In the last five years, roughly 25 cats in the Timbergrove/Lazybrook neighborhoods have been ripped to pieces and their remains left on people's lawns. Many of these cats were people's pets.
Some in the neighborhood believed a person (or persons) were responsible, and although the Houston Police Department was largely uninterested in residents' complaints, at least one investigator believed the human attacker angle enough to question the parents of a creepy dude being held in Harris County Jail for an unrelated crime. That was in 2013.
Now, after withholding documents and not releasing the remains of one couple's beloved cat, HPD is attributing all of the cat killings to animal attacks.
The finding is in keeping with two recent coyote sightings in the area, and should come as something of a relief to the neighborhood's residents. It certainly appears to be a relief to the HPD officers assigned to the investigation, because they can finally close the book on an investigation they seemed to find annoying in the first place.
Unfortunately, it took the death of a cat named Moe to finally crack the case. The beloved white-haired Moe was found mutilated on the front lawn by owners Kimberly and Chris Elliot in October.
Based on the condition and positioning of the body parts, the Elliots suspected their pet had been killed by some sword-wielding nut. Chris told us HPD responded promptly and professionally. Officers asked the Elliots' permission to send the remains to Texas A&M for a necropsy, and Chris noted how helpful the officers were, and how interested they seemed to be in getting to the bottom of things.
But Chris says the tenor of the Elliots' relationship with HPD changed after the couple gave interviews to the Press and KHOU.
"They really stopped communicating on the same level with us at that point," Chris told us. "...when the [necropsy] results came back, nobody called us and told us the results."
However, HPD Sgt. Gary Bender did tell Lazybrook resident Jennifer Estopinal, whose cataloging of the crimes and desire to raise awareness led to the HPD finally looking into the deaths in the first place.
We are at a loss as to why a police officer wouldn't first tell the cat's owners the results. But, unless you're writing a puff piece, it's difficult for reporters to speak directly with officers, so we never heard from Bender.
Even worse, according to Elliot, was that HPD didn't want to give the Elliots a copy of the necropsy report. Even worse, HPD would only agree to return Moe's remains on the condition that they were cremated.
So the Elliots were told that an animal killed their pet, but they couldn't see the documentation, nor could they even have their pet's body. We find that sorta thing not only offensive, but injurious to any trust HPD should maintain with the public it serves.
Chris finally received the report after filing a public records request, and he says he shared the report with an independent veterinary pathologist, who agreed with the A&M findings. But unlike the A&M vets, or Bender, this pathologist explained to Elliot how the injuries could appear so clean.
"What happens is, the...skin, it tears like fabric," Chris says he was told. So what happens, is when they make their initial bite, they can pull the cat apart and the skin tears like in a very clean seam....The tearing of the muscle, that you would typically think you would see...that muscle, and all the blood vessels, contract, and sort of basically tuck themselves back under the skin. And that's why, to the untrained eye, these...animal attacks appear to have a human element." (After actually getting an explanation, Chris agreed to have Moe's remains cremated and returned to the couple).
Although part of the mystery is solved, there remains the problem of coyotes roaming the neighborhood -- a problem that HPD doesn't seem interested in. And BARC, the city's animal control department, can only respond to a service request for a coyote (or other common wild animals) if it's outside "the living areas of homes," according to BARC spokeswoman Ashtyn Rivet.
Rivet also provided these tips: "Since it has been cold over the last few days, coyotes are in search of food, water and shelter. They often come from the bayou systems. The most important thing to remember is to ensure that your property does not offer any food, water or shelter sources for the coyote. This includes pet food for the resident's animals, meat scraps in compost, fallen fruit from trees, barbecue grills, excess bird food from birdfeeders, and garbage. Even outside water bowls can attract coyotes and other wildlife. Also ensure that your property does not offer a place for the coyote to get out of the cold: garages, areas under homes, sheds, decks, etc. Also, never approach the coyote." ("Never approach the coyote" has been our rule of thumb for years now).
Estopinal isn't convinced that animals killed all of the cats, though.
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"There have been some really odd things with a number of the dead cats, like two and three laid together, another with a shaved belly, a box placed over remains of one, another hung and some other strange things," she told us in an email.
Shaved belly? We're guessing Bender would assure neighborhood residents that it's common for coyotes in the wild to Nair their prey, but we'll never know. Estopinal told us "HPD has made it clear to me this is no longer a topic of discussion."
However, Estopinal said she'll "still be keeping up with cats being killed in my neighborhood as to help identify missing cats so pet owners know what happened to their cat, and to note any details of things done to the cat that would have been impossible for a coyote. If there is human involvement, and I believe there has been in some of less recent cases, maybe eventually a clue will be captured on someone's surveillance video or someone will turn someone in order to collect the reward money being offered by Crime Stoppers."
In other words, Estopinal will continue investigating and disseminating information to help pet owners can keep their critters safe. It's a level of compassion and community service that Bender would probably find not only nuts, but completely foreign.