No Sanctuary at Spindletop

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March 25, 2013
Zandra Anderson, Leah Purcell's civil attorney, says she wants to make it clear that she (Anderson) never showed or bred dogs.

Check out our photos of the rescue and evacuation effort at the Spindletop Dog refuge.

When authorities served a warrant at the Spindletop Dog refuge north of Houston on July 17, they turned up nearly 300 dogs stacked in filthy crates, and countless questions.

In the rear of the property, right where the former employee told them it'd be, workers for the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) found a pit containing the decomposed remains of at least five dogs. Here's what happened, the employee said: The power went out in what they called the Morgan building, and the place turned into an oven in the June heat. Thirty-eight dogs asphyxiated, he claimed. He said he knew this because he was the one who buried them.

It didn't take long for the word to spread through the rescue community in Houston, and then to rescues across the country, because the place being raided was considered one of the country's premiere sanctuaries for pit bulls. Its owner, 46-year-old Leah Purcell, had earned a reputation as a saint. She pledged to find homes for sick or injured strays brought to her by Good Samaritans, and pits pulled from high-kill shelters by rescue groups. People gave strays and shelter dogs to Purcell because she promised to find them good homes. Although they weren't people's pets, their caretakers still felt a strong attachment and obligation toward them. She saved hundreds of scared, shivering, traumatized dogs stranded in hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Ike. She pleaded in 2001 with a federal court judge in Virginia to spare the lives of pits tortured by ex-Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick and his cohorts. Purcell wanted the court, and the country, to know that these dogs were not beyond salvation.

Standing by Purcell the day of the seizure was Spindletop's attorney, Zandra Anderson, a woman who bills herself as The Texas Dog Lawyer. In the coming weeks, Anderson would deny HSUS's claims of dogs fermenting in their own waste, the hair and skin around their paws discolored from urine burns. Anderson proved proficient at denial. She was less adept at explaining why dogs Purcell said had been adopted months and years ago were plainly visible in a video of the seizure.

The 298 dogs removed from Spindletop were transported to a temporary shelter at the Montgomery County Fairgrounds just outside Conroe. Local law enforcement worked around the clock with the HSUS, as well as volunteers and staff from local animal welfare organizations, to bathe, feed, evaluate and identify the dogs. The workers were charged with the overwhelming task of returning dogs to the people who had turned them in to the shelter. Their previous caretakers waited to find out if the dogs they sent to Spindletop would be accounted for.

Fueled by betrayal, animal welfare advocates dug into Purcell's past to find out if the last 20 years had been a sham. Why had she lied about dogs being adopted? Was she a common hoarder, or was it something more sinister? Also, how could so many rescue groups have been unaware of what was actually going on at Spindletop?

Due to the possibility of criminal charges, Purcell and Anderson aren't talking. They refuse to tell some people if their dogs are alive or if they were among the 38 allegedly rotting in a mass grave. And a Houston Press investigation of Purcell, including an examination of court records, financial statements, archived e-mails, and interviews with former friends and rescue associates only creates more questions, the biggest one being: How did someone who devoted her life to saving dogs come to this?

On March 13, 2004, Claudia Hoier received a late-night phone call from a frantic Purcell saying that she was in Florida and had just been told that her kennel on Windfern Road (Spindletop's former location) in northwest Houston was on fire and that the dogs might be burning alive.

Purcell said she'd gotten a call from the woman she'd left in charge, 23-year-old April Longhurst. According to Hoier, Purcell asked her to rush over to Windfern and help Longhurst rescue the dogs. Purcell was powerless. After all, she was 600 miles away, visiting her fiancé, a registered sex offender named Frank Cosimino Corrente.

By the time Hoier arrived, firefighters and animal control were on site. According to Hoier, Longhurst managed to pull most of the dogs, still in their plastic crates, from the building. But she didn't make it in time to grab one, a pit named Bridget, whose crate was apparently near the origin of the fire. Pinned in place, Bridget was helpless as the plastic crate melted onto her. Harris County Animal Control wanted to euthanize the dog, but Longhurst insisted that they wait for Purcell's veterinarian, who was en route.

"Leah's vet turned out to be a vet tech who had no authority whatsoever to euthanize a dog," Hoier says. "...So I asked the fire people that were still there...they had to rip the crate off the dog and rip the dog off the floor and put [her] in my van." Hoier says she and the vet tech booked to an emergency clinic, where Hoier paid to have Bridget — now a barely breathing heap of charred flesh clinging to coagulated plastic — put out of her misery.

