Felon says public ignorant of her feline commitment — (The Modesto Bee)

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The Modesto Bee

By SUSAN HERENDEEN,  BEE STAFF WRITER

Last Updated: December 27, 2005, 04:22:15 AM PST

Nine lives weren’t enough for many cats in 2002 case
Debra Rexelle won’t say where she lives, for fear of reprisals.
But she readily admits she’s the cat lady — that cat lady — the one who had 212 cats living in a rental home on Nebraska Avenue west of Modesto.

She served 89 days behind bars after a Stanislaus County Superior Court jury in May 2002 found her guilty of four felonies and four misdemeanors, for cruelty to animals.

Rexelle said she is paying $20 a month toward a $114,032 restitution bill, the amount the county’s Department of Animal Services paid to seize and impound the skinny cats, which had dirty fur and weepy eyes and noses.

She lost appeals of her verdict and restitution order in state courts. She was so adamant that she took both cases to the U.S. Supreme Court, but that lofty panel declined to review her grievances.

Rexelle, 53, still pleads innocence, as she did at her trial. She says people don’t understand her affinity for felines.

“I just can’t believe how much people lie about things,” she said. “I honestly believed in the judicial system, but I don’t trust anybody anymore.”

When investigators first showed up at Rexelle’s home in early August 2000, they found a middle-aged woman who was eating a sandwich covered in cat hair, according to court records.

She denied them access to the home, which sits on a one-lane country road, overlooking an orchard. So the authorities returned a few days later with a search warrant.

What they found shocked investigators, animal activists and the public alike — and became the subject of 24 articles in The Bee.

There were cats everywhere, stacked in cages around the home and in sheds on the property.

The animals were sick and wheezing, because they lived in layers of filth and in many cases were covered in their own excrement, according to authorities.

Carcasses of 50 dead cats were scattered across the property, found in garbage bags or stacked in an inoperable freezer.

Investigators wore gas masks, due to measurable amounts of ammonia, and set up fans to draw fresh air into the single-story home.

Cats consumed 40 pounds a day

At her sentencing, a psychiatrist told the court that Rexelle suffered from “protracted grief,” due to the death of her mother and boyfriend in 1997, and from “overpowering fatigue,” due to medications.

Rexelle recalled the grief and a bad reaction to Prozac.

She acknowledged that she was tired all the time and slept in her clothes, but she said the scene in her home never was as bad as a prosecutor contended.

“I was so physically wiped out,” Rexelle said.

She said she kept the cats in cages, separated by sexes, because she didn’t have enough money to get them all spayed and neutered.

“They made it sound like it was a kitten mill,” Rexelle said.

She said she took in strays because she couldn’t say no to people who dumped their cats on her doorstep.

“My motto was, buy one, get two for free,” Rexelle said.

She said she tended the cats constantly.

“They ate 40 pounds of food a day,” Rexelle said. “I always fed them.”

She said she kept the dead cats because she was waiting for their bones to rot, so they could be used in research.

“I’m a scientist, that’s my interest,” Rexelle said. “I can’t help it.”

Rexelle was prominent breeder

At the time of her arrest, a Web site for Rexelle’s Ashmanor Cattery listed the same address as her Nebraska Avenue home.

The International Cat Association and the Cat Fanciers Association listed her as a breeder on their Web sites.

And the Cat Fanciers Association named one of her Turkish Vans — Ashmanor Duracell — best in breed for 1989-99.

Those pedigreed references are long gone.

Now, an Internet search turns up references to articles Rexelle wrote decades ago, about Chartreaux cats.

Rexelle also is listed as a “bad breeder” on the Pedigree Cat Breeder Societ
y’s Web site. The group calls itself a nonprofit watchdog for the animal community.

During the decade before her arrest, Rexelle faced a few complaints.

In April 1991, a newspaper in Alameda County reported that Rexelle’s neighbors were up in arms about her cats because they disturbed their sleep.

In November 1993, shortly after moving from Hayward to Modesto, Rexelle hired a Mo-

desto woman to feed her cats for several days while she was at a cat show.

Karen Ohl tagged along, because her friend found that the job was more than she could handle. Ohl, of Modesto, recalls waste-caked cages and 122 sickly cats.

Ohl said she was so concerned that she documented everything in letters to several county departments. She also left a copy of an article about cat hoarders on Rexelle’s kitchen table.

“It was hard to imagine anything worse than what I saw in 1993,” Ohl said.

Rexelle said inspectors came to her home, determined that the animals were fine, then cited her for breeding without a license. She paid a fine.

Allegations by a former friend, Debbi Smith, prompted the final investigation.

In 1998, Rexelle stopped letting Smith into her home, according to Smith’s testimony at Rexelle’s trial.

Later, Smith told the authorities that the windows of Rexelle’s white brick house were covered with newspapers, and that Rexelle had been sleeping in a tent in the back yard in the summer.

She suspected that the cattery had gotten out of control. The authorities concurred and charged Rexelle with 13 felonies and four misdemeanors.

Dorothy DiGino, operations supervisor at the county animal shelter, remembers the scene at Rexelle’s house, a sudden influx of cats at the shelter and an outpouring of support from the public, which donated $13,215 and lots of supplies.

Everyone was puzzled by the lady who loved cats but couldn’t care for them properly.

“I don’t think anybody goes into something like that with the intention to cause an animal harm,” DiGino said.

143 felines found new homes

A 10-day trial brought an array of cat experts to the witness stand. Rexelle testified on her own behalf, saying she never abused her cats. Jurors split the difference, convicting Rexelle of eight charges and dropping nine.

Rexelle moved to Stockton after her arrest, but the phone at an address listed on court papers has been disconnected.

She declined to say where she lives, due to the public scorn she faced after her arrest. The Bee tracked Rexelle through an e-mail.

Rexelle, who is disabled and lives on a small pension from the U.S. Postal Service, said she never will be able to pay all of the restitution.

She finished serving three years of probation this summer.

She lives with four feline friends. She said Jacinthe, Jubilee, Olivia and Rex are just pets.

She said she has learned that no one should have so many cats. But she also said her greatest regret is that she couldn’t save her cats from the animal control department.

In the end, 143 of the cats were adopted, reclaimed by an owner who sent them to Rexelle to breed, or given to a rescue group. The others died from maladies or were euthanized because they were not adoptable.

“I would have given my life for those animals,” Rexelle said. “In a way, I did.”

Bee staff writer Susan Herendeen can be reached at 578-2338 or sherendeen@modbee.com.