The owners of 23 dogs found dead on June 19 at a home-boarding business in Gilbert are suing the four suspects in the related criminal case, including the son of Senator Jeff Flake.
Twenty-one people, represented by four local lawyers, filed a 23-page complaint today in Maricopa County Superior Court alleging they were defrauded by the owners of Green Acre Cage Free Dog Boarding, MaLeisa and Jesse "Todd" Hughes, MaLeisa Hughes' daughter, Logan Flake, and her husband, Austin.
The wide-ranging lawsuit alleges multiple acts including fraud, conspiracy, breach of contract and negligence, and details heart-wrenching tales of lies and betrayal that followed the deaths of numerous beloved pets.
"We're filing suit to recover for the loss of my clients' family members," says Valley attorney John Schill. "My clients are looking for justice and change. They don't want this to happen to any other family."
The plaintiffs include: David and Shannon Gillette, Zachary Wicker and Heather Bennett, Alan and Ashley Branch, Tony Collins and Valerie Taylor-Collins, Cary and Jacqueline Heath, Jason and Cheri McIntyre, Jan Miller, Deborah Ortiz, Martin and Barbara Peraza, David and Michelle Zipser, Jesus Cabrelas and Irene Candelaria, and Jan Wohlfert.
The dog owners allege that the Hugheses advertised that six-to-10 dogs at the most would be at the business, a one-acre property at 15723 East Appleby Road that includes the Hugheses' home. The dogs would get to roam around the property and even sleep in the house with the owners and their children. The dog owners were given a tour of the house that didn't include a special 9'x12' room.
The Hugheses left town on June 14, leaving the dogs in the care of Austin Flake, son of Arizona Senator Jeff Flake, and his wife, Logan. The dog owners didn't know the Hugheses weren't there, or what was really happening to their pets. The Flakes locked more than 20 dogs being boarded in the "dog room" on the night of June 19, where they suffocated due to poor ventilation. At about 5:30 a.m. the next morning, the dogs were found dead or "severely ill." The business remained open and continued to take in new dogs over the next couple of days.
With so many plaintiffs and allegations, the suit breaks up into chapters headed by the names of each family's pets. Phone calls and messages made in the aftermath of the dog deaths by Todd Hughes are a recurring theme.
According to the suit:
* Remington and Valor: Todd Hughes called Heather Bennett on June 21, telling her that five dogs, including both of hers, ran away after another dog dug a hole under a fence.
The Bennetts spent about four hours driving around the area, calling for their dogs. Meanwhile, Remington was lying dead in the shed. Valor's remains were found on the side of a road on July 5; he'd apparently been hit by a car.
* Francis, Snickers, Tonka, Buick and Tiny: The Branches, like the other owners, had no idea the Hughes had left town. On June 16, in reply to a text, Todd Hughes sent Ashley Branch a message saying, "They are all doing great. Tiny really loves attention. My wife is in love with Buick. Everyone else is great."
Branch received a late-night call from Hughes, who asked her to call him. After a flurry of phone messages, he talked to her at about 10 p.m. the following evening, telling her that "one of her dogs chewed through a metal fence and electrical wire," and that four of her dogs had run away.
Hughes told Branch that "they drove around for hours looking for the dogs and found them dead from the heat," the lawsuit states.
The dogs' bodies were found at Green Acre.
* Carsen and Daisy: AKC certified and used for breeding, the dogs were found dead at Green Acre. Hughes called Valerie Taylor-Collins on June 21 and told her the dog room's air-conditioner went out after a dog chewed a power cord.
* Sherman and Parker: Their owners, the Gillettes, were told to make an appointment if they wanted to visit their dogs. On June 21, Hughes left a message saying the dogs had run away. They were found dead at Green Acre.
* Happy, Rosie and Chloe: Hughes called the Heaths on June 21 with the chewed-power-cord story, saying all three of their dogs were dead. Remains of two of the Heaths' dogs were found in cages in the dog room.
* Zed, Elie and Mia: Hughes called Jason McIntyre at about 10 a.m. and told him his three dogs were dead because of the chewed power cord. The dogs had been there since June 14.
Forty-five minutes later, Hughes called back and said Mia was still alive. McIntyre told him to bring the dog to the Arizona Animal Wellness Center.
"The veterinarian ... noted that Mia was nervous, underweight, very filthy and foul-smelling," the suit states.
* Roxy: On the morning of June 21, Hughes called Jan Miller and told her that Roxy had run away, and that he was looking for her. She texted him a few hours later for information. Hughes replied that he was still looking for the dog.
In reality, the dog died at Green Acre "and was taken to be cremated without (Miller's) permission."
