Serial cat mutilations are freaking people out in Olympia

The animals were killed in grisly fashion and left in public areas where they would be quickly found.

  • Erik Lacitis The Seattle Times
  • Saturday, August 25, 2018 7:42am
  • Northwest

By Erik Lacitis / The Seattle Times

OLYMPIA — The paperwork on 11 serial cat killings piles up on Erika Johnson’s desk.

In between the computerized reports logged by the Thurston County Joint Animal Services since February are gruesome photos of mutilated cats. Two have had portions of their spines removed, at least one was decapitated and some have had their legs severed.

Johnson is the animal cruelty investigator for animal services. Before that she was a cop in Oregon.

For months she’s met with anguished pet owners, taking down reports of animals killed in grisly fashion and then left in a public area where they were bound to be quickly found. Even with the resources of her office and help from Olympia police, the deaths continue to mount. This week, the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office assigned a major-crimes detective to the case.

“Hundreds of calls,” Johnson says. “We get numerous calls from people saying this person was petting a cat as they were walking through the neighborhood. Tips on possible suspects, naming people with strange behavior, or maybe this person remarked that they hated cats, or what they did to cats when they were younger.”

One call came about a man walking with an open can of sardines. A neighbor questioned him.

“The man said, ‘Oh, it’s my lunch and just kind of walked away,’ ” says Johnson.

The cat mutilations attributed to the same person or persons in Thurston County total 11, including one found Friday morning.

The investigation has so far come up empty, although Johnson says there is a list of 25 to 30 people whom callers have identified as possible suspects.

“I’ve got eight pages of single-spaced notes of phone calls I haven’t gotten to yet,” she says.

Reward now at $30,000

A pall hangs over the middle-class neighborhood near Decatur Woods Park in southwest Olympia, with its ramblers and proverbial well-kept lawns. Four of the dead cats were found here.

Outside the home of Kathy Harrigan and her husband, Stan Lewis, are signs that announce “CAT KILLER REWARD.”

There is an ever-increasing reward fund, now at $30,000, for information leading to an arrest in the case. Funding has come from PETA, the Humane Society of the United States and Pasado’s Safe Haven.

A couple of years ago, Harrigan and Lewis began taking care of an emaciated, semi-feral cat who had been living under a neighbor’s house. They named him Harley.

The only person Harley let pet him was Kathy. He would not come into their home, and so the couple put up a little structure for him outside their porch. Harley seldom left their yard.

On Aug. 5, a police officer came to their door and asked if they had an outdoor surveillance camera. No, they didn’t.

The cops were looking for any recording of activity in a nearby alley.

Harley had been found in a neighbor’s yard, easy to spot, just as would be the case in other mutilations. The killer (or killers) wanted the public to see their handiwork.

In all the cases there was no blood where the cat was found. The animal had been mutilated elsewhere. In one case, a latex glove was found by the animal.

In the four mutilations near Decatur Woods Park, the abdomen of each cat had been cut open. Some reports would describe the mutilations as “surgical” and done with a “scalpel.” But this was not the work of a surgeon. Johnson says that a sharp steak knife would have done the job.

Harley’s death doesn’t leave Harrigan’s thoughts. She has a hard time sleeping.

She talks about her neighborhood since the mutilations. “This has been a very close community. I haven’t experienced this level of paranoia here in 20 years.”

Neighbors Angi Swan and her husband, Pat Swan, understand Harrigan’s pain. Their cat, Callie, was found dead in the Decatur Woods Park after going missing on July 5.

Callie had an ID microchip. At first, when their family was contacted by animal services to help identify the cat’s body, it wasn’t immediately clear it was Callie. The microchip had dislodged when the killer ripped out her spine.

The couple has three daughters, ages 12 to 18.

“All three have processed it differently,” says their mom. “Two outwardly cried, one went to her room and hasn’t it mentioned it since. We raised our kids in that park. Now the youngest one won’t go there.”

A disturbing pattern

An 11-year-old cat named Midnight was found Monday after going missing the previous day.

His owner, Rhonda Woodworth, says, “He was a friendly cat. You could call him and he’d come right to you.”

She says she knew about the cat mutilations, but Midnight never strayed from her property. “I didn’t think this would happen with my cat,” she says.

Since 2016, animal-cruelty crimes have been counted alongside felony crimes like arson, burglary, assault, and homicide in the FBI’s criminal database. The FBI says that serial killers like Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, and the “Son of Sam” killer David Berkowitz had animal-cruelty incidents in their past.

Clifton Flynn, author of the 2000 paper, “Why family professionals can no longer ignore violence toward animals,” offers a profile of the person who could commit such crimes.

“This is most likely a male. It wouldn’t surprise me if this was a teenager, or up to the early 30s; from a working-class background, who very well could have been bullied as a child, who probably had witnessed animals being abused,” said Flynn, a provost and a professor of sociology at the University of South Carolina Upstate in Spartanburg.

Flynn says that many men can remember some incident in their boyhood in which they hurt an animal — “shot a squirrel out of a tree,” for example. They remember that “in awful way,” but don’t continue that behavior, he says.

But with a serial cat killer, something obviously has gone wrong, he says.

For Rhonda Woodworth it’s all something she’s still trying to grasp.

“It bothers me to think about it,” she says. “You violated his little body. He was a good cat. He was a sweet cat.”

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