No Sanctuary at Spindletop

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.

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Contributor Craig Malisow covers crooks, quacks, animal abusers, elected officials, and other assorted people for the Houston Press.
Contact: Craig Malisow