Authorities are continuing their investigation of dog thefts in the rural areas of New Mexico, just east of Albuquerque, where they recently arrested 59-year-old Debbie Swenerton, an animal rescuer they claim may have turned into a “serial dognapper.” After hearing about the circumstances that led to Swenerton’s arrest, many more people have reportedly come forward with concerns about their own unreported missing pets.
On November 16, a woman claims she came home from work to find Swenerton taking her two 6-month-old Pit Bulls. “We got a 911 call that a lady was inside the victim’s house and had stolen her two animals,” Torrance County Sheriff Heath White told KRQE. “The victim followed while talking to us on 911, and that’s when she saw the driver’s side window come down and the dogs come out one at a time and hit the ground.”
One of the Pit Bulls suffered road rash, but the animals were not otherwise injured, according to the Torrance County Sheriff's Department. Swenerton was charged with cruelty to animals, burglary and false imprisonment.
Attorney Quinn Kirby, who is representing Debbie Swenerton, said the allegations are ridiculous. "Debbie cares deeply about animals and dedicates a great deal of her time and resources to animal welfare," Kirby wrote in an email to the Associated Press, “Debbie has not committed any crimes and we are confident that she will be exonerated."
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"It really cracked the case," said Mike Ring, Edgewood animal control officer. Authorities had been receiving reports of dogs vanishing from inside houses and in secured outdoor enclosures and they have suspected that the animals were being taken by an “overzealous animal rescuer,” according to bigstory.ap.org.
It does not appear that Swenerton is being accused of stealing dogs for any personal gain. Authorities state they believe she removed dogs from conditions or locations where she believed they were not properly cared for. Many were tied up or left outside and some were just allowed to roam freely in the rural communities.
Swenerton is believed to have taken the dogs to in Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Edgewood and other communities and possibly even out of state, telling the shelters that they were strays in need of adoption.
Officer Ring told the Associated Press that he suspects Swenerton may be part of a larger network of local activists who are concerned about the treatment of animals in rural areas but he said no other arrests have been made. Officer Ring said around 60 dogs have been reported missing in the area in the past few years.
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Barbara Tellier, head of a group called the Alliance Against Animal Abuse Inc., said she believes Swenerton is being set up by officials in a county where animal abuse is rampant and officials don't care.
"Debbie is making waves. She is emailing everybody trying to get help for these animals who are locked outside without enough shelter, or not enough water in the summertime, or running loose to get hit by a car ... and nobody is doing anything," Teller stated, according to bigstory.ap.org.
Tellier described Swenerton as "one of the most humane people I know," and said that Debbie Swenerton and her husband “build doghouses and pens for people so they can take their dogs off chains. They also take bales of straw to families to put in doghouses in the winter,” bigstory.ap.org reports.
Torrance County Undersheriff Martin Rivera said most of the cases of possible dog theft were reported by people who got home from work and found their pet missing. He added that Swenerton has been suspected by authorities in Torrance, Bernalilo and Santa Fe Counties, where she called in reports of possible animal abuse, and in most cases the animals were kept outside.
"I think she is thinking if they are not inside, they are being abused," he said. He also stated that Swenerton had 20 dogs at her licensed dog-rescue facility in her home in Tijeras. Authorities say the animals were well cared for and all were registered to Swenerton, except one.
When Swenerton was arrested, Rivera said, she was upset "because she felt she was doing the right thing. ... I think she just wanted to save these animals."