A lengthy internal investigation into the mistreatment of animals has left the Naugatuck Police department coping with an understaffed animal control division after the resignations of two staff members and the termination of a third.
The investigation was sparked by the case of a euthanized dog named China, which police said was emaciated after not being properly cared for by a Naugatuck resident. Officials discovered subsequent negligence on the part of a part-time and a full-time animal control officer, according to information in a Freedom of Information request obtained by Naugatuck Patch on Thursday.
As a result, Naugatuck now only has one part-time person staffed at the animal control office.
This is an account of an internal probe conducted by the state Department of Agriculture, with assistance from the Naugatuck Police department.
A Malnourished, Emanciated Dog and a Four-Month Investigation
It all began Jan. 22.
Then-Assistant Animal Control Officer Adrienne Croce got a call from Valerie Machnics, of 100 Old Highway Road, that her dog China was dying and needed help. At the time of the call, Croce was at the Oxford Animal Control Office, and while off-duty she enlisted their help, the investigation stated. Croce did not immediately contact Naugatuck's head Animal Control Officer (ACO) Kristy Sturges or the on-duty part-time officer, Jennifer Parcelli, the investigation detailed.
The dog was found emaciated in Machnics’ home. The investigation noted it wasn’t the first time Croce had seen China. Croce and Sturges were there just weeks before on Jan. 5, responding to a separate complaint of a roaming dog named Batman. Croce also returned the following week on Jan. 15 and informed Machnics that China needed medical attention — something Machnics said she couldn’t afford.
But, according to the report, Croce noted the white pit bull-type dog inside the home was "very emaciated."
"Officer Croce knew the dog was in trouble," the state's investigation stated. "She had never seen a dog in such poor condition in all of her years working with animals."
After finding the dog in a malnourished state on Jan. 22, Croce took China to Beacon Valley Animal Hospital, where veterinarian Stacy Dudek determined the dog was in a state of shock and had to be euthanized.
“She was hypothermic, had pale gums, was barely responsive to external stimuli and too weak to stand, even with assistance,” Dudek wrote in a letter obtained in the investigation. “China’s body condition was extremely poor and all of her bony prominences were visible (ribs, back bones, pelvic bones and head bones) due to loss of muscle mass.”
The dog had fleas over her body, was missing a portion of her hair coat and had sunken eyes, the letter stated.
“It is clear that this dog was suffering and near death,” she said.
After the dog was euthanized, a Naugatuck police investigation began. Machnics was in relation to her treatment China, and was arrested after the state seized a pair of malnourished horses from her home.
The animal control office was apparently familiar with Machnics’ home. According to the investigation, the office went there six times in January 2011, four times in December 2010 and once in April 2010.
No reports were ever written related to any of those visits, the investigation stated.
“She’s Just Old”
The fact that Croce called the Oxford Animal Control officer while off duty — instead of contacting the Naugatuck officials directly — is a violation of department code, as well as policy and procedure, the investigation said. But Croce had had violations within the department before.
“She’s had a history of policy violations, and a failure to follow instructions,” Chief Christopher J. Edson told Patch.
But while Croce waited to contact Sturges after she took China to the vet, Sturges responded that the dog wasn’t sick, the investigation said.
“Several times, the assistant ACO of Naugatuck stated that she was told, by her boss (Sturges), that China wasn’t sick but was ‘just old,’” Dudek wrote in the investigation. “China didn’t become ill from old age. China was clearly suffering from an organ system failure, plus or minus other disease process.”
Dudek then stated it was the owner’s responsibility to address such issues as organ failure, which takes “months/years” to accumulate. She then moved away from discussing the owner to directly implicating “town officials."
“And town officials were aware of the pet’s condition,” she said. “It became their responsibility to act on China’s behalf. My hope is that in the future, town officials can be more knowledgeable about what constitutes neglect of a pet.”
In the investigation, the Department of Agriculture implicated Sturges directly as mishandling the case. The report also stated Sturges and Croce "had numerous opportunities to check the status of all animals," as well as the "living and physical conditions of the canines."
“Sturges failed to effectively supervise Croce, specifically failing to plan, organize, staff, coordinate, report and direct personnel in what ‘should have been’ a cruelty investigation,” the investigation stated.
A third party, Parcelli, has since resigned her post at the department, Harrison said. Parcelli’s sworn testimony in the case corroborates claims that Sturges failed to supervise Croce properly, the report detailed.
Pacelli’s statement to state Animal Control Officer Todd A. Curry, who conducted the internal probe, contradicted Sturges’ statement that she never contacted Pacelli the night China was found emaciated and in need of euthanization.
In fact, Sturges' reaction was to let Croce handle the case, the report detailed.
According to a report by Naugatuck police Capt. Jeremiah J. Scully, “Pacelli stated ‘however on this same day at 1657 hrs (4:57 p.m.), I received a call from my boss, Sturges. Sturges told me she had spoken with Croce and found out that the dog China was either being put down or was about to be put down and that Croce was claiming animal cruelty. Sturges told me that it was Croce’s case and for me not to get involved.”
Sturges also told Pacelli “(Sturges) was not going to get involved either,” Scully wrote in the report. Phone records detail the conversation lasted 31 minutes.
“The proper course of action would have been for Sturges to respond to work and conduct an investigation or assign Pacelli, the on-duty animal control officer, to investigate the case,” Scully said in the report.
Scully called for a three-day suspension of Sturges, something that the Naugatuck police chief enacted on April 18 — four months after the state was first contacted for an investigation.
Sturges then put in a letter of resignation, and will leave the department on May 31. Croce has been fired, after the investigation determined she acted with her own tools in the case — a cell phone and car — but also utilized her position as an animal control officer while off duty.
Neither could be reached for comment.
Further Issues Remain, But Might Not Conclude
In an interview Thursday afternoon with Patch, Edson confirmed the internal investigation was closed and no criminal charges are pending for those involved.
But some lingering issues, as they relate to the animal control office, are still under investigation by the state, he said.
But, Edson added, because Sturges is now resigning her job, “I don’t know if that investigation will conclude.” Edson declined to specify what issues remain.
The entire investigation began after the Oxford Animal Control Office contacted the state Department of Agriculture on Jan. 24 about Croce’s initial mishandling of the China case. But by that point Scully said Naugatuck had already begun its own investigation.
“Croce and Sturges had already come to me,” Scully said.
Then, Animal Control State Supervisor Ray Connors contacted Scully about an investigation and Scully said the Naugatuck department welcomed the internal probe, given the state’s ability to do an impartial investigation.
“In conversations with him, it became clear they have the experience and expertise to conduct an investigation properly,” Scully said.
At this point, Machnics’ court proceedings are still ongoing. She is due back in Waterbury Superior Court on June 21 and, according to the state’s website, has several pending cases.
And it’s now up to the Naugatuck police to find a new animal control department.
While the department remains understaffed for the time being, Harrison said the Naugatuck Police Department is directly responding to any emergency calls related to animal control. With only one part-time animal control officer left — Marilyn Weed, who is on vacation this week — the department is not taking in strays to its Cherry Street facility, unless they pose significant danger to the public, Edson said.
The majority of animals dealt with now are being given over to shelters and other municipal facilities, Harrison said. The department has four dogs at the Cherry Street pound, two of which are there on quarantine.
With an understaffed department and an animal control officer now out the door, the department is looking to further part-time options. But until that is done, Naugatuck officers are directly dealing with animal control issues.
“We’re doing what we can,” Harrison said.
Editor's Note: Department of Agriculture spokesman Ray Conners was incorrectly referred to as "Roy Conners" in a previous posting. This has since been corrected.