"It is a nightmare that I will remember the rest of my life," Hoier says.

According to Hoier, Purcell had crammed 33 dogs into the 10x10 building, jeopardizing their health and safety. This was the breaking point in Hoier's decade-plus friendship with Purcell.

She says she and others who had noticed fissures in Purcell's personality shared what she had seen with the Houston rescue community, but that it fell on deaf ears. Not only that, but "We were ostracized like you would not believe," she says.

After that, Hoier says, Purcell got a lot more careful about who she let onto the property and how far they could go.

"As time went on, she never let people past a fence that she had up," Hoier says. "So if people didn't go back on the property, there was no way they would know how many dogs were on that property."

In that way, Purcell presented Spindletop to the public just as she presented herself: a legitimate, organized front concealing some serious malfunctions.

Spindletop's Web site has been just as much about Purcell's self-anointed greatness as about saving dogs.

The Web site claims that Spindletop had been in existence since 1985, when Purcell was 19. Ostensibly, this is also around the time she earned the degrees in finance and business that grace her résumé. However, there is no record of Purcell running any sort of animal rescue organization prior to 1995, and neither the University of Houston nor Texas Southern University has records indicating Purcell received a degree.

An archived page from the site in 2004 featured a photo of Purcell, stoic in shades and a mane of wavy blond hair, surrounded by five pit mixes. The copy below read: "Leah Purcell has single-handedly owned and operated Spindletop for fifteen years...She runs several home based businesses to pay for the rescue efforts out of her own pocket, which totals over $4,000 monthly on average." (Since the site was seldom updated, the "fifteen years" bit was never adjusted for the times. By 2008, Purcell claimed to pay a monthly average of $12,000 out of her own pocket.)

On its face, the claim of any degrees relating to finance is laughable, because no one has ever accused Purcell of being wise with money.

The first recorded hint of subpar financial management skills would be a Harris County forgery bust from 1991, when Purcell tried to pass a $250 check drawn on the account of a dental-supply company. She was given ten years probation, which was dropped after three years.

Purcell also liked to call Spindletop a nonprofit since its inception; however, she didn't file papers for nonprofit status with the Texas Secretary of State until 2005. After two years in which she didn't file updates, the nonprofit status was forfeited. But none of this was a roadblock: E-mails obtained by the Press, as well as archived pleas for donations still available online, show that Purcell simply poached other rescue groups' tax ID numbers.

A 2000 plea for donations — as well as e-mails in 2008 — bore the federal tax ID number of a New York charity called the American Animal Care Foundation. Also in 2008, in the aftermath of Hurricane Ike, she used the tax ID number of a Missouri City nonprofit called Bandade Animal Rescue.

Purcell made money from boarding fees, but Spindletop was supported almost entirely by donations. The Press found no evidence of Purcell supplementing Spindletop's reserves through home-based businesses; the only record was a business filing from 2008 showing Purcell as a contact for something called Latino Distributor, which operated out of a South Carolina trailer park.

Purcell also had the good fortune, from a business perspective, of befriending Zandra Anderson, who offered pro-bono legal services for Spindletop, and who also acted as a "refuge consultant." Anderson claimed to have adopted two Spindletop dogs, but the two women also shared another love: breeding and showing dogs.

It was a surprising hobby for someone like Purcell, who devoted her life to rescue. But it was in keeping with Anderson's alliance with the Texas-based Responsible Pet Owners Alliance, a coalition of kennel club cornballs and backyard breeders operating under the belief that animal overpopulation is a myth.

Having established credibility in relatively short order, Purcell had no problem collecting funds in times of crisis, like the March 2004 fire.

In a plea for donations issued three days after the inferno, Purcell explained that two dogs had been killed and three were "badly burned." She asked for $700 to rewire the kennel that caught fire, as well as another one.

"The cause of the fire has been pinpointed to the damage that was sustained from the many floods that we have dealt with over the last couple of years," Purcell wrote.

But Corrente, Purcell's now-estranged husband, says it was pre-existing shoddy wiring that caused the fire. He figured this out when, months after the fire, he came to work at Spindletop.

"I inspected it the best I could, and it was really because the buildings were old and antiquated and the electrical systems weren't up to handling the required load for keeping the dogs cool," Corrente says. He adds that "they were always blowing a circuit breaker, and they were always having electrical problems."

