A Calaveras County Superior Court judge ruled that the owner of the Pet Bath House in Angels Camp will stand trial on multiple felony animal cruelty and grand theft charges following the conclusion of her preliminary hearing Wednesday morning.

Judge Timothy Healy upheld three counts of felony animal cruelty, with two pertaining to the deprivation of the “necessary food, drink and shelter” of Casper and Coco, who were located by Calaveras County Animal Services on Pennsylvania Gulch Road in Murphys.

Following more than two and a half hours of testimony, Healy said the prosecution had shown probable cause of Hughes’ “negligence.”

“It seems pretty clear she failed in taking care of the animals,” he said. “Dogs can’t be negligent. Dogs are dogs.”

Healy said he would only “barely” uphold the charge of animal cruelty in the death of Cici, indicating there was only “weak” circumstantial evidence that Hughes “maliciously and intentionally” caused the death while the dog was in her care.

During the hearing Wednesday, Angels Camp Police officer Chris Johnson described visiting Vonna Faye Hughes at the Pet Bath House on July 4, 2017.

“She explained that she just turned them loose,” he said, referring to the three pitbulls that had been boarded in her business by Butte Fire survivor Steven Mendoza in late June 2017.

“I believe that was her way of getting the dogs out of her care to take care of the problem.”

Angels Camp Police Chief Todd Fordahl testified that he investigated a report of a decomposed dog carcass inside a garbage bag that had been seen on July 3 or 4 outside of a spillway debris gate at a Utica Power Authority property on Crestview Drive in Murphys.

The dog carcass, which was bloody and attached to a leash and collar, had been taken to a refuse pile before it was reported to the police department weeks later when a worker recognized the animal from a flier, he said.

When Fordahl investigated the animal, it was decayed, “pretty decomposed,” and may have been ravaged by scavengers, he said. A planned necropsy to determine the cause of death was never conducted due to the state of the animal.

Healy said that because of the “sophisticated” aspect of Cici’s death — that it was found behind two locked gates, and supposedly where no one would ever find it “for a long time” — he would hold Hughes to answer for the charges even if it was not believed that she personally murdered the dog.

“Who did that, how they did it, why they did it — we know one thing for sure, my client didn’t do it,” Hughes’ attorney, Ken Foley of San Andreas, later argued.

During some of Fordahl’s and Johnson’s testimony, Hughes loudly blew her nose into tissues, which, by the end of the hearing, were stacked in a small mound at her left. At times, Hughes would use a tissue to dab tears.

Hughes has denied the charges against her.

Healy additionally ruled that two counts of grand theft as it pertained to dog owner Steven Mendoza’s payments of $1,000 and $3,800 to Hughes could proceed to trial.

Hughes said two dogs were injured by Casper, Cici and Coco in her business. The judge also found probable cause for one misdemeanor animal cruelty charge for the treatment of a dog’s wounds with super glue.

Deputy District Attorney Jeff Stone repeatedly suggested that Hughes had used “false representations” to Mendoza regarding the veterinary bills of two dogs she said were injured by Casper, Coco and Cici while in the care of the Pet Bath House.

Johnson said Hughes gave no explanation for charging Mendoza $1,000 dollars for a $750 bill for the treatment of Fred, a dog she said was attacked by Mendoza’s dogs, or for charging Mendoza $3,800 for a $2,800 bill for the treatment of Sam, another dog allegedly attacked by Mendoza’s dogs.

Hughes was the primary caregiver of all the dogs while clients had paid for them to be housed at her business, Healy said, and should have been financially responsible for the injuries.

Johnson also referenced speaking to an employee of the Angels Camp Veterinary Hospital, who indicated that it had been “inappropriate” to heal a gash on Fred with super glue, saying it had become “infected” and “painful” for the dog.

Healy dropped a felony charge of stealing an animal for commercial use and indicated that not enough evidence had been shown to prove the charge or put a value on Cici.

Foley confirmed with Johnson that his interview with Hughes had been recorded, and noted that she claimed to not be at her business when the dogs were taken.

“She did not want to provide much information,” Johnson said.

Foley also added that a worker present at the time of the dog fight involving Sam had been bitten, and that the dogs had knocked Hughes to the ground.

Healy indicated that Hughes could be additionally called to answer on a felony animal cruelty charge pertaining to the deprivation of the “necessary food, drink and shelter” for Cici, and on conspiracy charges for involving her neighbor, Patti Guy, to threaten Mendoza over the phone.

Foley acknowledged that Hughes’ conditional use permit for the business had been revoked by the city of Angels Camp and she no longer boarded animals.

Healy scheduled an arraignment for March 26 and chose not to raise Hughes’ bail amount because she had consistently attended her hearings.

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