A group calling itself Justice for Cici has formed to bring attention to the treatment of three dogs who disappeared from an animal boarding and grooming facility in Angels Camp.

The dogs' owner, Steven Mendoza, a survivor of the Butte Fire, was able to get two of the dogs back, but Cici was found dead, wrapped in two plastic bags, on the side of Crestview Drive, an infrequently traveled road in Murphys.

The other dogs were captured by animal control officers a day apart less than a mile from where Cici's remains were found.

Pet Bath House owner Vonna Faye Hughes was arrested July 8 on suspicion of animal cruelty, animal neglect and theft of an animal, but official charges have not been filed, Angels Camp Police Chief Tom Fordahl said Friday.

Amber Nicholson, who is running the Facebook page for Justice for Cici, said many people are concerned the Pet Bath House has remained open. The group wants to heighten public awareness of the case.

“Steven was burned out from a fire, and he entrusted these people to look after his companions. To my way of thinking, this is a tragedy on top of tragedy,” Nicholson said. “Whoever is responsible for Cici's death needs to be held accountable. We can't bring Cici back, but we can certainly stand up and say that these actions were not OK and will not be merely accepted in our community.”

Fordahl said he has spoken with the city's planning director about what steps are required to rescind a business license.

“The city attorney is formulating a plan,” he said. “There is a legal process before she can be arbitrarily denied a license.”

Hughes could not be reached for comment Friday. Shortly after her arrest she told The Union Democrat she was innocent and called the charges “ludicrous.”

Cindy Stout-Cornell, who started the Justice for Cici group, said she doesn’t understand why the business remains open.

Trina Stricklin, who is working with Stout-Cornell on the Justice for Cici group, said she intends to go the Pet Bath House Saturday and silently protest.

“I’ve dedicated my life to rescuing animals,” she said. “I feel it in my soul. I’ve never been as heartbroken as when I heard this story.”

The tale of Cici, Casper and Coco is a long and winding one that began almost two years ago when the Butte Fire burned Mendoza and his wife, Natalie, out of their rental home in Mountain Ranch. They escaped with the dogs, their six cats and their lives. They lost everything else, including heirlooms from Mendoza's mother and grandmother and 34 chickens.

The dogs boarded for 18 months at a facility in Valley Springs because the Mendozas did not have a place to keep them. They then took the dogs to the Pet Bath House, paid up front, and thought they had found a place the dogs could stay until they received their settlement from the fire, which could be as far away as September.

They said, soon after, Hughes told them the dogs had bitten her and required additional money for medical costs, which they paid. On July 1, Mendoza said Hughes called and said the dogs had been involved in a fight with other dogs. The next day, she told him the dogs had been euthanized.

That's when he called the police.

Fordahl said Hughes has told varying stories. She also implicated another woman, who told officials a man had taken the dogs. Fordahl said they have not yet been able to question the man.

On Friday, an officer took Cici's remains to be X-rayed at a veterinarian's office in Davis. An officer will return to Davis on Monday to deliver the remains to Necropsy Services Group in hope of finding out how she died.

Fordahl said it was impossible to determine cause of death because the remains had been on the side of the road for days. There was blood in the bag, though, he said. He said depending on where the investigation leads, he may send the bag, leash and collar to the Department of Justice to check for fingerprints.

Mendoza said Cici, a 9-year-old pit bull, was the mother dog, always caring for the other two.

“She even groomed my cats,” he said.

He got her when she was a puppy after someone left her chained to his dog run. Her paws were bloody, toes swollen and she was skin and bones.

“We fell in love with her, and Casper had a sister,” he said.

She was particularly fond of rocks and would lick them and bring them inside. Once he found 60 rocks in the house, hidden in all sorts of places — behind bookshelves, under the couch.

Mendoza described Casper, 11, as the lazy one and Coco, 3, as high spirited.

“They're not just dogs, they're my children,” he said.

He said he was grateful for the outpouring of community support for him and his wife and especially for Cici.

“It makes me happy inside,” he said.

He said he has visited the dogs twice since they were found.

He plans to spend all day with Casper and Coco Saturday at the Valley Springs facility where they will stay until the family has a permanent home.

Lyn Riddle can be reached at 209-588-4541 or lriddle@uniondemocrat.com.

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