Roena “Emma” Hedengran, who formerly kept more than two dozen exotic cats” in the Tierra Rejada Valley of southern California, until one escaped in February 2005 and was shot by state wildlife officers in Moorpark, Ventura County.
Gert “Abby” Hedengran, 58, reported Los Angeles Times staff writer Catherine Saillant on January 9, 2007, “admitted to felony counts of obstruction of justice and making false statements” after the tiger escape.
“He also admitted to two misdemeanor counts of failing to maintain proper records for the exotic felines that he and his wife housed at their rented ranch,” Saillant wrote, adding that “Roena ‘Emma’ Hedengran, 54, admitted to one misdemeanor count of failing to maintain records.”
On November 17, 2016, Pahrump authorities reportedly impounded three African lions, a black panther, a tiger, eight lynx hybrids, a serval/caracal hybrid, and a Fennec fox from the home of “Abby” Hedengran and one Jacki Freeman.
The animals were said to have been locked in bedrooms where they had urinated and defecated on the walls and carpet.
Trisha Denise Meyer
That was the second such case found in Pahrump in ten days, following the discovery of three juvenile tigers and eight monkeys at the home of one Trisha Denise Meyer, then 34. The tigers were reportedly “loose in the back yard, eating raw meat under supervision supervised of Meyer’s 14-year-old daughter.
Meyer had moved to Pahrump after police in Cypress, Texas, on September 26, 2006 reportedly discovered a large male tiger and three tiger cubs, several monkeys, a skunk, a fox and a puma at her home there.
Police were called to the home in response to a complaint from a California man that he paid Meyer $3,000 for an exotic Savannah kitten that she never delivered.
Meyer pleaded guilty in Texas to theft and paid restitution, in exchange for the dismissal of a child endangerment charge.
For the Love of Cats and Kittens
Also attracted to Pahrump during the Karl Mitchell years as animal control officer was an organization called For the Love of Cats and Kittens [FLOCK].
Founded in Las Vegas, 63 miles east, by Sylvia Renee Lyss in 1965, FLOCK moved to a five-acre site in rural Clark County in 1995, where Lyss reportedly kept as many as 400 cats.
Trying to reduce the resident cat population, FLOCK in 1998 hired a man named Sam B. Ockene, who claimed to be a licensed veterinary euthanasia technician.
Actually a former casino teller, Ockene pleaded guilty to misdemeanor embezzling in 1991. He became a fundraiser for the Nevada SPCA, but was fired in 1996 for allegedly illegally possessing euthanasia drugs, impersonating a veterinarian, and yelling obscenities at clients, then-Nevada SPCA president Jennifer Polombi told Ryan Oliver of the Review-Journal.
Ockene in 1997 attempted a hostile takeover of the Nevada SPCA, but in 1998 was ordered to pay the Nevada SPCA $10,000 in legal fees and was permanently enjoined from using the Nevada SPCA’s name.
Ockene allegedly gave lethal injections to 210 cats and kittens at FLOCK before pleading guilty in 2001 to illegally practicing veterinary medicine. He was reportedly placed on probation.
Sheri Lee Allen
A July 1999 flash flood meanwhile allowed hundreds of cats to escape into a nearby housing development.
“According to Clark County records, the facility was cited numerous times for a variety of violations, most of them to do with exceeding their permitted number of cats and failing to remove animal waste from the property,” wrote Henry Brean of the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
Moving to Nye County, FLOCK came under the management of Sheri Lee Allen, a Pahrump resident since 1971. Allen resigned in April 2007.
Nye County animal control officers in July 2007 “discovered more than 800 emaciated, ill, and injured cats at the 2.5-acre site,” reported Christina Eichelkraut of the Pahrump Valley Times. Sixty cats were euthanized as irrecoverable.
“Animal feces ankle-deep”
The rest were transferred to the custody of the Best Friends Animal Society. Best Friends reportedly invested more than $600,000 plus six months of staff time in rehabilitating the cats for adoption through shelters as far away as Minnesota and Texas. Best Friends said more than 500 volunteers from 27 states participated in the rescue operation.
Two weeks after the FLOCK raid, following a raid on Allen’s trailer home, Nye County Sheriff Tony DeMeo told media that “Animal feces were ankle-deep inside the trailer, and two cat skeletons were found on the property.
“Allen was arrested,” reported David Kihara for the Review-Journal, “after authorities said they found about 125 sick and emaciated cats at her home in Pahrump. Some cats had open sores, others were obviously starving, and many had filthy, matted hair, DeMeo said.
“It was horrible. I thought FLOCK was bad,” DeMeo added. “This was equal or worse.”