Corrente swears that Purcell lived and breathed for the dogs in her care. In fact, he says, she cared more for the dogs than for their relationship.

Corrente liked dogs well enough, but he never shared Purcell's no-kill philosophy. It was a big point of contention. This philosophical stalemate is perhaps best illustrated by Corrente's story about the day a Rottweiler tried to bite him and how Corrente decided to rectify the situation by caving in the dog's skull with a single strike of a ball-peen hammer. And that, Corrente says, wasn't even the only dog he killed. It's just the only one he remembers.

Purcell was stunned, but she didn't break up with him or order him off the property. After all, she had married a man convicted of sexual battery of a minor. (A subsequent rape charge in Louisiana was dismissed.) So Corrente remained her companion as well as a Spindletop employee.

Corrente says Purcell never condoned his killing of dogs. She loved them all, even the aggressive ones. Even the one he says lived in a cage for 13 years. Corrente would just as soon have put the poor bastard down. Not Purcell.

"All I can really tell you about Leah is that...she put those animals before herself," Corrente says. "Every dime — every single dime she made — she put towards taking care of those dogs."

Purcell certainly didn't put a dime toward property taxes at Spindletop's former location, which is why she fell into arrears, and ultimately foreclosure.

Purcell then relocated to Willis.

Purcell's cluelessness cursed the move from the beginning.

For one thing, according to a 2008 plea for donations, Purcell moved nearly 200 dogs to Willis before the grounds had a proper water supply. Although two wells had been dug to 100 feet, it turns out she got some "bum advice" and the wells should have been at 1,000 feet. She needed $15,000 for this "huge, out of the blue, emergency expense." This, despite Purcell's earlier claim that the Willis site "was under construction for two years and has state of the art accommodations for dogs."

Somehow, this did not raise a gigantic neon-red flag among Spindletop supporters. So the money poured in for Spindletop's wells. And the rain poured in, too. The new location was in a floodplain, and Purcell issued constant pleas after floods knocked down fences, damaged buildings and threatened the dogs' safety.

According to a 2008 e-mail, Hurricane Ike destroyed the perimeter fencing and supply tents, left a foot of mud in one building, blew away two exercise pens and hundreds of dog toys, and turned the grounds into a swamp-like haven for snakes. (As always, she reminded everyone that Spindletop was a nonprofit, and she passed off another rescue's tax ID number as her own.)

Donors may have missed, or ignored outright, the less than subtle clues that Purcell was ill-equipped to run Spindletop due to her efforts during Hurricane Katrina. Purcell rescued and helped find homes for approximately 500 dogs, forgoing sleep as she transported them from staging areas in Tylertown, Mississippi, and Metairie, Louisiana, to Spindletop and other shelters. If anything, the seeming impossibility of rescuing dogs in the wake of a disaster that made rescuing human beings a nightmare only energized Purcell. Her post-Katrina work was probably her defining moment.

It may have also been the moment when she believed she could do anything. For one thing, she seemed to figure out that one can rescue and house a ton of dogs as long as they're warehoused. If exercise, socialization and overall quality of life are not as important as mere existence, the number of lives saved is simply a matter of square footage.

In a September 2008 online update, Purcell explained how she had dealt with housing more than 150 dogs in advance of the fast-approaching Hurricane Ike: "We placed 43 dogs in my mother's house (we'll pretend she was thrilled about that) and the rest were moved into the boarding/evaluation kennel in the front of the property, which is normally an indoor/outdoor kennel that holds 24 dogs. Given the situation with Ike, all dogs were crated and stacked in order to accommodate additional dogs."

Although donations again poured in, it appears that Spindletop was also staying afloat because of Leah Purcell's mother, Louise Purcell. In trying to save the enterprise her daughter staked her reputation on, she overextended herself. Louise filed for bankruptcy in 2009, and the bank subsequently repossessed the Windfern property and a Ford Excursion that was Purcell's only mode of ­transportation.

Louise and Leah Purcell and April Longhurst lived hand to mouth. It cost thousands of dollars a month to feed the dogs and pay the staff, and Purcell only compounded the problem by accepting more dogs. She'd get between $700 and $900 in up-front boarding fees, far less than the dogs would cost her in the long run.

