Charges likely after cat raidsDuluth Township’s police chief said he will forward a report this week to the St. Louis County Attorney’s office seeking 79 counts of animal cruelty charges against a Two Harbors man accused of hoarding more than 100 cats at two of his properties.
By: Lake County News-Chronicle, Forum Newspapers, Lake County News Chronicle
Duluth Township’s police chief said he will forward a report this week to the St. Louis County Attorney’s office seeking 79 counts of animal cruelty charges against a Two Harbors man accused of hoarding more than 100 cats at two of his properties.
Thirty-nine of those charges could correspond with the number of cats found dead at the rural Knife River property of 68-year-old Todd Stoehr, said Police Chief Shawn Padden. Padden said he’s still awaiting autopsy results to see if the cats died of a cause such as respiratory distress.
The cats found alive at Stoehr’s property were kept in what Padden described as “filthy” conditions, including a pole barn housing 20 cats without light or ventilation and with floors covered in feces.
“They might knock some of the charges down a bit,” Padden said. “But they seem-ed pretty receptive to it.”
Stoehr has declined comment since his properties were raided last week. There were more cats found in his Second Avenue home, 34, in better condition. City ordinance allows just three cats per household.
Duluth’s Animal Allies Humane Society reported this week that 11 of the 35 cats the shelter took in from Stoehr’s properties have been adopted.
The shelter will lose about $3,500 by waiving the $90 adoption fee for the cats through today, said Jim Filby Williams, executive director of Animal Allies.
“We’re happy to go without that money,” he said. “But it’s indicative as to how important it is to find good homes for the cats quickly.”
The urgency, Williams said, is that with spring an influx of cats and kittens at Animal Allies and the city shelter is approaching, making shelter space limited.
While both organizations have said they will take whatever steps possible to find other options if shelter space isn’t available, euthanizing cats is an option. “We don’t want to save [the Stoehr] cats at the cost of losing other cats,” Williams said.
The 41 cats that were taken to the Golden Valley Humane Society have not yet been put up for adoption and are instead being given time to adjust to their surroundings and get medical treatment, said Deb Balzer, a spokeswoman at the shelter that does work for the state in such cases.
All of the cats found in the pole barn were taken to Golden Valley, Williams said, and require more care.
In Two Harbors
Two Harbors Police Chief Chris Donald said the stench from Stoehr’s home was “unbelievable.” He said officers went to the home Thursday and asked about cats in the home. Stoehr said they would need a warrant to enter. Donald said one was prepared but when Stoehr heard about the raid in Duluth Township, he let officers into the home.
There were several cats in crates and 34 overall, Donald said. City ordinance allows only three cats per household and they all must be licensed. None of Stoehr’s cats were.
Donald said Stoehr was then cooperative as Humane Society workers and officers went through the home.
A neighbor said Friday that the scene was chaotic and she wondered how many cats Stoehr had before officers arrived Thursday. She said she had seen “crate after crate” going in and out of the home the past few weeks.
Donald said it’s frustrating to hear that people had complained to the city about cats but nothing ever formally reached his department. The first official complaint he received was March 8 and it was linked to the situation in Duluth Township. The events there led to reasonable suspicion that cats were in danger in Two Harbors as well, Donald said.
Donald said the home will be monitored.
Stoehr’s house is on a corner lot. His direct neighbors to the east have complained about the smells from the property since they moved in three years ago. Kip Cardinal says he’s packing up and moving to Silver Bay. “We’ve pretty much had it,” he said. “We’re walking away.”
“It’s pretty hard to take when you go out in your back yard and all you smell is cat piss,” he said. “It’s not worth it.”
He said his home will likely go to the bank, he won’t try to sell it because of the problems with Stoehr. “You sell it to someone else and they’ll come back and sue you,” he said.
Animal hoarding has been rare in the city, Donald said. The only other incident he recalled Friday was 18 cats found in a home “about 15 years ago.”
Man with a past
Stoehr had a dispute with the city in 1995 over the number of cats in his home. In a letter to the city written in July that year, he said he was helping animals as a “de facto shelter for the community.” He said that because the Lake County Humane Society had been up and running, he didn’t feel as responsible for stray cats in the region. He said the cats that had been in his home were being moved to a rural property in Knife River.
In the letter, Stoehr apologized for the “long suffering forbearance of my neighbors,” and said putting up with the situation at the home was a way of helping the animals as well.