“Glaring errors by prosecutors”
Yet Nye County district attorney Bob Becket filed only 18 felony charges pertaining to animal neglect and cruelty against Allen for the conditions at FLOCK, plus 13 felony charges for the conditions at her home, and did not do that until June 2008.
Responding to the 13 charges pertaining to the 117 cats found at her home, according to the official count, Allen on August 20, 2008 pleaded guilty to a single misdemeanor count. For that, Allen received a suspended 30-day jail sentence and 40 hours of community service, reported Eichelkraut of the Pahrump Valley Times.
Pahrump justice of the peace Kent Jasperson in February 2010 dismissed all 18 felony counts filed against Allen for the FLOCK conditions, “citing glaring errors by prosecutors,” wrote Brean of the Review-Journal.
“Because the statute of limitations has long since expired,” Brean explained, “it now appears unlikely that anyone will face charges in connection with” FLOCK.
Defendants not notified
“As Best Friends officials and other cat lovers screamed for criminal charges,” Brean continued, “prosecutors waited until a few days before the one-year statute of limitations ran out, to file misdemeanor animal cruelty against FLOCK as a corporate entity.
“No one was listed by name in connection with those charges,” Brean said, “but the criminal complaint left the door open for as many as 200 people to be prosecuted, from volunteers to FLOCK’s board of directors.
“Then, on February 10, 2010, less than 24 hours before the case was finally scheduled for trial, prosecutors filed an amended complaint that listed 10 defendants by name for the first time,” but failed to notify any of the defendants that they had been charged.
District Judge Robert Lane in May 2010 dismissed an appeal by the Nye County prosecutor’s office because it was not filed within 60 days of Jasperson’s decision, as required by state law.
Pet Cremation Services
Allen went on to operate a business called Pet Cremation Services and what she called an animal sanctuary in Pahrump.
On July 20, 2013, fire chief Scott Lewis told Kelsey Givens of the Pahrump Valley News, firefighters arrived at Allen’s home and business to find, “The structure was fully involved with numerous exposed structures and pens containing horses, llamas, burros, everything, pigs, just a myriad of different animals on the property. The surrounding animal pens, the ones that weren’t involved in the fire, were saved and the majority of the animals were also moved to another area on the property.”
Allen acknowledged the deaths of two birds and a dozen cats who were inside her home.
FLOCK meanwhile relocated back to Las Vegas under new management and did neuter/return work for a time, but has not filed IRS Form 990 in many years now, and appears to be defunct.
Pit bull attack, wolf hybrids, & child molester
Three more incidents involving dangerous and exotic animals, and worse people, occurred in Pahrump before the end of 2007.
In the first, a nine-year-old boy was attacked at his school bus stop on August 27, 2007 by a pit bull running at large.
Eight wolf hybrids on October 6, 2007 killed a 73-year-old woman, whose name was never disclosed, in her son’s backyard. All eight wolf hybrids were euthanized.
The third incident brought the October 2007 arrest of Pahrump animal trainer Chester Stiles, then 37, for the videotaped rape of a 3-year-old girl four years earlier.
Dave Kirvin, a spokesperson for the late Las Vegas illusionists Siegfried Fischbacher and Roy Horn, acknowledged that Stiles “worked as part of an animal training team for Siegfried & Roy for a few months in 2002 at the Mirage hotel-casino in Las Vegas,” reported Associated Press writer Ken Ritter.
Stiles on May 29, 2009 was sentenced to 21 life sentences on 21 counts, with the possibility of parole in 140 years.
(See Siegfried Fischbacher, 81, follows tiger act partner Roy Horn, 75, in death.)
Apart from the ongoing FLOCK saga, the animal care-and-control beat in Nye County was relatively quiet in 2008 and the first eight months of 2009.
Then former “Hollywood madam” and television personality Heidi Fleiss, just before receiving three years on probation for felony drug charges, announced she was starting a dog grooming business she called Dirty Dog.
Just three days later. before Fleiss became more widely notorious as “Heidi Fleas,” District Judge Elizabeth Gonzalez closed Dirty Dog in response to a lawsuit filed by Jeffrey Marvian, estranged husband of Nickol Marvian, who sold her Little Buddy Bath business to Fleiss and porn actress Kendra Jade Rossi.
“According to the lawsuit,” Brean of the Review-Journal reported, “the Marvians borrowed $60,000 from the equity in their home to start Little Buddy Bath. Jeffrey Marvian contends Fleiss and Rossi knew the business was part of the divorce proceeding, but conspired to transfer its ownership anyway to cut him out of proceeds of the sale.”
