Unspeakable Filth

Could government glitches let a hoarder off the hook?

People wore gas masks when they entered Teresa Wuterich's home. Cat feces were so deep that people helping her clean feared tripping into the filth. Furniture had to be cut from the carpet, thanks to hardened layers of excrement. The house was nearly condemned.

All said, some 40 felines were removed from that home on Easter Sunday. Among those helping get them out was Barbara Crummit, who months later is still struggling to pay for their medical care. Three cats have died.

While the cats are Crummit's greatest concern, she's also worried that bureaucratic bungling could let Wuterich off the hook—and leave her free to begin hoarding animals again.

That concern only grew as Crummit tried to follow Wuterich's case, and instead got bounced between Tucson City Court and the Pima Animal Care Center.

"It's a really screwy situation," she says. The system "is built to delay, delay, postpone, postpone, divert—everything except to get to the truth of the matter, or let you know what's going on."

Apparently, what was going on is that the Pima Animal Care Center failed to get its paperwork to city court in time for Wuterich's May 9 arraignment. And that is due, at least in part, to a cumbersome process in which PACC physically hustles paperwork over to the court, rather than submitting it electronically like nearly every other agency.

Jose Chavez is PACC's enforcement-operations manager. He concedes that his staff failed to file the paperwork before Wuterich's arraignment—an oversight prompting a judge to dismiss charges ranging from animal cruelty and a lack of water to poor ventilation.

According to Chavez, charges were re-filed on Sept. 17. When PACC officers went to Wuterich's home with those fresh citations, he says they also took a look around. "The city inspector had condemned the property, and gave her an opportunity to clean up the residence, which she did. And when we went out there to reissue the citation, the conditions were clean, compared to when we initially made contact with her."

Clean or not, "our goal is for her to not have any animals," says Chavez.

But that goal is apparently foundering; Wuterich readily admitted to the Tucson Weekly that she still has four dogs—much to the dismay of Bob Steinmann, a next-door neighbor who's taken her to court nearly a dozen times over barking problems. "She said it was always my fault," Steinmann says. "The dogs barked because they didn't like me."

But the vile smell wafting from Wuterich's home was even worse. "About three years ago, we began getting this stench, like an old outhouse," Steinmann says. "My house reeked of this stuff, not every day, but a lot of days. I was getting nauseous over it and getting headaches over it. This was worse than urine ever thought of smelling."

He spent the next three years complaining to various city and county departments, with little response. "Then all of a sudden, out of nowhere, on Easter Sunday, she got busted with close to 40 cats in her house," he says.

In response, Wuterich—who cleans houses for a living—accuses Steinmann of heaving rocks at her dogs. He dismisses that charge as ridiculous.

She says the hullabaloo about her property is overblown. "There were no dead animals. There were no kittens. Every animal had been spayed and neutered long before PACC got here, and every animal was in good condition."

As for the revolting conditions those animals lived in, "That's something that ... I won't comment on," she says, adding that she doesn't consider herself a hoarder.

So I ask Wuterich to define the term. "Someone who continually collects animals," she says, "who provides no care, whereas I provided care. I also adopted some of my animals out. The conditions here were short-lived. Some of my animals were 15 years old or older. The situation went on for a finite amount of time. I was already in the process of solving the situation. I was already cleaning up, but the job was bigger than I can handle on my own."

Wuterich's case is unfortunately not unique.

"We've been inundated with cat-hoarder incidents in the last couple of months," says Chavez. "And each case varies as for the circumstances. But the way it usually starts is with people noticing a foul smell coming from the house, and that's when they call us."

Still, his officers described conditions at Wuterich home on Easter as "one of the worse hoarding situations they've seen," he says.

Yet when Wuterich appeared for her initial city court arraignment on May 9—the date set by PACC—her paperwork was nowhere to be seen. That led to the dismissal of the charges.

That's what Crummit was told by city court officials. But she found that explanation odd, since she'd already seen details for Wuterich's arraignment listed on the Internet, she says. "The court kept telling me they didn't have any of the paperwork," Crummit says. "But I told them, 'Sure you do. It's posted right there on your website.'"

Soon after, says Crummit, the entire posting disappeared.

Court administrator Chris Hale says that, with arraignment dates set by PACC, and without the paperwork arriving at the court, "I just don't see how it could have been on the website."

While citations are issued with arraignment dates, "unless the citation is filed with the court, the court is not aware of it and has no record of a scheduled arraignment," Hale writes in a subsequent email to the Weekly. "In certain situations, a defendant can be aware of an arraignment date, but there are no charges filed with the court, and no court-scheduled arraignment date.

"Like all other citing agencies ... Pima Animal Care is aware, or should be, of their responsibilities to file citations timely, as we have addressed this issue with them in the past," Hale continues. "The court must remain neutral related to the charging agency and defendant and will take the appropriate action in accordance with statutes and court rules."

PACC has since re-filed criminal misdemeanors against Wuterich, and Hale says paperwork was logged with the court on Sept. 20.

As the Nov. 7 arraignment date nears, Crummit worries that Wuterich will simply postpone it. Given the apparently lousy coordination between PACC and the court, legally imposed time-limits might run out, and Wuterich could walk.

"And then," says Crummit, "the whole thing starts all over again."

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