A mother of seven is accused of running a house of horrors for pets at her suburban Long Island home, forcing her children to help torture them and burying at least 20 dogs in her backyard _ animals neighbors now fear were beloved pets that mysteriously disappeared over the years.
Sharon McDonough pleaded not guilty last week to six counts of misdemeanor animal cruelty on suspicion of abusing five dogs and a cat found crammed into cages, covered in feces and urine, their coats matted with filth. A judge has taken away custody of the 43-year-old woman's six young daughters.
McDonough's neighbors began fearing their missing pets met a worse fate than the abused animals after her son led officials to a backyard filled with the shallow graves of 20 dogs.
Douglas McDonough, 21, who turned his mother in to authorities on Nov. 5, called the home "a concentration camp for the animals" in comments to reporters after the arrest.
"She would have the oldest kids hold down the dog while we duct-taped his mouth and she would hit him," he said, adding that he and his sisters were all forced to take part in the abuse.
On Tuesday, a judge removed the six girls _ ages 18 months to 13 years _ from the custody of McDonough, who is widowed. Her court-appointed attorney, James D'Angelo, called the animal cruelty counts a "low-level offense."
"She's not charged with killing animals and is entitled to a presumption of innocence," he said. No one answered the door at McDonough's home this week.
Dozens of people have called the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals since the case broke, fearing their missing pets had been victimized, Suffolk County SPCA Chief Roy Gross said.
"My daughter is still crying every day over her lost Chihuahua," said neighbor Sharyn Padula of the family's dog Bally, who disappeared just over a year ago. Two cats, Annabelle and Sylvester, also went missing.
After the dog disappeared, the family "posted pictures everywhere, Craigslist, and went doorbell to doorbell asking people if they'd seen him," said Padula, who lives a few houses from McDonough. "I really hope they don't find my pets there."
McDonough's two-story red brick house sits on a middle-class block of closely placed, well-kept homes buffered by manicured lawns and festooned with holiday decorations _ except for McDonough's, an unkempt structure with peeling paint, surrounded by fallen, matted leaves.
Since the dog carcasses were found, vandals have spray-painted "killer" on the garage and "guilty" on McDonough's mailbox. Rotten eggs were splattered on the house and on an SUV parked outside. A New York tabloid has dubbed her the "Cruella De Vil of Long Island."
Gross was summoned to the home after Douglas McDonough contacted Rescue Ink, a group of bikers who stage animal rescues in the New York metropolitan area for a television program of the same name on the National Geographic Channel. Efforts to reach the group, created several years ago by a former NYPD detective and ex-security guards and bouncers, were unsuccessful. Its messaging system was full and an e-mail seeking comment went unanswered.
Authorities found the animals _ a shepherd mix, a beagle mix, an Italian greyhound, a cocker spaniel mix, a pug and a tabby cat _ in wretched cages in the house. A "sickening" smell in the back yard nearly overcame animal control officers and firefighters, Gross said.
"This is one case I'm sure I will never forget out of the thousands and thousands I have seen," said Gross, a 25-year veteran of abuse investigations. "It's probably one of the most horrific cases of animal cruelty."
After Douglas McDonough told investigators about the animals buried in his family's backyard, SPCA authorities returned to the house with a search warrant and began digging. In all, 20 dogs were found in varying states of decomposition, suggesting they had died over a period of years.
Gross said necropsies were being conducted and veterinarians would search the bodies for implanted microchips that might help identify them. That could be the only way to determine whether any of the dead dogs had been stolen.
Upgraded larceny or grand larceny charges might be filed by the police if it can be proved any of the animals were stolen, Gross said.
It wasn't clear why McDonough's son waited until last week to alert authorities, and contact information for him could not be found.
A note from the Suffolk Division of Public Health was taped to McDonough's front door Monday, saying the agency wanted to know about "bags of human feces in the backyard and garage." A health department spokeswoman did not return a call from The Associated Press seeking comment.
Two of McDonough's daughters have been placed with their older brother, two with neighbors and two in foster care. Suffolk County social services officials would not comment on the status of the child welfare case and whether charges were possible.
McDonough, whose husband, Darren, was killed in a car accident last year, faces up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine for each count of misdemeanor animal cruelty if convicted. If authorities upgrade the abuse charges to a felony, she could be sentenced to up to two years in prison on each count if convicted.
Padula said she hopes the necropsies do not turn up her Chihuahua or other pets.
"I'd rather think that they're wandering around still," she said. "I don't even want to imagine."
Associated Press Television News reporter Bonny Ghosh contributed to this report.