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Trial begins for pet-shelter operators

By jim Published: February 24, 2010

Phil Trexler, Beacon Journal staff writer

-- Defense attorney Mendenhall says mother and daughter are ‘caring and special people’ --

A mother and daughter accused of abusing dozens of dogs and cats they rescued and placed in a shelter went on trial today in Akron Municipal Court.

Heather Nagel, 30, and her mother, Patricia Mihaly, 53, are accused of 12 misdemeanor counts of animal cruelty. Each charge carries a maximum 90-day jail sentence and $750 fine.

The charges stem from a July search by health and animal officials of Heaven Can Wait, a shelter set up by Nagel inside a North Hill house.

Mihaly volunteered at the center, her attorney said.

Nagel and Mihaly, both of Akron, have pleaded not guilty to the charges. Their attorneys argued today that the women are animal lovers — not abusers — and only tried to save pets that would otherwise be killed.

''These are hard-working, caring people trying to address an overwhelming need in the community,'' defense attorney Warner Mendenhall said. ''They felt very strongly that these animals shouldn't be killed.''

But Assistant City Prosecutor Craig Hanus told an eight-person jury that when agents with the Akron Health Department and the Humane Society of Greater Akron went to the Vesper Street shelter, they were greeted with a strong smell of ammonia brought on by animal waste.

Inside, he said, there were 61 cats and 45 dogs living in ''very dilapidated conditions.''

The cats were caged and held in a room. Some were lying in their own waste, he said. Feces on one cat's tail caused an infection that required the tail to be amputated, he said.

The dogs, Hanus told the jury, were confined in crates in the basement. Many were infested with fleas and had feces covering their fur. Others were dehydrated, emaciated and suffering from mange.

The animals appeared to have no food or water, he said.

''The only food you'll see for the dogs is what they regurgitated,'' he told jurors.

Mendenhall, who represents Nagel, the shelter's founder, told jurors that Heaven Can Wait's mission was to rescue dogs and cats from other shelters, and that hundreds of pets were saved and placed with families.

Mendenhall said that the high volume of animals required constant cleaning and naturally produced smells. But he said volunteers regularly fed and exercised the animals. Veterinarians were contacted when needed.

''They're caring and special people,'' he said of Nagel and Mihaly.

Last year, Nagel pleaded no contest to housing- and zoning-code violations on behalf of the shelter. The shelter was fined $1,200.

The housing charges related to electrical violations, disrepair and unsanitary conditions ordered to be corrected in 2007 after Heaven Can Wait opened the rescue operations.

The zoning charge relates to housing more than four dogs in the house.

Attorney Catherine Loya, who represents Mihaly, said an elevator accident left the woman with two broken knees, which brought on physical and emotional problems.

Mihaly, she said, found comfort in caring for animals as a volunteer for her daughter's shelter.

Loya joked with jurors that Mihaly volunteered at the shelter so often, she earned a ''Ph.D. in poop'' and often whispered to the caged pets that ''this is the last time you'll be in a shelter.''

Testimony before visiting Judge Michael Weigand is expected to continue Wednesday and conclude Thursday.

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