ALTUS -- Three people who were trying to retrieve puppies from under an abandoned house in Franklin County have been arrested on trespassing charges, the county sheriff's office said in a Facebook post.
In the same post, the sheriff's office contended that, despite "stories that came out" about animal abuse, an investigation found that no animals had been "abused or endangered by anyone involved."
The sheriff's office said in the post on Wednesday that deputies on Tuesday arrested Mary McKinney, 29, of Muldrow, Okla., and Connie McMillan, 73, of Ozark after an investigation revealed photo evidence of them being on a residential property on Carbon Plant Road that neither woman owned and which was marked with "no trespassing" signs.
Deputies also cited Buddy Ruggero, 40, for trespassing on Monday after he admitted to entering the same property, according to the post.
"After further investigation, it was found that the persons who had been charged with trespassing, and others who were loitering in the area, were entering the property in an attempt to retrieve puppies from under an abandoned house," the post states. "Several stories came out about abuse to animals, but the facts of the case were quickly uncovered."
The Artemis Project, a no-kill animal rescue group in Sebastian County, reported on its own Facebook page Wednesday that McKinney and McMillan had been released from the Franklin County jail in Ozark. The group identified McKinney in an earlier post as one of its volunteers and reported she had been arrested while rescuing a stray female dog and her puppies.
The post states during the demolition of an empty building, a portion of the building fell on the mother dog.
"She was paralyzed, drug further off the property and left there to die. Our volunteer offered and attempted to save the puppies and was arrested," the Artemis Project post states.
Cindy Scott, director of the Artemis Project, clarified Thursday that McKinney is also a founding member of the Artemis Project's board of directors. McMillan is a volunteer for the Charleston Dog Shelter while Ruggero lives in the area where the incident took place.
Scott said multiple people contacted the Artemis Project on Tuesday about the female dog being under a house on the Carbon Plant Road property with her puppies on Monday. They said the house was being demolished and nobody was doing anything to ensure the animals were removed beforehand, despite the Altus Police Department and Mayor Veronica Post being notified of the situation.
Scott said McKinney and McMillan were both arrested while trying to retrieve the puppies from under the house. She justified their actions using Arkansas Code Annotated 5-39-203, which defines the trespassing offense.
The law provides several defenses to prosecution for criminal trespass, one of which is that the person involved had to enter the premises of another person for either a business reason or for "health and safety reasons."
The sheriff's office stated Post contacted the Altus Police Department last week in reference to an injured dog on the property. Police contacted the owner and advised him of this.
The owner afterward went to the property and reportedly saw several unknown people on the porch of the "dilapidated and unsafe house," according to the sheriff's office's post. The injured dog was missing, though Ruggero was found to have taken it. Multiple puppies were also reportedly under the house and being fed by the owner for several days, the sheriff's office reported.
The property owner dismantled the front porch to try to deter trespassing and help prevent trespassers from being injured. However, despite both this and an order from Altus police not to trespass on the property again, Ruggero did exactly that, stealing two puppies in the process, according to the sheriff's office. The property owner continued feeding the remaining puppies and tried catching them to give them away.
Altus police requested the sheriff's office as backup about 8 p.m. Tuesday concerning someone near the property threatening the owner with a gun, according to the sheriff's office. The subject left before authorities arrived, but they found about 20 people standing across the street from the property, yelling "profanities and threats" at the owner, who was trying to catch the puppies, according to the sheriff's office.
"The investigation found that at no time were any animals, specifically the dogs and puppies in question, abused or endangered by anyone involved," the post states. "All of the puppies have been retrieved from under the house by the property owner, and are currently being checked by a veterinarian. The puppies appear to be very healthy and well fed. All of the puppies have been adopted."
The Artemis Project wrote in response to the sheriff's office's statement on Facebook it didn't have any proof of the puppies being adopted out. The organization claimed there were four puppies remaining.
Scott said the Artemis Project still hasn't received proof that the remaining puppies were removed from the property and in safe hands as of Thursday. She said the female dog was en route that afternoon to South County Animal Hospital in Greenwood to have her back evaluated while two of the puppies will go to a new foster home.
The organization has also retained attorney Carrie Jernigan as legal counsel in this matter, according to Scott.