Florida cops nabbed a pair of mother-daughter scam artists on animal cruelty charges after a cremation company couldn’t locate the women to deliver their dog’s ashes, and alerted police for a welfare check.
In July, Citrus County deputies searching the property of a retired nursing professor and her daughter discovered a house of horrors: liquefied dogs stuffed into tote bags, rabbits left to die in cages and a decaying horse stuck a stall. The women apparently abandoned their home and the animals inside—a cruel scheme they repeated in three other states, authorities say.
Cops later arrested Nancy Lee Freeman, 74, and Katherine Joanne Nygaard, 41, at a Tampa hotel. The women face grand theft, animal cruelty, and neglect charges, and used Nancy’s cancer diagnosis to hoodwink their victims, officials charged at a press conference Wednesday.
“They didn’t just break a law by neglecting animals. Some of the animals were stolen,” said Citrus County animal control supervisor Lora Peckham. “These people are con artists, and in their wake [left] dozens of dead animals all across the country.”
“It’s puzzling, because why did they do it?” Peckham added. “We can’t answer that.”
The women are accused of renting homes in Kentucky, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Florida under aliases, damaging the properties and fleeing without paying rent. In many cases, Nancy Freeman racked up thousands worth of unpaid bills with landlords, horse dealers, animal feed companies, and veterinarians because she told them she had cancer and garnered their sympathy or simply used an alias and disappeared, cops say.
The Citrus County Sheriff’s Office started its investigation into the family after deputies showed up to their abandoned Floral City home on July 10 and noticed a foul odor and emaciated dogs and cats locked inside without food or water.
Police later discovered 10 caged rabbits—half of them dead—along with 13 cats, four horses, eight goats, and a turtle. All horses and goats managed to survive on rainwater, except the horse locked in a stall, authorities said. One surviving equine was a retired race horse and a descendant of 1970s Triple Crown winners Secretariat and Seattle Slew, cops said. Nearly all of the surviving pets have been adopted, authorities said.
Deputies also found a stolen vehicle and horse trailer from Arkansas on the property. Neighbors told police they believed two horses were buried on the land, and that they might find the women at Tampa’s Moffitt Cancer Center because Nancy was ill. The sheriff’s department confirmed Nancy had cancer but would not elaborate.
The women were able to get away with their multi-state cruelty spree for a decade by using several aliases, including Nancy Nygaard and Nan Speed or Steed, police say. Katherine Nygaard went by Kathleen Lee, Kat Frieman, Katherine Joanne Freeman, and Joanne Steed, among other names, the sheriff’s office said.
The mother was a longtime nursing professor at Kentucky’s Murray State University and went by the name Nancy Nygaard before retiring around 2000, a former colleague told The Daily Beast. Documents found on Murray State’s website show Nygaard chaired the nursing department and once served as president of the Kentucky League for Nursing.
“It’s totally atypical for what we see [in] animal cruelty,” Peckham said. “We don’t typically see professional people and well-educated people, in particular people in the medical field. It’s baffling.”
“Dead cats had literally been thrown out with the egg carton and the milk carton,” she added. “Thrown into the garbage can in the house.”
In 2005, the women made headlines for strikingly similar allegations in Lexington, when authorities discovered dead horses, a dog, and a cat on a 45-acre farm they were renting. Officers also seized four malnourished horses and three dogs, according to reports.
Back then, the landlords said they were forced to care for about 20 other horses the “Nygaards” abandoned. Nancy was acquitted of animal cruelty charges but Katherine was found guilty and sentenced to 90 days in jail, Lex 18 reported.
In 2009, the women leased a house farm near Mt. Vernon, Kentucky, and another farm in Stanford, Kentucky. Both times they left behind dead animals, including several horses buried on the property, WFLA reported.
Meanwhile, officials in Woodford County, Kentucky, reportedly conducted an animal cruelty probe against the women in 2010 after they allegedly fled the area without paying an animal clinic $21,000 for the treatment of two horses. It’s unclear if the women were charged.
“Most of the animals they got through rescues,” Citrus County Deputy Michele Tewell said, adding that the women told people Nancy had cancer so they’d get their bills cut in half or would be permitted to fall behind on rent.
Before coming to Floral City, the duo had a total of 36 horses in Woodford County and that they abandoned 13 horses in Dyer, Tennessee, Tewell said. They also abandoned farms in Arkansas in 2012 and 2013.
They were able to rent the Floral City farmland after Nancy spotted a Marines emblem on the landlord’s car and told him her dead husband was also in the service, according to police. “They befriend you very quickly,” Tewell said. “They’re very personable and add on… they have cancer.”
“They play on people’s emotions,” she added.
One Ocala, Florida, equine hospital in 2013 filed a civil suit against “Nan Steed” for her failure to pay a $2,737 bill. According to reports, Nancy wrote a letter saying she couldn’t make a court appearance because her 7-year-old son had a brain and spine MRI for a brain tumor that day. Authorities say, however, she did not have a son.
Gregory Jarmon, whose family owns the property, told The Daily Beast his father began renting to the women two years ago and that they went by the names Nan and Joanne Speed.
“When they contacted my father, they said the elderly woman, Nan, was suffering from cancer and was a widow of a military veteran,” Jarmon said. “We’re both Marine vets and wanted to help them out.”
Jarmon said he was shocked when Citrus County deputies contacted him about the rental property turned secret pet cemetery. He estimates his family spent $30,000 on replacing floors, decks, cabinets, and appliances. They couldn’t turn on the air conditioning because the stench wafted through the home.
Well after the horses and dead animals were removed, the house still smelled like a barn, Jarmon said. He said there was hay and animal feces on the ground, no food or water, and that the toilets were “bone dry.”
“My father basically fell for their scam. Every time [he] contacted them about the rent, they said they were paying out of pocket for her cancer treatments,” Jarmon said. “My dad was trying to be generous and help them out. Next thing you know, they owe $8,000 in rent.”
Jarmon said his family has since moved into the three-bedroom home, and that they don’t plan on renting it out anytime soon.
“It makes no sense,” Jarmon told The Daily Beast. “The mother is an educated individual, went to college, worked in higher education. It’s not people who do stuff like this. She had medical training, yet allowed this to happen.”