It was 8:00 p.m. on a breezy spring night last May, and Carol Smith's family was just finishing dinner. They were still at the kitchen table, lingering over the last crumbs and arguing over dishwashing duties. But the lull of day's end was interrupted by a sharp knock at the door. It was Patty Brooks. She looked distressed.
Brooks, wearing sweats and a frizzy bun, explained that one of her horses was sick. The young horse was lying on the ground, flailing about like a drowning child, Brooks said. Could Smith do anything?
Though she hadn't spoken to Brooks in weeks, Smith — a longtime horse owner with the controlled demeanor of an emergency-room nurse — threw on a jacket. Knowing time was scarce, she raced the 10 miles from her Litchfield home to Brooks' Lodi barn.
Once there, they hustled through the large barn and into a stall, dry hay crunching beneath their feet like dead leaves. The scene was worse than Smith had imagined. The horse — his name was Dash — was lying on his side, flopping about just as Brooks had described. He was so emaciated you could see his muscles contracting beneath his dull, spotted skin. And he was clearly in pain, struggling like an asthmatic for breath.
Smith knew the situation was dire, that the thrashing could cause the horse's intestines to twist up and cut off circulation. She threw her body on top of his, hoping to stop the flailing.
"You need to get a vet here," she told Brooks, "or he's not going to make it."
The women worked the phones. But they couldn't get a vet to the farm. "I don't like what's going on there," one of them told Smith. "That woman should not be allowed to own horses," another said. Besides, the doctors knew they might never get paid. Brooks owed thousands in vet fees.
So Smith did the best she could. She helped move the horse to another stall and made sure he had enough water. But around 10 p.m., she had to leave. She had children and a husband to tend to. She asked Brooks to stay with the foal until the morning. The breeder agreed.
Finally back in bed, Smith spent the next few hours wrestling with her covers, and early the next morning, she rushed back to Brooks' barn. She walked into the horse's stall to find what her animal-lover's instinct had expected all night: The yearling was dead. And Brooks was nowhere to be found.
Smith knelt, altar-style, beside the dead horse, smoothing the fine hairs of his coat and offering up apologies. That's when Brooks walked into the barn. "He's dead," Smith told her, weeping.
Brooks' face remained stoic. She was acting "like it was no big deal," Smith would later recall.
Smith looked around at the rest of Brooks' stable, taking stock of the situation: Fifty malnourished horses, their coats mangy, their hooves rotted and crumbling like stale cake. Some of the drinking water was so dirty you couldn't see the bottom of the pails. She quietly worried that this horse farm, if left to Brooks, would soon become a horse cemetery.
Smith knew that Brooks regarded her as a sister, a best friend. So as she left the farm that morning, Smith silently asked God to forgive her betrayal as she dialed the number of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
"I want to report a case of animal cruelty," she said.
She expected the professional animal lovers to be aghast at her story. But to her surprise, the investigators she spoke with that morning were more than familiar with Patty Brooks.
At 54, Patty Brooks has the look of a world-weary loner, a woman surrounded by 10 feet of invisible barbed wire. When she talks, her eyes dart around like searchlights; she has the natural suspicion of a woman who feels many times wronged. It's a disposition nursed during her long career as an LTV steelworker and a trucker. And it's this distrust of people, she says, that spurred her gravitation toward animals. "Animals are a hell of a lot more trustworthy than people," the sharp-tongued Brooks says.
And with the right combination of luck and finesse, she once believed, they just might be her ticket to a richer, better life.
In the late 1980s, Brooks quit her trucking job and opened the Sudsy Dog Grooming and Boarding Kennel in a small stand-alone building on Route 18 in Medina. The grooming business, she figured, would pay the day-to-day bills. But she knew the profit was in breeding. Show dogs could sell for $6,000. And Brooks had a gut feeling that she'd be good at the job. Successful breeders "have a love" of dogs and a "desire to always improve on what [they] have," she says. Brooks prided herself on both qualities.