There is no record of any further communication between the city and Stoehr concerning the cats in his home but he did apply for seven city cat tags in 1997. In March of that year, 73 cats and four dogs were killed in a fire at Stoehr’s Knife River trailer home. Again, there had been some dispute on whether Stoehr was running an official shelter or simply keeping the cats as “personal pets,” as he claimed the year before the fire despite not living in the trailer.
In 2009, there were complaints filed with the city about the state of Stoehr’s property on Second Avenue. The city sent letters regarding an unkempt lawn and refuse and appliances scattered about. The letters describe a yard much as it looks today. There were similar letters sent in 2003 and 2004.
Jim Rich, the city’s building official, signed the letters. He has been unavailable for comment. Mayor Randy Bolen said it was decided at Monday’s city council meeting that Rich will be asked about past complaints at the house.
Cardinal complained to the council late last year about Stoehr’s property and cats. He has dealt with health issues in the past year since doing work on the foundation around his house. He and a friend who helped him have feared their illnesses had something to do with the cat feces found in the area between the houses. They went to the council to ask that something be done about Stoehr. “He was over the (cat allowance) ordinance and nothing was done,” Cardinal said. “Why weren’t they keeping tabs on this.”
City attorney Steve Overom told council members he would deal with the problem and told council members to not talk about it. The city asked the Lake County Health Department if there were any risks to the public. The county deferred to the Minnesota Department of Health, which said there was no risk. Both agencies maintain their positions.
After that, the city said it needed hard evidence that Stoehr was breaking the cat limit ordinance and left it at that, Cardinal said.
When asked if there was any solace in seeing the raid Thursday, Cardinal wasn’t celebrating. He’s done with the whole ordeal and concentrating on leaving it all behind. “It finally happened,” he said. “I’m glad.”
On the scene
In all, more than 100 cats were found at Stoehr’s two properties, including more than three dozen in various stages of decomposition.
Law enforcement raided the Two Harbors home and Duluth Township property on a report that he was hoarding animals, said Wade Hanson, the investigator for the Golden Valley Humane Society.
A woman renting a trailer on the rural Knife River property was keeping 25 cats in conditions that Duluth Township Police Officer Shawn Padden described as putrid.
“There were areas of the trailer overflowing with cat litter,” he said. “I couldn’t stay in there for more than five seconds.”
But even worse, Padden said, was a pole shed where 20 cats were found in an area “entombed in darkness,” with no windows and no ventilation that reeked of cat urine and feces. Thirty-nine dead cats were found around the perimeter of the shed, Padden said.
Padden said that in his 23 years of police work, including time breaking down meth labs, the smell was “the worst I’ve ever been in.”
“It was slightly better, but still very toxic,” Padden said of the situation in Two Harbors. “It was a rancid smell. I don’t know how anyone could live like that. … I can still smell it.”
“I think there needs to be some kind of accountability for this,” Padden said. “If the (county) attorney comes to me and says he’ll charge for the dead cats, we’ll do that, too.”
Who is Todd Stoehr?
Stoehr has identified himself as director of the Lake Superior Humane Society, and he recently referred to himself that way when trying to promote cat rescue in the community, said Carrie Lane, the animal control officer for the Duluth Police Department.
His Lake Superior Humane Society, completely separate from the Lake County Humane Society, lists a Knife River P.O. box as its address, and its phone number has been disconnected. No tax form 990s, which the IRS requires nonprofits to file, were found for the organization.
Lane said Stoehr would advertise his organization as a no-kill foster care provider for people who want to give their animals away or find a home for strays. Lane believes that’s partly how Stoehr collected the cats and obtained money through private donations and grants.
At least three organizations have given grants and donations to the Lake Superior Humane Society since 2003: $6,000 from the Roger H. and Phyllis Sherman Foundation; $9,400 from the PETCO Foundation, and $2,100 from the Duluth Superior Community Foundation, according to public records.
A spokesperson for the PETCO Foundation said the donations came from store fundraisers, and that if Stoehr is found to be hoarding animals “all connections with him will be severed.”
Stoehr would give cats to homes in Duluth that Lane believes also involve hoarders. She said they initially take in the animals with the intention of providing them a good home. Cats have also been sent to Superior for adoption.
“A lot of people in this town have been helping him. I think they were well-meaning,” she said. “And I can’t even say he wasn’t well-meaning. He might have been. Sometimes it’s just good intentions gone sideways.”