The preliminary hearing for an Angels Camp woman accused of animal cruelty was postponed until Wednesday morning in the Calaveras County Superior Court due to the abrupt departure from the courtroom by a deputy district attorney who believed his house was on fire.
Deputy District Attorney Jeff Stone rushed to the center barrier of the courtroom, holding his cell phone, and told Judge Timothy Healy, “There’s a fire at my house and I can’t get a hold of anybody. I have to go,” he said, before turning and rapidly exiting the courtroom.
Healy told him the hearing could be rescheduled, and a hush fell over the courtroom.
As the previous hearing was restarted, the court bailiff had to twice verbally admonish Vonna Faye Hughes, the owner of the Pet Bath House in Angels Camp, who was talking rapidly to a friend.
Hughes’ preliminary hearing on charges of animal cruelty had been delayed from its 2:30 p.m. start time for over 45 minutes while the court bailiff vacated the courtroom to transfer a prisoner.
At about 3:15 p.m., just as Hughes entered the room ahead of a dozen of supporters for Cici, a pitbull owned by Butte Fire survivor Steven Mendoza that was found dead in Murphys in late July 2017, Stone made his unexpected announcement.
Healy called Hughes’ attorney, Ken Foley of San Andreas, and Traci Witry of the Calaveras County District Attorney’s Office, for a conference disguised by the hiss of the courtroom speaker.
But about 10 minutes after he left the room, Stone returned with a relieved announcement.
“House is not on fire. Not sure what the problem was, something minor,” he said.
“I don’t know where to start, frankly,” Healy said, looking toward Foley, but acknowledged one silver lining to the hearing, that the “surprising news was not as bad as we feared.”
Foley responded that it would be “more appropriate to just do it all tomorrow morning” rather than begin the law enforcement testimony that had been scheduled.
Angels Camp Police Department Chief Todd Fordahl and Angels Camp Police officer Chris Johnson, who was identified as the lead investigator in the case, are scheduled to testify Thursday morning.
Angels Camp Police Officer Kyle Hansen, who also attended the hearing, would be put on standby, Stone said.
Stone said the officers and Mendoza, who testified on Monday, would be the extent of the witnesses called in the preliminary hearing.
On Monday, Mendoza related his interactions with Hughes after he boarded his three pitbulls, Casper, Coco and Cici, at her Angels Camp Main Street business in June 2017.
Weeks after they were at her facility, he said, she notified him of two “scuffles” where other dogs and herself were injured.
Hughes demanded thousands of dollars in checks made out to her name for veterinary bills, Mendoza said, and she later told him that she had the dogs “put down.”
Weeks later, two of his dogs, Casper and Coco, were found. Then, Cici was found dead in a trash bag in Murphys.
Hughes faces three counts of felony animal cruelty, stealing an animal for commercial use, two counts of grand theft, and one misdemeanor animal cruelty charge, and has denied the accusations against her.