A house guest from hell, or a house allowed to go to hell?
By Dave Gathman firstname.lastname@example.org February 22, 2013 3:42PM
Three residents of this home in the 600 block of Lavoie Avenue in Elgin were arrested on various charges, including cruel treatment of animals and child neglect. Police said they found nine dogs living in the now red-tagged house and that animal feces was found throughout the living areas of the home. | Michael Smart~Sun-Times Media
Updated: March 25, 2013 6:42AM
ELGIN — Three of the four people arrested in last month’s “dog-hoarding” raid on Elgin’s southeast side said in an interview Friday that they had become victims of a house guest from hell.
The three defendants claim they invited the man to stay in their unfinished basement for a week, but he ended up staying for five months with seven vicious dogs and horrendous housekeeping habits.
In court that same morning, however, a prosecutor portrayed their home as a little hell of its own, with its entire basement floor coated with a half-inch of dog waste and a stench so bad it made one policeman throw up as soon as he entered.
The three — 66-year-old Cheryl Thacker; her domestic partner, 51-year-old Randy McDonald; and the woman they consider their “foster daughter,” 38-year-old Crystal Zwarton — lived on the first floor of the single-story home at 614 Lavoie Ave. with Zwarton’s 5- and 7-year-old children plus two dogs and two cats.
The man who had been living in their basement with seven more dogs — 38-year-old Robert Shilling — accepted a plea bargain Tuesday from the Kane County state’s attorney. He pleaded guilty to animal cruelty and related misdemeanors, and was sentenced to 40 days in the county jail. Judge Kathryn Karayannis also ordered that his seven dogs be seized and either adopted or put to death.
On Friday, the three first-floor residents had their own day in Elgin’s branch court. Thacker and McDonald are charged with animal cruelty. Zwarton is charged with endangering the health and safety of a child by allowing her children to live in those conditions.
Dogs can stay
And prosecutors were asking Judge Karayannis to take the two upstairs dogs — a 10-year-old border collie/shepherd named Lady and a 4-year-old beagle ironically named Felony — away from Thacker’s ownership.
But after a hearing, the judge ruled in Thacker’s favor, saying that prosecutors had not proven that the three had committed any cruel acts against the upstairs pets and therefore the state cannot seize Lady and Felony.
As they each appeared before the judge without a lawyer Friday, the three all pleaded not guilty and asked for jury trials. Karayannis scheduled new court appearances for April 10 for Thacker and McDonald, and said she would appoint public defenders to represent them. She gave Zwarton time to try to hire an attorney and assigned her a hearing date of April 4.
Both animal cruelty and endangering a child are punishable by up to a year in jail and up to $2,500 in fines.
Speaking with a reporter before the hearing, Zwarton said her unofficial foster parents are mentally handicapped, unemployable and living on Social Security disability benefits. She said they had been living happily in the little Lavoie Avenue home with Lady and Felony for a year. But their lives changed five months ago, she said, when Shilling — whom she described as a friend of hers — asked if he and his seven dogs could stay in their basement for a week.
They agreed. But Shilling stayed on and on, and would not move out, Zwarton said. When he failed to clean up the droppings left by his dogs in the basement and the house began to smell, she said, the family called the city’s animal control and building departments, but officials there declined to help them evict their unwelcome guest.
Finally, Police Officer James Rog testified Friday, a neighbor complained to Animal Control. An officer sent to investigate on Jan. 30 detected a strong odor. Police then obtained a search warrant and came in force on the afternoon of Jan. 31 to search the house. They removed the dogs, arrested the inhabitants, took Zwarton’s children to stay with the children’s father and temporarily declared the home uninhabitable.
Since then, Zwarton said, the house has been cleaned up. She said her family moved back in about 10 days after the raid and the children again are staying with her.
She criticized how the Elgin police tactical unit handled the raid.
“The SWAT team came to our house with about 30 men carrying guns,” she said. “My son was watching ‘Sponge Bob SquarePants’ on TV, and now when that show comes on, he gets terrified all over again that those men with guns will come back. They broke our door in half. They went through all our drawers and papers. They tipped over our freezer to use it as a barricade against the vicious dogs downstairs and never plugged it in again, so all the frozen food spoiled.”
What’s more, she said, “They were afraid to go down into the basement to get Robert’s dogs. They were going to just shoot the dogs. So I went to get them, and I got bit three times.”
But in the dog-forfeiture hearing Friday, a prosecutor argued that even if the filth and stench may have been created by that man in the basement, it was unconscionable that Thacker, McDonald and Zwarton could go living in it.
Rog, the Elgin Police Department’s chief animal control officer, said a strong ammonia-like smell could be detected 10 or 12 feet outside the house with its doors shut. When the officers entered, he said, one of them vomited.
Rog testified that the raiders found “general clutter and disarray” on the first floor. But in the basement, he said, “We found a quarter-inch to a half-inch of impacted dog feces throughout.” He showed photos of the basement walls covered with pawprints made in mud or feces.
Asked whether it might be possible for someone living upstairs from such conditions not to smell the stench, Rog said, “In living with a smell long-term, yes, a tolerance for that builds up.”
Rog testified he had “no knowledge” that the family had contacted his department or another city bureau prior to Jan. 31.
“The bottom line is that the owner of these animals allowed them to live in unlivable conditions,” Assistant State’s Attorney Brad Melzer argued to the judge.
But reviewing numerous receipts for veterinary care for Thacker’s two dogs, photo evidence that she had provided food for her pets, and lack of any testimony that Thacker ever beat or hurt any of the dogs, Judge Karayannis ruled that the prosecution had not proven the animal-cruelty charges enough to allow the state to confiscate Lady and Felony.