Fleiss remained in Pahrump with a collection of 40-odd macaws in aviaries on her 50-acre property. She burst back into tabloid headlines in when someone shot one of her macaws just before Christmas 2021, and again in March 2022 after she sued former employee Brandi McClain over custody of four macaws.
All was again relatively quiet on the Nye County animal care-and-control beat for a few years, until on July 13, 2013 former Dream Chaser Ranch Horse Rescue operator Diane Davis of Pahrump “allegedly locked her dogs in their crates before setting her home on fire, killing several of her dogs during a suicide attempt,” reported Marissa Kynaston for KNTV.
Initially charged with arson and animal torture, Davis refused multiple plea bargain offers, but may have eventually accepted a plea bargain, as nothing further about the case appears to have been reported since 2017 when Davis, now 77, was among the plaintiffs in a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union against the state of Nevada for allegedly inadequate defense of indigent persons.
There appears to be no Dream Chaser Ranch Horse Rescue either currently or recently registered in Nevada.
Nancy Lord & Kenneth Moore
While that case was before the courts, Jacqui Heinrich of KTNV-TV in Las Vegas warned on July 24, 2014 that, “A horrific situation is developing in Pahrump. Managers of a rental property evicted a family for not paying rent, only to find dozens of dead cats and dogs.
“Managers of the rental property have been pleading with animal control since January 2014,” continued Heinrich. “They found about 40 live feral cats behind locked bedroom doors, living only on rotting macaroni and cheese. Even worse were the dead kittens in dresser drawers , and a poodle decaying in the bathroom.”
That case appears to connect with the August 2014 arrests of attorney Nancy Theresa Lord, a multi-time losing political candidate for various offices as both a Republican and a Libertarian, and her longtime companion Kenneth Call Moore.
“Lord and Moore faced more than 50 different charges involving an excess number of dogs in inhumane conditions, failure to vaccinate, and failure to get proper licenses and permits to keep more than five dogs,” summarized KTNV chief investigator Darcy Spears.
Pahurmp Justice Court judge Margaret Whitaker on April 15, 2016 jailed both Lord and Moore for contempt of court, and affirmed an eviction order against them.
Moore, 59, died in Pahrump on December 22, 2021. Lord, 70, died from COVID-19 on February 14, 2022, in Show Low, Arizona.
The beat went on in Pahrump.
Ricky Davidson, then 40, plea-bargained a sentence of 364 days in jail in 2015 after his three pit bulls, who had earlier bite history, on March 13, 2015 mauled three people, killing Kenneth Lawrence Ford, 79.
Ford was attacked while feeding his neighbor’s cats.
In an apparently unrelated incident, a six-year-old boy survived a pit bull attack with what the Nye County Sheriff’s Office called “significant but not life-threatening” injuries, while visiting relatives in Pahrump on June 23, 2015.
Former Karl Mitchell associate Steve Benson, by then operating a facility in Pahrump called the Happy Acres Animal Sanctuary, on March 31, 2017 credited one of his pit bulls with saving him from an attack.by another pit bull. Given IRS nonprofit status in 2007, Happy Acres has not filed Form 990 since 2009 and appears to be defunct.
Benson, then 62, on November 26, 2020 “fired 244 bullets at officers before he was ‘extracted’ from his mobile home by SWAT deputies, according to the Nye County Sheriff’s Office,” reported Ricardo Torres-Cortez of the Las Vegas Sun.
“The incident comes,” Torres-Cortez added, “almost 20 years after the suspect tried to kill Las Vegas Metro Police officers in a similar fashion.
“About a year later — the following April — Benson’s attempted murder charges were dropped, and he pleaded guilty to lesser charges, receiving a suspended prison sentence, Clark County District Court logs show.
“At that time, a judge prohibited him from owning guns and ordered Benson to undergo mental evaluations, court logs show. He was also prohibited from consuming alcohol during his probation term,” Torres-Cortez said, but had again been drinking, he admitted after the November 26, 2020 shoot-out.
Jamaka Petzak says
With “friends” like these…
Sharing with gratitude and all of the usual thoughts and feelings. These people are already in the hells of their own creation; may they spend eternity in the lowest hell facing the Justice they cannot escape. There is no more heinous crime than harming the innocent. Nevada has long been a no-holds-barred “wild west” state. It attracts the lowest of the low.
Alex Falconi says
If you are aware of any impending cases like these in the future please send them our way so we can get camera access to them, record, and publish.
Michael Johnson says
Incredible reporting. Obviously the research was huge on this story. Hard to fathom and smh.