According to ex-employee Zach Parry, who says he started working at Spindletop in December 2011, dogs were squeezed into every nook and cranny, including four Rottweilers stuffed into the wells' pump house. He says the dogs living in Purcell's house, as well as in a kennel behind it, got the most attention, but that many dogs left their cages only once a day, for the five minutes it took to clean the crates. But the crates in the Morgan building, he says, weren't cleaned often enough.

"That was by far the worst building," he says. "The smell, when you went in there in the morning, first thing, it was absolutely horrid...the smell of ammonia, you couldn't even be in there for 30 seconds, I mean, without wanting to gag." A temperamental air-conditioning unit kept the building blisteringly hot.

Purcell's longtime friend (and ex-boyfriend) Charles Estep has one word to describe Parry: Scumbag. Specifically, a scumbag with a grudge. Estep thinks Parry may have had a beef with Purcell because the kind of people who get paid to clean up after dogs are the kind of people who can't get jobs anywhere else, and sometimes you have to "ride roughshod" over them.

"She cares more about those animals out there than she cares about herself," Estep says. He says the dogs were never mistreated and the cages were always clean. He believes that everyone who claims to care about the dogs they left in Purcell's care is doing so simply for show. He says that, many times, these people "drop the dogs [off] and they disappear, and that's it." (This runs counter to statements by the people the Press talked with who said they did attempt to determine that Spindletop was a good placement, but that they were shown only the parts of the property Purcell wanted them to see.)

Estep's claim is not reflected in the batch of e-mails between Purcell and Spindletop clients reviewed for this story. For one thing, Purcell accepted dogs from all over the country (there was even a dog sent from Japan after the 2011 tsunami), making regular visits difficult. For another, many of these people never hesitated to fulfill Purcell's incessant requests for cash.

Those who did insist on visiting dogs they'd left — a privilege Purcell allowed only by appointment — were often given excuses as to why visits were not possible at the time. Eventually, Purcell seems to have completely left the reservation and decided to curb this problem by telling some people their dogs had been adopted when they had not been.

As for all the media coverage on the seizure and the allegations of neglect, Estep believes ­reporters and bloggers are simply on a witch hunt.

"You people are a bunch of scumbags," he says, "and I know you — I've been told about you...In fact, if I was to guess right, I'd say you're a liberal. You're a Democrat, aren't you?"

This logical pattern of reasoning also extends to Estep's eschewing of evidence that Purcell used other organizations' tax ID numbers.

"If that's true, then why ain't the IRS going after her? That's a bunch of bullshit," he says. Then, in an apparently rhetorical challenge, Estep stated, "You're a liar...Show me the proof."

Rick Wagner, another ex-boyfriend, was willing to discuss the situation in less hostile terms. He seconded Estep's claim that Purcell genuinely cared about the dogs.

"This girl lives and breathes the welfare of animals," he says. "That's all she does, day and night. That's why we broke up...She couldn't leave the animals alone."

Wagner also discounts Parry's allegations that the dogs were neglected. In fact, he says, it was the polar opposite — the dogs were spoiled to an almost disturbing level.

"It disgusts me the way...the poverty that she put herself in for the good of these animals. I mean, she has no money," he says.

But Wagner also says that Montgomery County law enforcement had it out for Spindletop from day one. Officers constantly came out to the property to check out the dogs for no other reason, Wagner surmises, than harassment. He says it would have been one thing if their incessant visits had resulted in any sort of citations or orders to do anything with the dogs, but it seemed to Wagner that their only intent was to be a thorn in Purcell's side. (Tim ­Holifield, the Precinct 3 Constable who led the Spindletop investigation and seizure, and who subsequently became the county's chief animal control officer, did not respond to requests for comment.)

Estep also says law enforcement had checked on Spindletop in the months before the seizure. He says one officer, responding to a complaint, asked to inspect the Morgan building.

"We didn't have to let him on the property without a warrant, but we let him on the property," Estep says.

According to Estep, the officer found nothing wrong, and went on his way.

"That was a terrible accident that happened out there," Estep says. "And I don't give a shit what...anybody says."

What remains unclear is how 38 dogs baked to death in a building without any of the staff realizing it.

For one thing, it appears that, for perhaps the first time in a while, Purcell had the resources to ensure the building was properly cooled. In March, three months before the incident, two Spindletop supporters bought two window air-conditioning units, which someone from Spindletop picked up from a Home Depot in Conroe.

In April, Spindletop received $6,900 in cash. The records for this influx of cash are contained in wire-transfer receipts provided to the Press by another of Purcell's ex-boyfriends, a retired law-enforcement officer living in Louisiana.

