06.25.14 9:45 AM ET
Arizona Opens Investigation Into Deadly Doggie Disneyland
Ryan Ingram and his wife wanted to go on vacation, but they couldn’t leave their two black Labs, who were used to roaming free on the Ingram’s acre of land, at just any kennel. Their search for the right boarders led them to Green Acre in Gilbert, Arizona, which—on its now-defunct website—advertised a free-range, Disneyland-like experience without cages and plenty of land for dogs to play.
Ingram first reached out to MaLeisa and Todd Hughes, the owners of Green Acre Dog Boarders, about two months ago. MaLeisa was “bubbly” on the phone, Ingram recalls, and about a week ago he decided to take his labs to the Hughes’ house for a test run. When he dropped his dogs off at about 7 p.m., “a perfect time to have dogs outside,” he says, the Hughes’ yard was empty. In fact, Ingram says he didn’t even realize there were other dogs being boarded at the house because they were nowhere to be seen.
But Ingram got a bad feeling when he picked up his dogs the next morning and again didn’t seen any animals in the yard. He observed that Todd, who had claimed to be a dog whisperer, seemed very disconnected and stated blankly that Ingram’s dogs “were fine” when he asked whether they’d made a connection. Ingram says his dogs drank water for about five minutes straight when he brought them home before the animals collapsed in exhaustion and later developing a cough. The Hugheses told Ingram that they would have room to board the two black Labs that coming weekend, he says, but he decided to pass. His gut told him that something wasn’t right about that place—and as he and his wife watched the news over the weekend, they learned their instincts were right.
Had Ingram left his two labs at Green Acre this past weekend, they could have been part of a snowballing scandal that involves a Senator’s son, an infamous sheriff, and 20 dead dogs.
Over the weekend, some owners of the 28 dogs who were boarded at Green Acre received phone calls from Todd Hughes notifying them that their dogs were missing. In reality, according to authorities, many of those dogs were dead, their bodies piled on top of one another inside a shed on the Hughes’ property. Todd Hughes admitted that he had initially lied about the dogs running away and said that he had panicked while trying to resuscitate the dogs as they lay dying from heat exhaustion. One of the dogs had apparently chewed through the cord that powered the air-conditioning unit in the room where the pups were staying.
But some of the families who lost their pets think Hughes’ story doesn't totally add up, and they’re pushing for answers. Like Ingram, the owners of the dogs who died entrusted the Hugheses with their beloved pets because of the kennel-free utopia they were promised. Instead, disturbing photos of the area where the air-conditioning went out reveal a room of no more than 10 feet by 10 feet. According to several devastated dog owners who spoke to the press, the Hugheses claimed to house no more than eight dogs at a time. Yet, as these families would eventually discover, there were 28 dogs at Green Acre at the time of the deaths. Ingram’s Labs would have made 30.
It has also come to light that Todd and MaLeisa Hughes were on vacation in Florida when the dogs died. Their daughter, Logan, and her husband, Austin Flake—who is Republican Senator Jeff Flake’s son—were supposed to be in charge of taking care of the dogs. Recanting its initial declaration that the deaths were no more than “a tragic accident,” the Maricopa County Sheriff's office has since launched a full criminal investigation into whether the Hugheses are guilty of neglect or animal cruelty. The investigation is being led by none other than Sheriff Joe Arpaio, notorious for his support of arguably racist immigration enforcement and the accusations of corruption against him. Apparently, “America’s Toughest Sheriff” is an animal lover.
“There are a lot of questions that both this sheriff and the dogs’ owners have, and, believe me, by the time we are done with this investigation, we’ll have the answers to most, if not all, of the questions,” Arpaio told reporters Monday. “If a crime occurred, someone will be held accountable.”
In lengthy statement to reporters from her front lawn, MaLeisa Hughes stated that nothing could be done to prevent what happened. When asked why no one called a veterinarian when the dogs were discovered to be on the brink of death, Hughes said that her husband didn’t have time to call for help because he was trying “for four hours” to save the dogs.
Arpaio said his investigators plan to comb through phone records, send the six corpses that were well enough preserved for testing to determine the cause of the dogs’ death, and re-interview the Hugheses as well as the Flakes, who reportedly last checked on the dogs at 11 p.m. Thursday.
“How can you be healthy at 11 o’clock and dead at 5:30 in the morning?” Arpaio asked.
Attorney John Schill works for a criminal defense law firm in Phoenix, but he personally handles local dog cases, typically defending canines who’ve been declared “vicious” from euthanization. He told The Daily Beast that he’s been receiving calls from people every day since the dogs were first found dead on the Green Acre property. He’s representing five families with a dead dog—including a man who just discovered his pet was dead when he returned from vacation on Tuesday—in a civil liability suit against the Hugheses. All of his clients, Schill said, were misled, both by the website and by their tour of Green Acre, about what kind of facility the Hugheses were actually housing their dogs in.
“All of these people, they’re pretty computer savvy, literate people. They really researched this place out,” Schill said. “They were all given tours, told the dogs roam the yard and that they only keep about six dogs at a time. In reality, there was five times as many dogs in one room all the time.”
Schill is looking to determine if the Hugheses fraudulently deceived his clients. In addition to whether the treatment of the dogs in their care amounted to criminal animal abuse and neglect, he suggests the Hugheses could be guilty of theft.
“These people gave their dogs to this boarding facility to watch them. Then the boarding facility let these dogs die, or run away, we don’t know,” Schill said. “Instead of fessing up, they hid the dogs with the intent of doing something with the dogs instead of telling the owners. That’s like if I lend you my car for the weekend and when I come to pick it up, you park it behind your house and say it got stolen.”
Schill said he’s also received calls from people who’ve also had horrible experiences boarding their dogs with the Hugheses in the past. One woman said her dog came back from Green Acre with unexplained chemical burns. Another man said he went to pick up his dogs from the Hugheses and was told they weren’t there.
“They say they treat the dogs like family,” Schill said, referring to the Green Acre website, which has been taken down. “They treat the dogs like the lefthanded stepchild and put them in a the back room and left them there.”
When Ingram saw the images on the news of the room where the Hugheses apparently kept the dogs in their care, he says he felt sick.
“It is clear to me that this was not a freak accident, it was an accident waiting to happen,” Ingram said. “Green Acres is not a Disneyland for Dogs as they claim, it’s a Drop House. The deceit they displayed to prospective clients shows me they are OK with putting dogs in harm’s way for financial gain.”