Most dog owners feel reluctant to leave their beloved pets with strangers. The dog owners in Gilbert, Ariz. were no exception, but many thought they’d found a safe place to leave their canine friends in Green Acre Dog Boarding. The family-owned business had beds for the dogs to sleep and a wide-open lawn were they could run free, or so the owners were told.
Sheriff’s investigators came to Green Acre Dog Boarding in June. They discovered the remains of many dogs left there in good faith. Some were wrapped in blankets and left in front of the house. More than a dozen others were piled on top of each other in a tool shed out back.
The dogs were crammed into a nine-by-twelve-foot room for hours on end, deprived of adequate ventilation, left to roast in the harsh Arizona summer. They died of exhaustion and asphyxiation.
Since that initial discovery, the county sheriff, who the New York Times says has a notorious soft spot for dogs, has only uncovered more disturbing allegations lobbied against Green Acre in a case that has repulsed the town of Gilbert, 20 miles south of Phoenix, and the surrounding area for months.
An already-sensitive case became even more complicated for Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio when he found out the 21-year-old son of a US senator was one of the accused.
Austin Flake, the son of Republican Senator Jeff Flake, and his wife Logan, also 21, were left in charge of Green Acre while his mother and step-father, the day care’s owners, were vacationing in Florida. The younger Flake and his wife kept 28 of the dogs left in their care in that small room, cryptically called “the slumber room.” Of the 28, 22 died.
The room was cooled separately from the rest of the home. The defendants say one of the dogs chewed through a cord leading to the room’s air-conditioner while they were locked up for the night. When Flake came to check on them the following morning at 5:30, temperatures had already shot up, killing most of the dogs. Flake went to work trying to cool off the dogs that were still alive.
Another of the dogs died after running away and being hit by a car. Forensic experts with the sheriff’s department say a dog couldn’t have disabled the air conditioner, an outdated and poorly kept-up model, simply by chewing on the cord.
Vigils held to honor the dogs have drawn hundreds of mourners in the months after their deaths. The normally-peaceful community has erupted into a media circus to investigate the deaths of the family dogs, now nicknamed the Gilbert 23.
“It really shook up the community,” Cary Heath, whose family lost three dogs, told the New York Times. “The community has been behind us on this. I thought we were just completely betrayed and nothing would come of this, but we’ve met a lot of wonderful people and changed a lot of lives.”
A grand jury indicted the younger Flakes in October on several counts of animal cruelty. They are scheduled to be arraigned this Thursday. Their lawyer, Dennis I. Wilenchik, said they will plead not guilty and condemned the sheriff’s investigation for focusing on publicity rather than evidence of wrongdoing.
The young Flakes have become synonymous with their alleged crimes, and the results have been ruinous, Wilenchik said. The dog’s owners, on the other hand struggle to cope with feelings of betrayal and loss, some haunted by the images of their deceased dogs, bloated and bloody.
“It looked perfect from the outside, but we were deceived from the moment we dropped our dogs off,” said Shannon Gillette, who lost two golden retrievers, Sherman and Parker.