* Maci: Deborah Ortiz booked Maci into Green Acre on June 2. On June 22, Hughes called her and said "there had been a tragic accident and Maci was dead, but ... refused to provide details."
* Koda: Hughes called Barbara Peraza at about 10 a.m. on June 20, saying "Koda had become agitated and ran away," and that "they were out looking" for the dog.
Koda, a "service/companion dog for the Perazas' autistic child," died at Green Acre.
* Cash and Zoey: Hughes left David Zipser a voice mail message on June 21, saying Cash had run away and that the staff was looking for him.
Zipser talked to Hughes three days later, and Hughes told him Cash was dead due to the power-cord problem with the air conditioner. The Zipsers were distraught and sent a friend to pick up Zoey, who was found "very dehydrated." The friend said she'd been told at Green Acre that Cash had been picked up by a pet mortuary.
Michelle Zipser sent Hughes a text message asking for the location of Cash's body.
Hughes admitted to her he'd had the dog cremated the day before.
* Sonny Corleone: On June 20, Jesus Cabrales' dog had been at Green Acre for five days, and Hughes would not return repeated calls. Cabrales finally reached him at 8:23 p.m., saying he was coming over. Hughes then confessed that Sonny was dead.
Either Sonny or Hughes' own dog, Buddy, must have chewed through the wire, causing the air flow to cut out, Hughes told Cabrales. Both dogs had succumbed to heat exhaustion, Hughes explained.
When Cabrales arrived at Green Acre, Todd Hughes showed him a room, saying that's where's the dogs died. Cabrales later found out the room he'd been shown was not the dog room, the actual site of the dogs' death.
A vet found Sonny's remains to have "unusual injuries" and sent the body the Sheriff's Office for a necropsy.
* Sandy: When she checked her dog in to Green Acre on June 17, Jan Wohlfert told Austin Flake that "Sandy had breathing problems and needed to be kept indoors, except to go to the bathroom."
On June 18, around 6:23 a.m., Flake called Wohlfert and told her he'd let the dog outside that morning and found her on the ground, dead.
Todd Hughes later called Wohlfert and told her "Sandy went to sleep and did not wake up."
Wohlfert was unable to find out what happened to Sandy's remains.
The suit goes on to allege that the defendants, as a group: had made false statements about, and "covered up," the way the business was operated; had knowingly and intentionally concealed acts of animal cruelty including the dogs' injuries and deaths; and had committed wire fraud by transmitting false representations.
The dogs had been subjected to "neglect, mistreatment, physical injury, and/or psychological abuse," the lawsuit states.
Todd Hughes is singled out for allegations of breach of contract and negligence. While out of town, Hughes put the Flakes in charge of the business, failed to properly train or supervise them, and didn't warn them of "dangerous conditions."
The Flakes committed negligence by failing to warn the customers of the conditions and failing to provide adequate food, water, shelter and space to the dogs, the suit says.
The Green Acre business is also a named defendant. The dog owners are seeking punitive damages to compensate for their "pain, anguish, sorrow, mental and emotional suffering, limitation, loss of consortium, stress and shock that they have experienced, and will experience in the future." They're seeking various other damages, plus return of their boarding fees, and attorneys' fees.
Schill says he hopes the county attorney's office charges the four suspects with criminal fraud in addition to animal cruelty.
Besides Schill, the other lawyers signed on to the case include Derick Oliverson, a criminal attorney with Schill Law Group, and Shawn Cunningham and Joseph D'Aguanno of the personal-injury law firm Harris, Powers and Cunningham.
It's unclear how much money the business, and the defendants, have to extract by the dog owners. As our previous article on the case related:
MaLeisa Hughes is a blogger and mom to eight children, including foster kids. A Chapter 7 bankruptcy filing from 2009 shows that she had previously worked as a credit analyst, while her husband had been a technician for a pest control company. They had a combined monthly income of $6,155, yet had managed to rack up $51,000 in consumer debt. Two of their vehicles were repossessed.
MaLeisa Hughes and a co-signer, Jesse D. Hughes Jr of Alaska, apparently a relative of Jesse Todd Hughes, took out a 30-year loan of $357,000 for the property and finalized its purchase just a few days before the dogs turned up dead, records show.
County Attorney Bill Montgomery said last week the complex case, submitted to his office on September 9 by the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office, would be reviewed thoroughly before any charging decisions were made.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Montgomery and Arpaio, both Republicans, deny they're giving any special consideration in the case to Austin Flake just because he's the son of a powerful Republican Senator.
Got a tip? Send it to: Ray Stern.