Green Acre Owners Take Plea Deal in 'Gilbert 23' Dog Deaths, Online Canine Crowd Bays for Blood

Whether online or in person, an angry mob bent on vengeance is not easily placated. Particularly when dead pets are involved.

So it goes for some in the Twitterverse, who erupted in rage at Thursday's news that Gilbert resident Todd Hughes and his wife MaLeisa Hughes, had copped a plea deal in the June 2014 tragedy at their Green Acre Dog Boarding facility in Gilbert, where more than 20 canines lost their lives, spawning an animal-cruelty investigation by — who else? — the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office.

As part of the plea agreement, the Hugheses each pleaded guilty to one felony count of fraud and one felony count of animal cruelty. A press release from the Maricopa County Attorney's Office stated that the pair will serve 23 days in jail "without the possibility of work release, work furlough, home detention, or compliance monitoring."

The couple will not be allowed to have any new pets or operate or work at any animal-boarding facility. They must perform 230 hours of community service, write a letter of apology to the victims, and never discuss or comment on the case in social media.

But social media had plenty to say about them, and about Austin and Logan Flake, the son and former daughter in-law, respectively, of U.S. Senator Jeff Flake, who were the caretakers of Hugheses' home-based business while the Hugheses were away for a week in June 2014.

The Flakes, now divorced, escaped the punishment the Hughes will endure, and many Twitter users weren't happy with that outcome, and, generally, felt that justice had not been harsh enough to the Hugheses either.

With all the Internet outrage, you might think that 20-plus homo sapiens had perished, rather than the same number of man's four-legged friend.

"No justice in this plea bargain," tweeted one woman. "No remorse. No heart."

A little more to the point, the animal activists/ex-Playboy models Barbi Twins, using the #Gilbert23 hashtag, tweeted to their nearly 33,000 followers that the "plea deal is a joke-23 #dogs died a horrific slow death at a PAID kennel... No justice!"

And: "They should be thrown in jail for mass murder!"

Scribes for Phoenix's local daily jumped on the bandwagon, with one tweeting that "one day in jail per dead dog is not enough," and another opining that victims "Snickers and Sandy are rolling over in their graves."

It's terrible when dogs die. Just ask Maricopa County Animal Care and Control, which, according to its most recent annual report, had to put down 8,324 dogs and cats in fiscal year 2015. That's 7,417 dogs and 907 cats euthanized, mainly for lack of adoption.

Some social-media vigilantes want the Flakes in particular to pay, regardless of the facts of the case, which are in the former couple's favor.

Logan and Austin Flake followed the Hugheses' instructions while they were away, placing about 28 dogs in a room on the night in question, just as had been done on previous nights without incident.

When Austin next checked in, at about 5:30 the next morning, more than 20 dogs lay dead or dying from heatstroke owing to high temperatures in the room. The Flakes contacted the Hugheses, who told them to water and ice the dogs down, but to no avail.

Initially, the MCSO labeled the deaths an accident, because the room's air-conditioning unit had stopped working during the night. But the agency soon reversed course and launched a criminal investigation. In September 2014, a Maricopa County grand jury indicted the Flakes and the Hugheses on multiple counts of animal cruelty, and, for the Hugheses, a felony count of fraud apiece. 

But the Flakes' attorney, Dennis Wilenchik, once an ally of Sheriff Joe Arpaio, convinced a judge to remand the case back to the grand jury, when he showed that the MCSO's own air-conditioning expert had concluded that it was "very likely" that the AC for the room froze up that night because the unit's filters had not been changed.

A report on the home's electricity usage by power provider SRP, which the MCSO knew about, backed up this conclusion (as did the defense's expert), but these facts were not revealed to the grand jury, and Wilenchik gave examples in which MCSO investigators deliberately misled jurors on that crucial point.

The county attorney was compelled to dismiss the charges and start over. He opted not to refile against Austin and Logan Flake because, as he told reporters at the time, "A reckless standard for the mental state is what's required for even a misdemeanor animal-cruelty count ... It requires a particular awareness of the circumstances in which the dogs were kept, that could lead to their death."

Granted, Montgomery likely would not have come to such a decision, had Wilenchik's argument not been so successful.

Though Austin and Logan are no longer together, they still have a federal lawsuit pending against the MCSO and the county for wrongful prosecution. And there is evidence aplenty that the MCSO was driven to conduct a criminal investigation because of the Flake name and the notoriety the case brought to Apraio's office. 

The Hugheses, meanwhile, remained on the hook, and the county attorney presented their case to another grand jury, which re-indicted the pair.

Notwithstanding the howls of indignation from the online peanut gallery, Thursday's events pretty much ended the matter, though the Hugheses will be back in court September 9 for their formal sentencing.

That's when we can expect the virtual lynch mob to reconvene one more time — at least until the MCSO gins up another animal-cruelty case.

Which, as luck would have it, the sheriff's office did on the same day the Hugheses' plea deal was announced.

On Thursday, the MCSO raided two homes in the West Valley where an elderly woman allegedly was keeping one cat and 31 Shih Tzus in deplorable conditions.  

It may be overkill to note that the presence of a possible serial shooter or shooters on the West Side, having notched several human fatalities, has received about the same media play as the drama of the Hugheses and the Flakes.

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Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons