A Butte Fire survivor who boarded three pitbulls at the Pet Bath House in late June 2017 testified Monday that he had never seen any signs of aggression in them in the 10 years he owned them.

Steven Mendoza was the only witness during the first day of a preliminary hearing in Calaveras County Superior Court for Vonna Faye Hughes, the owner of the Pet Bath House in Angels Camp who is accused of animal cruelty. Hughes has denied the accusations.

Mendoza said Hughes called him and said his dogs, Casper, Coco and Cici, had scuffled with a smaller dog and injured it. She demanded $1,000 for a veterinary bill.

“She said the police were involved and if it happened again the police said the dogs would have to be put down,” he testified.

Hughes reassured him that everything would be fine and “not to worry,” he said.

But his concern over the accusations and the sudden financial requirement was heightened when he visited them at the the Pet Bath House a few days later.

No employees were there when he arrived, he said, but his dogs trotted up happily to a chain link fence along the back end of the the property to greet him.

Five minutes later, Hughes arrived with her assistant and burst into tears when she saw him, he said. She held up her bloody hand and said, “it happened again.”

Hughes asked for another veterinary check made out to her, this time for $3,800, Mendoza said.

“She kept saying she didn’t know what to do,” he said. “I was in a bit of shock because none of this has ever happened to me before.”

In court Monday, when he mentioned the dogs’ names, Hughes turned her chair to the left and looked away from Mendoza. A contingent of supporters for Mendoza, wearing purple “Justice for Cici” t-shirts, glared at her.

Hughes wiped her nose with a tissue and sniffed, her left arm slung over the back of the chair, and kept looking toward the side of the room. Hughes was arrested on the charges on July 8, 2017, and faces three counts of felony animal cruelty, stealing an animal for commercial use, two counts of grand theft, and one misdemeanor animal cruelty charge.

The day after the second incident, Hughes called Mendoza and told him that she had hired a vet from Sonora to “put my dogs down and they went peacefully,” he testified.

He demanded that she return their ashes to him, but Hughes refused, he said.

Mendoza said he voided the $3,800 check after determining it had been “her responsibility” while taking care of the dogs.

But at the end of July two of the dogs, Casper and Coco, were found in Murphys. Days later, Cici’s body was discovered in a trash bag in Murphys.

Hughes’ attorney, Ken Foley of San Andreas, sought to emphasize Mendoza’s possible complicity in the loss of the dogs.

“She said she didn’t know what to do,” he said. “But you couldn’t help.”

Foley added that the dogs had been spotted in Murphys on July 3, a day after Hughes had allegedly called Mendoza to tell him the dogs had been put down.

Mendoza said he did not recall making any statements indicating he would “go along with” putting the dogs down and described a conversation over the phone with a woman he identified as Patti Guy, Hughes’ neighbor, who told him that his dogs were “mean and vicious.”

Guy, 60, of Angels Camp, was 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 by the Angels Camp Police Department after she was identified as a person of interest.

Foley suggested that Casper and Coco had been recovered by Calaveras County Animal Control long before they were reunited with Mendoza.

Mendoza related to the court his inability to care directly for the dogs since he was displaced from his five-acre property in Mountain Ranch by the Butte Fire in 2015.

The animals were housed at “Aloha Kennels” for a few weeks before they were transferred to JT Kennels in Burson, where they were housed for over a year. At the site, they developed “kennel stress” and began eating gravel, Mendoza said, which prompted their transfer to an animal shelter in San Andreas and finally, to the Pet Bath House.

Foley began to produce documents related to a $2,800 veterinary bill, before he was restrained by Judge Timothy Healy to keep to focus and scope of the hearing on the charges, not on a civil case.

At the beginning of the hearing, Angels Camp Police officer Chris Johnson was identified as the lead investigator by Deputy District Attorney Jeff Stone.

Angels Camp Police Department Chief Todd Fordahl and another law enforcement investigator attended the hearing and were excluded from the courtroom during Mendoza’s testimony.

Due to the time constraints, Healy instructed the court that the hearing would continue with the law enforcement testimony at 2:30 p.m. Tuesday.

Contact Giuseppe Ricapito at (209) 588-4526 or gricapito@uniondemocrat.com . Follow him on Twitter @gsepinsonora.