By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
As grim as the discoveries were, those who know Lucas--many of her former employees, clients who struggled to get humane care from her for their pets, and state veterinary regulators--were not surprised when her name showed up in the papers connected to animal cruelty cases. In late January, just four days before Arlington police found the indoor graveyard, the nine-member Texas Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners had suspended Lucas' license to practice. The board's decision followed a lengthy 1996 hearing before an administrative law judge in which 14 complaints against Lucas were heard. Several of the complaints were filed in 1994 by pet owners who claimed that Lucas botched routine surgeries on their cats and dogs, leaving the animals with infected incisions or in shock--even causing the death of one dog after cropping his ears.
Lucas' former employees had their own complaints. They testified under oath at the administrative hearing that Lucas habitually drank beer while operating, once falling asleep in the middle of surgery. They say she withheld information from clients about their pets; concocted a fake vaccine and charged clients for it; and routinely operated under filthy conditions with unsterilized instruments.
Lucas has fought back for three years, claiming that the state's investigation was prodded by competing vets who resented her attempts to establish a practice specializing in low-cost vaccinations and sterilizations. She has accused her ex-office manager, who once took lithium for a manic-depressive disorder, of being a "mad woman" who trumped up charges against her. Lucas' latest legal action was filed on August 26 in the 250th state district court in Travis County. She is suing the Texas State Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners, seeking to void the panel's disciplinary order. Among the 12 errors Lucas maintains the board made is that her fate was decided in an illegally closed meeting.
By any measure, the story of Lissa Lucas is bizarre. But its strangeness is compounded by the fact that Lucas is a vet, sworn to treat animals humanely. Theories abound on the reasons for Lucas' alleged cruelty toward the animals in her care--alcoholism, mental breakdown, or nothing more complex than a bone-deep streak of evil. But no one can say precisely what led her from the pursuit of a solid veterinary career to the life of a shadowy, paranoid suspect in a string of torturous animal deaths and cruelty cases. And Lucas, who failed to respond to numerous requests for an interview with the Dallas Observer, has yet to thoroughly explain the stories herself.
"I just can't pin it down, what went wrong with her," says Lisa Tucker, who met Lucas 14 years ago when the young vet seemed to have a bright future. In June 1995, Tucker's husband, Kenneth, took their rust-colored shar-pei, Lexus, to Lucas' Irving clinic for ear surgery. It took two full days to get the dog back from Lucas, Kenneth Tucker says. Even then they had to take Lexus to another vet to complete the procedure.
"I have never experienced anything like what that woman put us through," he says. "I kept wishing I knew what really went on in that clinic. But of course, Lexus could never tell us what happened."
Lissa Lucas had the courtroom riveted at her administrative hearing in Austin the week of April 1, 1996. How could they not be in rapt attention, given the 41-year-old vet's carefully crafted appearance? Standing 5 feet, 4 inches tall and weighing 165 pounds, Lucas wore black stretch pants, a boxy black tunic and black spike heels. Her hair was a mass of severely over-dyed black. Her face--scarred from earlier bouts with acne--was covered with thick pancake makeup, white as shoe polish. Lucas had painted her lips scarlet red and drawn thick black eyeliner from her lash line to her eyebrows.
"She was scary-looking. I'm sure her plan was to intimidate us, but it didn't work," says Jeannie Davidson, who complained to the veterinary board in 1994 that Lucas had botched the suturing job after spaying her cat Trouble and had ordered her employees to lie to Davidson about the cat's condition.
Eventually taking her own turn on the stand, Lucas skipped quickly through her education and career history. She attended high school in Michigan and six months of college at Michigan State University. Lucas finished her undergraduate work at Texas A&M University, earning a bachelor of science degree in veterinary medicine in 1978. She was 19.
"I was what they called a two-year wonder," she said blithely of her undergraduate period. Lucas then entered A&M's College of Veterinary Medicine and got her doctorate in veterinary medicine in 1979.
(Texas A&M registrar Donald Carter says many veterinary students graduated under the same conditions as Lucas in the '70s. They were allowed to apply three years of undergraduate veterinary training toward their graduate degree.)
For the next several years, Lucas testified, she worked around the state doing "relief work" at various vet clinics. She also interned for at least three Arlington veterinarians, including Dr. Gary Dye, who has an established practice in the city's east central neighborhood. An employee at Dye's clinic confirmed that Lucas had worked there, but Dye did not return telephone calls from the Observer. Lucas' first decade of practice afforded her plenty of opportunity to learn routine procedures such as sterilizations. She estimated that during that period she performed more than 1,000 spays and neuters a year.