True to her prediction, Brooks turned out to be a gifted breeder. She spent long hours at the library researching bloodlines. She traveled to dog shows around the state, looking for canines with mathematically exact features — even bites and jawlines, symmetrical white and yellow pigments around the eyes, vertebrae strung as straight and tight as pearls. Then she shelled out high-priced stud fees, collecting the best dog semen she could find. It wasn't long before she had a litter of genetically superior show dogs.
As Brooks tells it, her dogs won competitions across the country. In all, she says, she raised 25 champion dogs, and she says she has the blue ribbons, hanging in her kitchen hallway, to prove it.
But as she went, Brooks succumbed to a problem common to breeders — to anyone, really, who makes a living searching for perfection. She became obsessed. "When you're breeding, you keep hoping for the best one," says a local horse breeder, who once unintentionally ended up with 21 horses. "And sometimes reality gets away from you."
"It's like you get a bike for Christmas," another breeder explains. "Then your neighbor gets a better bike, and suddenly your own bike isn't good enough. So you get a new one. Soon, before you know it, you have 10 bikes in the garage."
By the summer of 1991, the quest had taken its hold on Brooks: She now owned 58 dogs. She didn't have money to feed them or the space to house them. She started keeping dogs bunked three to a cage, and her kennel became third-world filthy. Her grooming business fell apart.
Still, Brooks was unwilling to part with any of them. "It's kind of the classic collector syndrome," says Jeff Holland, who prosecutes animal-cruelty cases for Medina County. Instead of hoarding clothes or newspapers, animal collectors "keep large numbers of animals and aren't able to let go of any of them."
Most hoarders labor to keep their compulsion secret from outsiders. But employees, utility workers, and potential clients flowed in and out of Brooks' kennel daily. Privacy wasn't an option. It wasn't long before people started complaining to the SPCA. "When we opened the door, there was a smell that would knock you over," one anonymous complainant wrote. Complained another: "The ventilation was really poor throughout the whole building. There was no air movement at all inside that building."
But by then, Brooks had developed a distorted vision: She didn't see any problems with the condition of her kennel or her animals. Maybe "a couple of dogs had gnats," she allows. Other than that, she says, "I never had any problem with my dogs."
The SPCA saw it differently. When investigators entered the kennel in 1991, they had to hold their nose because of the stench, produced by a thick wall of animal waste. Some dogs were matted with fecal matter, others covered in urine. When investigators took stool samples of the dogs, they found 10 had been exposed to a disease that causes incessant diarrhea.
Holland charged Brooks with three counts of animal cruelty — although they knew a conviction wouldn't earn Brooks more than a stern lecture. Ohio, unlike other states, classifies animal cruelty as a misdemeanor, and sentences here are among the weakest in the country. Brooks wasn't the worst kind of offender either. She didn't appear to beat or starve her animals. They weren't in danger of dying. It looked to prosecutors as if she'd just gotten in over her head.
Medina Municipal Court Judge Dale Chase sent her to a first-offender's program, where she was placed in a class with other first-time criminals. In exchange for completing the one-year class, the conviction would be erased. Brooks was even allowed to keep her dogs.
"We thought we could correct her behavior without hitting her with a giant hammer," says Holland. "She appeared to be someone who was trying to make a go of it . . . someone who education could help serve.
"Obviously, we were wrong."
She'd only been on the job for a month when, in the fall of 1995, Penny Blake, Medina's chief animal-cruelty investigator, started getting complaints about the Sudsy Kennel. Loud barking. Decrepit conditions. Nauseating smells. Medina's retiring investigator had warned Blake about the place's reputation. It was time for a stop-in.
Blake, a smiley, easygoing blonde in her mid-30s, wasn't looking forward to the meeting. Even responsible animal keepers didn't react well to unexpected drop-ins. And Blake had heard rumors that Brooks could be vicious — a pit bull, people said — to visitors.
But the woman who greeted Blake at the kennel door was downright cheery. And as she spoke, her love for her animals seemed genuine, which caught the rookie investigator off guard. Most abusers, Blake had learned, seemed ambivalent, if not hateful, toward their pets. But Brooks "knew all their names" and "talked to all of them," Blake says, sounding impressed.
