The former owner of an Angels Camp pet boarding business pleaded no contest to felony animal negligence in the Calaveras County Superior Court on Tuesday for a sentence of three years probation and up to 60 days in county jail.
Vonna Hughes was accused of three counts of felony animal cruelty, two counts of felony grand theft and two counts of misdemeanor animal cruelty related to three dogs left in her care at the now-closed Pet Bath House on Main Street in Angels Camp by a Butte Fire survivor in June 2017.
In an interview with the Union Democrat on Wednesday, Hughes said she was pleased with the resolution following years of courtroom deliberations and trial postponements.
“What’s anything fair about lies? Stopping gossip is like throwing feathers in a tornado and trying to go out and pick them all up,” she said.
Butte Fire survivor Steve Mendoza, the owner of the three pitbulls — Casper, Coco and Cici — said he insisted Hughes have a felony on her record before he agreed to the plea bargain.
“I wanted something to stick on her for what happened to Cici,” he said. “It's been very hard on me and [my wife] Natalie. There are times where I can't sleep at night and I am always thinking of Cici constantly. A family member of ours is gone.”
Cici was found dead in a bloody trash bag at a Utica Power Authority property in Murphys about a month after all three dogs disappeared from the Pet Bath House in July 2017. Casper and Coco were located by Calaveras County Animal Services later in July and reunited with their owner.
The plea bargain means Hughes will be sentenced to anywhere between zero and 60 days in the Calaveras County Jail at her sentencing hearing on May 7.
Hughes’ attorney, Ken Foley of San Andreas, said she would be eligible for alternative sentencing options such as electronic monitoring.
“I would have liked to have seen her to be exonerated because of the situation she was stuck with,” Foley said. “She’s a single woman in her late 60s with nobody else really helping her.”
Calaveras County Deputy District Attorney Jeff Stone, who was prosecuting the case against Hughes, said if Hughes violated her probation she could be jailed for up to three years.
Her probation requirements prohibit her from having any employment or owning any business that involves animals, he said.
“It wasn't the optimal resolution we were hoping for, but it is one we can stand by. It does strike a pretty good balance between holding Mrs. Hughes responsible for what she did and kind of balancing Mr. Mendoza not having to go through any additional pain and suffering with the trial process,” Stone said.
The three animal cruelty charges were related to the three pitbulls individually and the allegation Hughes deprived them of necessary sustenance and shelter.
Her single felony no contest plea was related to the charge associated with Cici, Stone said.
“That was important to Mr Mendoza, that whatever plea she entered directly addressed the death of Cici,” he said.
Mendoza is expected to make a victim impact statement at the sentencing hearing. Stone added they were prepared to go to trial, but Mendoza felt it was a satisfactory resolution for Hughes to take responsibility.
Foley said if Hughes pays the total restitution before the end of probation or if she does not incur any violations while on probation, then her charges can be reduced to a misdemeanor.
Hughes will also be required to pay Mendoza $2,125 in restitution. The value of the restitution was decided based on the grand theft charges, which alleged Hughes charged Mendoza $1,000 for a $750 bill and $3,800 for a $2,800 bill for injuries that Hughes claimed the pitbulls inflicted on other dogs in her care, and the cost for him to board the animals.
“I just want the money that was taken from me. I don't care about money from pain and suffering I just want what was taken,” Mendoza said.
“The only ones that win are the lawyers,” Hughes said. “We were all in a room and it was settled.”
The saga surrounding the fates of Casper, 11, a red nose pit bull; Cici, 9, an American pit bull, and Coco, 3, a brindle pit bull, galvanized public opinion against Hughes and her Main Street business.
Mendoza and dozens of his supporters wore matching t-shirts that said “Justice for Cici” at multiple hearings at the Calaveras County Superior Court. A few times, a red-nosed pitbull named Falcor, which was owned by one of the supporters, joined them in the courthouse.
A petition circulated online, which garnered over 1,300 signatures, to close the Pet Bath House. The business was subsequently closed by the city.
Hughes operated the Angels Camp pet grooming, kennel and boarding service since 2013. In 2015, she moved from Monte Verde Street to the Main Street location.
The Union Democrat was contacted by an Arkansas resident in July 2017, who said her rescue dogs, a 5-year-old basset hound rescue, Suzie, and a 5-year-old English mastiff, Hope, died while in Hughes’ care in Arkansas in August 2011.
Hughes, then known as Vonna Smith, had been hired to go to the woman’s home three times a day to feed, care and monitor the dogs while she was on a six day vacation in Florida.
The woman’s brother, an Arkansas State trooper, found the dogs dead after Hughes called the woman to say they were “too hot.”
Hope, Arkansas, Chief of Police of J.R. Wilson said in July 2017 the woman filed a police report alleging animal cruelty against Hughes. The Hempstead County District Attorney did not file formal charges.
About a year before, Hughes’ Pet Bath House in Hope, Arkansas, burned down a few days after Thanksgiving due to an electrical malfunction, said Chief Todd Martin of the Hope Fire Department.
Hughes was arrested by the Angels Camp Police Department on July 8, approximately a week after Casper, Cici and Coco disappeared.
Hughes on Wednesday denied releasing the dogs from the Pet Bath House, though she characterized them as violent.
“You can’t stop them from talking. As long as I know the truth and God knows the truth, nothing else matters,” she said.
Hughes said she would have “scars on her legs for the rest of her life” after the three dogs attacked her in the business on July 1.
“When the dogs started biting other dogs and Mrs. Hughes, she went to animal control for help and they declined to help her. Simply put, she just didn't know what to do with these pitbulls and she's very sorry that any dog was injured,” Foley said.
Hughes’ charges of misdemeanor animal cruelty were related to an alleged attempt to heal a gash on a dog injured in a fight with the pitbulls with super glue, and for failing to provide appropriate care for another dog involved.
Hughes was originally scheduled to stand trial on Sept. 12, 2018, but that date was vacated because of Foley’s commitment to an unrelated trial in Amador County. The new trial date of Dec. 5, 2018, was delayed by the district attorney’s office because two witnesses were unable to attend.
The trial was scheduled a few months after former Angels Camp Police Chief Todd Fordahl, who located Cici’s body, retired and said he intended to move out of state.
Mendoza, who now lives in an apartment in San Andreas after moving from a temporary FEMA camp trailer during the Butte Fire, said he plans to buy a home with the settlement money. The dogs are boarded at a facility and will join his family after the move, he said.
Casper and Coco were boarded in multiple locations, including Jay Tee Kennels in Valley Springs, Calaveras County Animal Services, and the Pet Bath House since his home in Mountain Ranch was destroyed in the Butte Fire in September 2015.
“It will be a big relief. It will be a big pressure taken off our hearts,” Mendoza said.