So why wasn't their air conditioning running in there?

It appears that much of the debt Louise included in her filing was Spindletop-related. As Purcell's proxy, Louise owed hundreds of thousands of dollars. She even owed PayPal, which is how many people donated prior to 2012, and which is why Purcell subsequently directed donors to a PayPal account belonging to the ex-­boyfriend. The ex would then wire the money to Conroe, where it would be collected by Spindletop employees.

Also unclear is exactly whose dogs perished in the Morgan building. Purcell and Zandra Anderson have declined to issue names of the deceased, or to individually notify the unfortunate lot and spare them the agony of the unknown.

Strangely, Anderson herself cited the agreed judgment entered into after the seizure of the dogs between the county court and Purcell as a reason she could not inform one woman of the whereabouts of her dog, George. However, there is nothing in the agreement procedurally barring Anderson from disclosing the whereabouts of any dogs.

What makes Anderson's silence on George's whereabouts especially troublesome is the fact that Anderson herself sought the transfer of George from his foster home to Spindletop. She also did this for George's sister, Georgia, who at the time of the seizure was nursing five puppies.

Tammy Lorkovic says Anderson contacted her in April 2012 after seeing Lorkovic's online pleas to find a home for George and Georgia. She says Anderson praised the virtues of Spindletop and said that Purcell happened to have just enough space for the dogs. (It turns out that, at least within the last year, this was Spindletop's standard operating procedure. There was always "just one last spot" available.)

According to Lorkovic, Anderson said the cost of transporting, boarding and altering the dogs would all be taken care of by a Spindletop sponsor. In an April 5 e-mail to Lorkovic, Anderson wrote, "I am so happy that these beauties are being saved! Woof!"

Lorkovic says of Anderson: "She initiated it. She solicited it. She got it financed. She facilitated it."

Immediately after the seizure, Lorkovic e-mailed Anderson asking about the whereabouts of George and Georgia. Anderson took this opportunity to explain, to Lorkovic's bewilderment, that Georgia was "pregnant when she came and too far along for safe spay. She had puppies." (Lorkovic alleges that when she reclaimed Georgia, the dog was bleeding vaginally, as well as suffering from a variety of bacterial infections.)

By July 23, Lorkovic still had no information about George. "Is he safe somewhere...please let me know...I can't handle this agony," Lorkovic e-mailed Anderson.

Anderson responded, "I am not sure where he is but he was removed long before the seizure occurred I have learned."

Despite Anderson's early assurances to the Press that she'd speak for this story, Anderson ignored questions about the whereabouts of George and other missing dogs.

At the temporary shelter on the Montgomery County fairgrounds in late July, Carol Goodrich is waiting to reclaim three dogs she brought to Spindletop in the past nine months.

Rescue volunteers, Humane Society staff and law-enforcement officials buzz about among the 270-odd dogs spread out between a large, air-conditioned building and a fan-cooled set of concrete holding pens. They walk with the focus and speed of people who haven't slept in days and are fueled by second, third and fourth winds.

Goodrich has been reunited with two of the three dogs, gorgeous wirehaired pit mix siblings Jasper and Ivy, and is waiting for a worker to find their mother, Maddie. The Humane Society and county officials have implemented a rigorous verification process that prevents owners from looking for dogs themselves. It's a necessary but frustrating precaution against dogs being relinquished to the wrong hands.

It takes five more days before Maddie and she are reunited. At first Goodrich didn't even recognize the dog. They'd only been together a short amount of time, and Maddie has short white hair and a lack of coloring that makes her resemble about a million other dogs.

Purcell still has her own dogs. After the seizure, the county relinquished 11 dogs proved to belong to Purcell and Louise, who still live on the Spindletop property.

In the weeks following the seizure, Purcell has maintained a low profile. Perhaps concerned about possible criminal charges, she hasn't made any public statements. It might also be that, after having her reputation destroyed and losing everything she's worked for, she has nothing to say.

Or maybe something altogether different is running through Purcell's head. According to Lorkovic, her friend's husband spotted Purcell at a store in early August. Lorkovic says the man asked Purcell how she was dealing with the aftermath. He didn't quite know what to make of her alleged response. He told his wife as soon as he got home.

Purcell, he said, chalked it up to a simple "misunderstanding." He said Purcell told him something even stranger: I'll get my dogs back.


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