Still, Blake couldn't overlook the kennel's conditions. The floor was sticky and looked as if it hadn't been swept in a week, and some of the dogs were disheveled and unkempt. But Blake, acting on instinct, decided to give Brooks a chance to clean up the place. Despite knowing about Brooks' prior arrest, the investigator figured the breeder just needed some instruction on animal care. There's a difference, Blake knew, between messy kennels and true neglect. There were no signs that the dogs were sick or in any danger. And education, Blake explains, is a "large part of my work."
She carefully walked Brooks through all that she needed to change, from scrubbing the pens to cutting the gnats out of her dogs' coats. Brooks conscientiously took notes. And when the investigator stopped by for a scheduled visit the next week, she was happy to see that Brooks had followed her instructions. Mission accomplished, Blake thought.
But a few weeks later, the phone started ringing again. And so continued the cycle: Blake got a complaint, went to Brooks' kennel, lectured her, and later found compliance. But the moment Blake stopped babysitting, the complaints rained down.
Brooks was always ready with a new excuse. "First she was sick," Blake says. "Then she didn't have a way of getting to the kennel, because her car had broken down. Then her mom was in the hospital." After nine months of the same call-and-response, Blake finally threatened to have the dogs taken away. Brooks pleaded that the "animals were all she had."
But Blake was devoid of sympathy. She'd already shown more patience than most animal-cruelty investigators. "Nine months is a little bit longer than normal," admits Andy Mahlman of the Ohio Federated Humane Societies. "At that point, I was worried about the safety of the dogs," Blake says. She decided to have Brooks charged with animal cruelty.
As the case pressed on, Brooks' innocent-caretaker demeanor disappeared. She grew irate, calling Blake a "member of the Gestapo." In later conversations with Scene, Brooks alternately referred to Blake as a "thief" and a "bitch."
In November of 1996, Judge Chase convicted Brooks of three counts of animal cruelty. This time there'd be no counseling sessions, no therapy groups; sympathy for Brooks had all but dried up. The judge banned her from keeping any dogs for the next five years.
But the sentence didn't say anything about Brooks' mother, Jan Donnelly. For as long as neighbors can remember, Brooks and her mom have lived together in solitude. Jan, neighbors say, was sweet — the gray-haired, round-faced grandmotherly type you see hawking cherry pies in Sara Lee ads. Though mother and daughter resembled each other in looks, they were opposites in demeanor. Where Jan was as consistently warm as the San Diego sun, Brooks was as unpredictable as an Iowa thunderstorm. At any moment, she could erupt, and her tirades were often aimed at Mom. Neighbors could hear Brooks calling her mother "stupid" and "a waste." Jan sat silently, absorbing the blows, the neighbors say.
By default and through silence, Jan became her daughter's enabler and co-conspirator. Not long after the 1996 ruling, Brooks surreptitiously signed legal control of her dogs over to her mom. Then, without telling neighbors, Brooks and her mom silently packed up and moved to Ashland County with the dogs.
Judge Chase had ordered the breeder to get rid of her dogs — but he hadn't checked to see whom she might give them to. And Blake didn't have the court's authority to take them herself — thanks to Ohio's weak animal-cruelty regulations, says Susan Adams, of the Humane Society of the United States. "You don't even have to have a permit to establish a puppy mill," Adams says, "and there are no inspections or requirements to breed them. I would hope that the state would take cruelty more seriously."
As part of Brooks' sentencing, she was required to meet regularly with a probation officer. She was usually careful to arrange the meeting so that she visited him in his office. But in early 1997, the probation officer stopped by her new home unannounced. He found 58 dogs living in squalor, with little food or water.
Officers from the Ashland County Humane Society quickly confiscated the dogs. Jan, as primary caretaker, was charged — and found guilty — of animal cruelty. Brooks was found in violation of probation. She spent 12 days in the Medina County jail.
When Blake heard Brooks had been caught again, the investigator's gut swelled with guilt. "I would have thought after all that, she'd learn a lesson," she says. "But apparently not."
