JN - Nightmare on Erie Street

Nightmare on Erie Street


TWENTY-ONE THOUSAND POUNDS OF RAT-INFESTED TRASH have been removed from the driveway of 2504 Erie St., Eureka, the building that used to be known as the Band of Mercy Animal Rescue. The animals are gone but the yard and the inside of the house are still filled to the brim with refuse (earlier this week, junk could be seen literally spilling out of one window).

The owner, John Martin, is considering tearing down a wall of the house so that he can go in with heavy equipment to clear the house out or possibly just demolish the building altogether. His ex-wife, Linda Sue Martin, and Larry Lawson Decker, who together ran the Band of Mercy, are out on bail, living in Eureka. But only now is the story behind the degradation coming out: how an animal shelter went bad and managed to slip through the cracks in county law enforcement for years.

Eight years ago Myra Mintey and her husband moved into the house across the street from Band of Mercy. According to her it was bad back then and steadily got worse until she felt she had to report it to the authorities.

"I would call animal control every single day for months at a time," Mintey said. "It was like pounding your head against a brick wall."

At times, the county responded -- most notably when a videotape made by a neighbor of rats exiting the house through an upstairs window led to the first of several trash cleanups on the property. But the county did nothing to address the real problem: the deplorable living conditions inside the shelter itself.

The most obvious issue was the stench.

"The smell on a warm night got so bad that it was just overpowering," Mintey said. "You couldn't even walk down the street."

According to Richard Hutchison, whose accounting office shares an alley with the Band of Mercy, one tenant refused to move into the apartment above his office because she couldn't handle the smell.

Then there were the animals.

"I never saw animals abused, but I saw sick animals," Mintey said. "The cats always had diarrhea. They always had sores all over them."

The Band of Mercy also had dogs and other animals, including a pig, chained in the front yard. The dogs, which Mintey described as pitbull mixes, would bark at passers-by, causing neighbors to worry they would get out.

"I used to carry a little pipe in my purse, but what would that do against a dog?" Mintey said. "I ended up carrying a can of Mace."

In addition to everything else, automobiles were abandoned in front of the house on numerous occasions.

Neighbors repeatedly asked the county to do something about the shelter, but the answer always came back the same: "Our hands are tied." That answer was reiterated by officials interviewed for this article.

"To go into a private residence we need warrants, court orders," said John Falkenstrom, Humboldt County's agricultural commissioner and head of Animal Control. "My staff are not peace officers, they're public officers. We have to follow a procedure called due process. It's slow, it's cumbersome, and to the public it can be incomprehensible, but it has to be followed."

Head of County Environmental Health Brian Cox echoed that thought.

"There were definite concerns, the rat population for instance, but it's like I said, we weren't invited into the house," Cox said.

Cox and Falkenstrom's claims do not completely jibe with the law. A section of the state penal code titled "Animals in specified places without proper care or attention" empowers animal control officers -- not just police officers -- to go onto private property to seize animals they believe are being abused or neglected. It reads: "When the officer has reasonable grounds to believe that very prompt action is required to protect the health or safety of the animal, the officer shall immediately seize the animal." The statute says nothing about warrants or court orders.

The county's arguments are similar to those made by Eureka animal control after a young female dog was found near death last spring after being forced to spend all of its life in an outdoor cage. Complaints about that property were also made, but to no avail. The dog, named "Phoenix" by those who tried to save its life, later died.

According to Falkenstrom the reason the situation on Erie Street couldn't be dealt with was that Humboldt County doesn't have a "humane officer" -- a specialized animal abuse investigator who would be empowered, much like sheriff's deputies, to enter a building based on probable cause and fully investigate any suspected violations.

The county hasn't had a humane officer for over 10 years. To make matters worse, it couldn't hire one if it wanted to since only humane societies and nonprofit organizations are allowed to employ them.

"To me it's ridiculous," said County Supervisor John Woolley. "We have to examine why that law was written and try to find some group that can combine law enforcement and animal control."

Joan Biordy, an attorney who participated in the Band of Mercy rescue, was critical of the county. "It's a sad commentary that this county's leadership has such disregard for the pain and suffering of innocent animals. My pleas and others went unheeded. Many of those animals had to suffer more than if [the county] had done its job."

Falkenstrom said that nuisance complaints are the lowest priority at animal control.

"Our priorities are bite complaints, dogs on school grounds, dogs harassing individuals. Way down, further down and probably last are noise problems, odor problems," Falkenstrom said, adding there are 640 dog bite complaints in the county each year and only three animal control officers.

One thing appears indisputable: The violations at the Band of Mercy shelter were "egregious," as Falkenstrom put it.

Inside the house and the fenced back yard, human and animal feces were piled up with layers of newspaper reaching as high as six feet in some places, totally covering the floor, burying the sink. The one piece of furniture in the house, a bed, was surrounded by piles almost up to the level of the sleeping surface.

In the back yard, hemmed by massive blackberry hedges, dogs were kept in ramshackle kennels overflowing with filth.

Twenty-five dogs, 45 cats, three turkeys, a rabbit and eight chickens were rescued from the residence, and so far the clean up crews have trapped more than 84 rats.

Of the 25 dogs, only five survive. The rest, beyond hope, were killed by euthanasia.

"The dogs weren't euthanized just because of mange," Miranda said. "They had medical problems, open sores and aggression. As they (Martin and Decker) brought them out they bit at them. I don't know what they were doing to them in there, but it wasn't just neglect."

He said that some of the dogs were so mangy that they had almost no hair at all, and that they were so covered with fleas that it looked like their skins were crawling.

Of the cats, 14 had to be put down, mostly because of the presence of feline AIDS and other illnesses, as well as general bad health.

How could it have gotten like that?

Over the years Band of Mercy Animal Rescue deteriorated into the stuff that an animal lover's nightmares are made of, but it wasn't always like that.

"Linda and those guys (at the Band of Mercy) worked their fingers to the bone and nobody was helping them," said Patricia Shear, formally of For Pets' Sake, a Eureka charity that promoted spaying and neutering pets and worked with Band of Mercy.

Harriet Willard, who was also involved with animal charities in Eureka, said that she knew of times where Martin and Decker had gone without food in order to provide for their animals.

There is a general consensus that Martin always had a soft spot for animals and was compelled to take them in.

"Up until the day she was arrested she probably thought she was doing good," Falkenstrom said.

Mintey spoke of a time when a neighbor's cat had a litter of kittens under their porch and Martin went around the neighborhood trying to collect them and take them to Band of Mercy.

She would also, according to Miranda and others, take in cats she found in Dumpsters behind supermarkets and dogs that she found on the street. No creature was refused, and eventually it got out of control.

"I think they just got senile. They were overwhelmed and there were no contributions. I know it was disgusting, but how many years did she do this before it went bad?" Shear said.

That doesn't seem to hold much water with other members of the animal rescue community, however, or with the neighbors.

"You can chain a child to a bed and feed it too, but what good is that, what kind of quality of life?" Mintey said.

Miranda stressed that whatever Martin and Decker had done in the past, they had broken the law and should pay the price.

"People say `Why get mad at her (Martin), she tried,' but it was not a [shelter], it was an animal dungeon," Miranda said. "It's criminal what they did in there."

© Copyright 2002, North Coast Journal, Inc.