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A memorial to dogs that died at Gilbert-area Green Acre Boarding sprang up near the kennel after the grisly discovery last month. / Michael Schennum/The Republic

GILBERT, Ariz. -- When Shannon Gillette dropped off her golden retrievers at Green Acre Dog Boarding on May 27, there were four or five dogs romping through the kitchen and a baby sitting on the floor.

It seemed like a perfect place for her dogs, Parker and Sherman, to stay for a month until her new home was ready.

The Green Acre website advertised a "Disneyland for Dogs," and clients like Gillette were told their pets would sleep with the children of owners MaLeisa and Jesse Todd Hughes.

Erin Montez envisioned her boxer, Carmen, playing with the other dogs in the lush, green backyard, a setting akin to a dog park or resort.

Jesus Cabrales saw three or four dogs running around the living room and some small children when he first visited the Gilbert-area Green Acre property.

The house was clean. He thought it would be the perfect environment for his Rhodesian Ridgeback, Sonny Corleone, "the gangster with the heart of gold."

If that weren't enticing enough, MaLeisa Hughes told Cabrales that her husband, Jesse Todd Hughes, "was like a dog whisperer" who could calm Sonny, who was a bit hyper.

In interviews and court documents, grieving owners of nearly two dozen dogs struggled to reconcile the images of Green Acre as canine lotusland with what their attorney would call a death camp for at least 21 and possibly 23 beloved pets.

The conflicting stories that Jesse Todd Hughes told to the dogs' owners began before the owners dropped off their pets, according to a search-warrant affidavit and interviews conducted with dog owners, but escalated as word of the deaths spread.

The stories that dog owners were told seemed to be as varied as their breeds. Several owners said they were told their dogs had run away. At least two more said they were told that their dogs - or possibly the Hugheses' dog - had bitten through an air-conditioning wire, causing the room they were in to overheat.

One woman, Jan Miller, said Hughes told her that her dog, Roxy, had run away. A follow-up text message said kennel workers were still looking for the Queensland Heeler, and a subsequent message said, "Roxy is acting strange," according to the affidavit. Miller eventually learned through friends that Roxy had died at Green Acre.

Hughes, who declined to comment for this story, has publicly apologized for lying, saying he panicked initially.

According to the search-warrant affidavit, more than 20 dogs died after they were crammed into a sealed 9- by 12-foot room for the night, a room that was never shown to prospective clients.

The dogs were discovered June 20. One had died several days earlier. Another dog, which had escaped the facility, was discovered dead more than a week later after apparently being hit by a car.

Sheriff's deputies filed the search-warrant affidavit July 8 and began searching the property a day later. Investigators have not made any arrests in the case, and Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery said last week that his office would be thorough before deciding whether to file any criminal charges.

On Thursday, sheriff's deputies returned to the property after two dead rabbits were reported there. It is unknown if that case is related.

Many of the dogs' owners have hired an attorney, and as they await word on the in­vestigation, they have started to take apart the stories they say Hughes told them in the days after the dogs were discovered in the tiny room off the side of a bedroom in the Hugheses' 2,500-square-foot home.

On June 21, the day after the dogs were ­discovered, Gillette received a voice mail from Hughes saying her dogs had dug ­themselves out of the facility and run away, according to the search-warrant affidavit. Her mother went to the boarding facility, where she looked for the dogs in vain until a Maricopa County Sheriff's Office deputy told her that Parker and Sherman were dead inside the house.

"Everything is a lie from the moment we dropped our dogs off. Each family was told a different story. That's because something horrible happened and they want to cover it up," Gillette said.

Three days after the Montez family dropped off Carmen, Erin Montez received a call from Hughes saying Carmen had run through an open gate as Hughes was taking out the trash and was missing, the affidavit said. Later that night, Hughes called back with a different version: that the air-conditioning unit failed and Carmen died of heat exhaustion.

And while Cabrales was driving to Green Acre on June 20 to pick up Sonny, Hughes called him to say that either Sonny or Buddy, Hughes' own dog, had chewed through some drywall and then chewed a wire, cutting off the air-conditioning. Cabrales said he was told only two dogs were in the laundry room and both died, the affidavit said. Sonny's body was covered in a blanket.

Heartbroken, Cabrales said he became enraged when he got home and found gruesome wounds on Sonny's legs and stomach. He had already confronted Hughes, accusing him of lying about Sonny's death and demanding the truth as a red-faced Hughes looked down and cried, Cabrales said.

Cabrales' veterinarian concluded that Sonny likely died of suffocation and the wounds happened postmortem as more than 20 dogs jostled around in the small "dog" room where they died. Additional tests are pending.

According to the affidavit and other records, the Hugheses' daughter and son-in-law, Logan and Austin Flake, were caring for the dogs while the Hugheses were out of town, something many of the owners contacted said they didn't know. Flake is the son of Arizona Republican Sen. Jeff Flake.

The Flakes put more than 20 dogs in the dog room at 11 p.m. on June 19 and discovered many dogs dead or seriously ill at 5:30 a.m. on June 20. The affidavit said the Flakes attempted to help the dogs by hosing them down and applying ice on their bodies.

"They were just greedy. They were taking in as much money as they can," with many clients charged $20 a day, Cabrales said. "I just can't let go of the fact that I don't know the truth."

John Schill, an attorney representing most of the dog owners, said he is conducting his own independent investigation and plans to file a civil suit.

Schill said he strongly suspects that the dogs were sedated so that 28 animals that would normally fight and play could be crammed into such a small room. He said that's why the tests on Sonny Corleone's remains and those of other dogs are so critical.

Schill said he believes the dog owners were defrauded and the lies "magnified it tremendously. That's when people get upset, when they heard about the lies."

Robert Jarvis, an attorney for the Hugheses, did not return telephone calls seeking comment, but MaLeisa Hughes described the dogs' deaths as a "freak accident" shortly after the story broke. She said her husband initially panicked when he told dog owners that their pets ran away and regrets the lies.

"No one wants to accept that accidents happen. It happened to us, and it could happen to you," she said. "No one feels worse about these special angel dogs than me and my husband, my daughter and son-in-law."

She said the wire was still sparking when Austin and Logan Flake found the dogs dead or seriously ill, that her house could have burned down and her children could have been killed.

But through the eyes of the family's critics, "because it didn't catch fire, we're dog killers."

Valerie and Tony Collins had misgivings about dropping off their Bernese mountain dogs on June 18, but they did so anyway because they were between houses and had to stay in a hotel for a week. Carson and Daisy had stayed at Green Acre twice before, sleeping for a day after their return and slurping large amounts of water for a week afterward.

"I had an uneasiness, and I couldn't put my finger on it," Valerie Collins said. "I wish I had followed my gut feelings."

On June 21, Hughes called Collins and told her that a dog had chewed the wire to the air-conditioning, cutting off the power, and that Carson and Daisy were dead.

A cardiac nurse at Mountain Vista Medical Center, Collins said she was in town and available to help. She is convinced she could have helped save the dogs and is appalled that Austin and Logan Flake did not call a veterinarian or seek other professional help when they discovered the tragedy.

"It eats me up I could have saved my dogs. It eats me up inside," she said.



Copyright 2014USAToday

Read the original story: Dog owners still seek truth about notorious kennel

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