Like tax attorneys and politicians, Patty Brooks maintains a deep fondness for loopholes. She seems to see the law as a bendable, elastic thing — something to be maneuvered, not followed. And the agencies trying to shut down her resilient animal-neglect operation, while persistent, lacked creativity.
Yes, her conviction in Medina banned her from owning dogs. But it said nothing about horses.
Veteran horse breeders are quick to warn against using the animals as a fast-money occupation. "The feeding and vet bills are enormous . . . and any number of things can happen to a horse before they get on a track," says Gayle Babst, the executive director of the Ohio Thoroughbred Breeders & Owners Association. But Brooks, like many amateur breeders, was lured by the exorbitant prices — as much as $10,000 — paid for top show horses. In the late '90s, with borrowed money, she opened a farm in Lodi. "Like all of us, she had that dream to get that one super horse," says Joe Seely, Brooks' acquaintance and fellow breeder.
But Brooks once again struck her fellow animal-lovers as sincere. She made the rounds to local breeders, acquiring expensive stock from champion Thoroughbreds and paint horses in places like Wellington, Florida. Brooks had some "very well-bred horses from established bloodlines," says Dr. Michael Geiger, a veterinarian who knew Brooks in the '90s.
But horse-raising is even more expensive than dog-breeding. And slowly, Brooks once again struggled to keep up with her bills. Vets started refusing to care for her horses unless she paid overdue bills. Her fences were falling into disrepair, barn gates were rusted, and hay was in short supply.
Then, in May of 2002, the Medina County Sheriff's office received a frantic phone call. A dozen horses were on the loose on Columbia Road, the caller said. They were stampeding like buffalo, their manes flowing behind them like kite tails. Desperate, the police called Penny Blake.
Blake rushed to the scene. Using feed and lasso, she herded the horses into an open pasture. It took her an hour and a half, but she finally got the whole lot settled. Then she went looking for their owner.
That's when she learned from neighbors that Patty Brooks was back.
Blake headed to Brooks' new farm, set on a few acres of grass behind an alpaca farm on Columbia Road. From the street, it was impossible to tell that beyond the fences, horses grazed and trotted in the pastures. But as she pulled up to the horse barn, she saw the outline of a poorly kept animal stall. The gates were sagging like an old widower's shoulders; the doors needed painting and were ajar. But what upset Blake the most were the stalls. There were five of them, each no bigger than an office cubicle. And it appeared that Brooks was keeping the horses bunked two to a stall. Had the woman learned nothing?
Blake ordered Brooks to fix up her barn, and prosecutors charged the breeder with "animals at large" — a misdemeanor in which animals are allowed to run loose.
But the horses Blake had seen weren't sick or malnourished. She couldn't legally take them from Brooks — not right then, anyway. And when Blake came back five days later to check on the farm, Brooks was gone. So were the animals.
It was 2003 when Carol Smith first met Patty Brooks, after Brooks posted an online ad about a horse for sale. Smith and her husband had been in the breeding business for 24 years. Today, they were looking over a new gelding for a friend. They drove down from Litchfield to Lodi to check out the horse.
Hiking up their pant legs, they followed Brooks to the back stalls, where Brooks ushered them around her barn like a proud mother. But Brooks' attitude, the Smiths thought, didn't match the state of the horses. "They were standing in literally three feet of manure, with dirty manure caked on them. They hadn't been groomed," Carol Smith says. "We got the idea maybe this lady doesn't know what she's doing."
But Brooks beguiled them with her wronged-woman demeanor and stories of financial hardship. She didn't have many friends, she said, and almost no family. So the Smiths decided to tuck Brooks under their loving arms. Their teenage daughter, Kristen, began helping with the stalls, and Smith tried to talk finance and auctions. "Patty really did have some good breeds and bloodlines," Smith says.
But the Smiths quickly discovered what others had learned years before: Brooks was a hoarder. They watched helplessly as Brooks refused to sell horse after horse — even when one father offered to pay more than $3,000 for a horse for his daughter's graduation. And when Carol and her husband offered to sell a few horses at a reputable auction in Wooster, Brooks kept putting them off. "It was such a shame," Carol says. "The horses she had really could have been something. She just kept too damn many."
