Butte Fire survivor Steven Mendoza was reunited with two of his dogs over the weekend, but on Monday he learned his red-nosed pitbull, Cici, 9, was dead.
An unidentified utility company employee tipped the Angels Camp Police Department to remains he had seen in Murphys on July 3 or 4.
Mendoza’s other dogs, Casper, 11, a red-nosed pit bull and Coco, 3, were found at Calaveras County Animal Services.
Mendoza cried as he said a member of his family had unjustly died as a result of their disappearance from the Pet Bath House in Angels Camp at the beginning of July.
“I am sad. I am angry. There's just no words how I feel right now. I lost a member of my family, my girl. I miss her so much. She did not deserve to die.”
All three dogs spent about two weeks in the care of Pet Bath House owner Vonna Faye Hughes. The dogs disappeared under mysterious and uncertain circumstances after an in-house dog fight and statements from Hughes led investigating officers to believe the dogs had been “feloniously killed.”
The man who found the animal remains in early July said he did not realize that they were associated with a police investigation until he saw a flier in the Sierra Hills Market in Murphys over the weekend requesting information or their return, a Angels Camp Police Department news release stated.
After being contacted about 8:25 a.m. Monday, an officer followed the utility worker to the 900 block of Crestview Drive and found the remains, which were transported to Calaveras County Animal Services in San Andreas.
Joyce Techel of JT Kennels, the pet boarding house in Valley Springs that housed all three pitbulls for 18 months following The Butte Fire, identified the dog as Cici.
Calaveras County Animal Services has also arranged for a necropsy in Davis to determine the cause and method of the dog’s death.
Just prior to Monday’s news, Mendoza described himself as “lightheaded and floating” over the weekend reunion with Casper and Coco.
“I popped down on one knee and just gave Casper a big ol’ hug,” he said. “I gave him a big ol’ hug and he gave me a big ol’ kiss.”
On Saturday, the Angels Camp Police Department was contacted by Calaveras County Animal services, who believed that Casper was in their custody. Additional arrangements were made to transport Coco, who had also previously been in the animal services’ care, back to the facility.
Both dogs were located in the Pennsylvania Gulch Road area of Murphys, but the exact dates of their recovery was not released pending an official report from animal services, a Police Department news release stated.
Mendoza said he was reunited with Casper on Saturday, and Coco on Sunday.
Mendoza said he was doubly committed to maintaining and assuring their safety.
“I'm going to keep my other two dogs close to me, and I'm not going to let anything happen to them,” he said. “I’m working on getting my settlement. I’m buying a home with some acreage and me my wife, my dogs, my cat are just going to not be bothered and live out the rest of our lives. I want my dogs to run around free, stress free, no worries.”
Both dogs are again quartered at JT Kennels, he added, and he plans to see them again on Wednesday.
The Angels Camp Police Department has also identified a new person of interest in the investigation — Calaveras County resident Michael Rutt, 42.
A news release said police believe Rutt was present when initial plans were made at the Pet Bath House to “dispose” of the dogs.
Rutt is wanted for questioning in the case as well as for failing to report for a post-release community supervision probation program following his release from prison.
The identification of Rutt is the third person in a series of suspects associated with the disappearance of the dogs.
Patti Guy, 60, of Angels Camp, a suspect on three counts of killing, maiming or abusing animals, three counts of stealing animals, and one count of criminal conspiracy was not arrested after she was identified as a person of interest.
Guy had provided officers with helpful information on other suspects, Angels Camp Police Department Todd Fordahl said, but still remained a suspect.
The Angels Camp Police Department arrested Hughes on July 8 after an investigation that determined she may have illegally put down or conspired in the disappearance of the dogs.
Hughes was arrested at her business on suspicion of animal cruelty, grand theft of an animal, criminal conspiracy, and misdemeanor charges animal neglect, and has since returned to operating her business.
Hughes said she had approached Guy about what to do with Casper, Cici and Coco after they were involved in a fight with a small dog on June 29, and another fight on July 1, during which Hughes said she was bitten by a dog on the hand.
Hughes reportedly contacted Guy to “take care” of the dogs and, after leaving her business on July 1, claimed she never saw the dogs again.
Hughes contended that the woman had contacted “several people” to take the dogs from the property, so neither of them knew who was responsible for the dog’s disappearance.
As of Monday, neither Hughes nor Guy had been charged by the Calaveras County District Attorney’s Office.