To the Smiths, it was all so confusing. As much as Brooks clung to her horses, talking about how she loved them, she was equally lax in her care of them. She'd disappear for days, belatedly asking Carol to "check in on them." Once, Carol came over to find one of the mares giving birth and suffering from complications. If Smith hadn't been there, the horse would have died.
When Carol tried talking to Brooks, she lashed out at her. And Kristen began to feel that no matter how hard she worked, things would never get clean and never run smoothly. So in April, mom and daughter decided they were done with Brooks. And they were — until that frantic phone call last May.
On the morning of May 23, hours after Carol Smith called in her complaint against Brooks, a team of police officers, animal investigators, volunteers, and veterinarians pulled up to Brooks' Lodi farm.
Her face etched with permanent worry lines and her hair a soft gray, Brooks peeked her head out the door. "My animals are fine," she said, belligerently. "You don't need to be here."
While officers detained Brooks at the front of the barn, Blake and her crew headed back to the pasture. Blake felt an unnerving sense of déjà vu.
Brooks' 45 horses were in predictably bad shape. Their coats were mangy and ratty, their hooves overgrown and sprouting fungus. Most were underweight, their spines showing through the skin like the keys of a xylophone. A few had open lacerations and burns. In the stalls, manure was piled high, and the bottom of the gates wouldn't open.
Veterinarian Michael Geiger knelt down beside a small, chocolate-colored mare and her young foal. Their coats were soiled; patches of hair were missing from their hindquarters. The baby's legs were so weak, they kept collapsing underneath him. "This foal might not make it through the night," Geiger told Blake. He gathered the horse, cradling it under his arms.
But as bad as the barn's conditions were, things in the pasture were worse. Grabbing a shovel, Blake and volunteers plowed into a raised mound of earth, digging until their shovels hit something hard: bone. As they kept digging, they discovered the gray, disintegrating carcasses of one large horse and several foals. It was just as Smith had feared.
By the end of that day, Blake confiscated 28 of Brooks' worst-looking horses, shuffling them out to foster homes around Medina County. When Lady Bones, a particularly emaciated horse, arrived at Cathy Denman's house, Denman nearly cried. "Her eyes looked empty — like she'd given up," she says. "She was probably three to five days from death." Denman stayed up all night with the horse, bringing a sleeping bag into the barn and feeding the horse milk from a bottle. "I don't care what [Patty] says," Denman mutters. "No one who claims to have any affection for their animals could ever let their horses get like this."
At Brooks' October trial in Wadsworth Municipal Court, the horse breeder sat defiantly in the chair beside her public defender, her mouth set in a firm, emotionless line. There was no reason, her face said, for her presence at court. No reason for these 20 counts of animal cruelty. No reason for this band of animal activists to sit in the aisles, hissing at her.
"All there was were three horses that were thin — two were Thoroughbreds, and they're supposed to be thin," Brooks would later tell Scene. "One needed dental, and I knew that."
At trial, Brooks testified that the problem lay not with her, but with the slumping economy. "When gas prices go up, people don't want the luxury of a horse," Brooks said. She claimed she was trying her best. She'd found a potential buyer for 11 of the horses.
But Judge Stephen McIlvaine didn't buy it. After the two-day trial, he sentenced her to 60 days in jail and banned her from possessing animals of any sort.
A week later, Penny Blake arrived at Brooks' home to confiscate the rest of the horses. Brooks, out of prison while awaiting her appeal, hurled curses at the investigator. "I hope those fuckers go broke," Brooks later told Scene. "Some of those horses have been with me for 10 years. It feels like my family has been taken away." The SPCA, she contends, is the real criminal. "My horses were worth 75,000, 80,000 dollars," she says. They went "shopping in my backyard — that's what they did."
Blake silently piled the horses into their trailers anyway, hoping never to hear the name "Patty Brooks" again. In the months since, her agency has fallen $22,000 into debt while trying to care for Brooks' horses, she says — and learned an expensive lesson along the way.
"I've always believed that people learn from their mistakes, and I still naively want to think that," she says. "But unfortunately, it appears that's not always the case."