By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Linda Earnhart is still disturbed by what she saw the Thursday morning before Memorial Day, when her concepts of safe neighborhoods and the innocence of children were so balefully tainted.
"I woke up about 5 o'clock, and I just knew something was wrong," Earnhart recalls. "I knew my dog was sick, but I just had this gut feeling that something really awful was going to happen."
For weeks, her dog had grown steadily sicker. He was old, and fluid in his lungs made him wheeze. Lately he had been drinking lots of water, but because his kidneys had begun to shut down, he couldn't urinate. So Earnhart wasn't particularly shocked when she found him hiding beneath a pile of leaves in the back corner of the yard. She figured he went to the unusual spot to die.
With her husband, Stephen, gone to work, she loaded the dog into the car and took him on one last trip to the vet. When she got home, it wasn't even 9 a.m., and that's when the phone rang. It was a neighbor calling, wanting to know if she had seen OJ lately.
OJ. He was the orange and white tabby the Earnharts have had for 13 years, since he was a kitten. Earnhart hadn't seen OJ since around 10:30 the night before, when she let him out. At the time, she wasn't too concerned about the story she'd just seen on the TV news about a rash of unsolved cat killings in a nearby North Dallas neighborhood.
The neighbor gently broke the news.
"When she said he was in front of the neighbor's house, all the time I'm thinking, 'Oh, he must have gotten hit by a car or something.' When I went over, I still had no idea," Earnhart says. "I just was not prepared to see what I saw."
Earnhart recalls the ghastly images of OJ's body: a patch of green grass smeared red with blood. The sharp white edge of exposed ribs. A still heart lying off to the side.
"The police think it happened about 4 or 5 o'clock in the morning, because the cat was still warm," Earnhart says. "It was just like nothing I had ever seen. I'm just hoping they wrung his neck or something so that he didn't feel any pain, because I can't imagine them trying to do this while he was, you know, awake and everything."
Stephen Earnhart came home from work, and police soon arrived. The couple learned that OJ was one of six cats that have been mysteriously mutilated in North Dallas since the beginning of May. Worse, the police suspect the mutilations are part of a series of killings that took the lives of at least a dozen cats in the same area last summer.
The responding officer dutifully filled out a police report about OJ, listing the offense as cruelty to an animal, a misdemeanor. In the section of the report titled "property information," the officer wrote, "1 House Cat" and listed its value at $0. Overnight, the story on the TV news that had seemed so far away had hit Linda Earnhart at home.
"We always thought this was such a safe place," she says. "I can't imagine the kind of person who would do this kind of thing to a helpless animal." She pauses for a moment while she mulls over how disturbing it is to think about who the likely suspects are. Though leery of strangers, OJ would come running whenever you called him.
"I hate to say it, but I'm thinking it's probably children who are doing this."
If Dallas police are right about their hunch that last year's killing spree has resumed in the Bent Tree West neighborhood, then it ranks as one of the worst cases of serial cat mutilations reported in the United States in more than a decade. But the case is unusual in more ways than just the number of animals and the relatively confined area in which the killings took place.
The consistent and particularly grisly manner in which these cats are being killed, and the fact that their bodies are left on neatly trimmed lawns for neighbors to find, has sent police and residents the unmistakable message that whoever is doing this is deeply disturbed. Why the cats are being killed is a question that can't be answered until the killer, or killers, is caught. As Earnhart believes, the most likely suspects are children who live in or near the neighborhood, but police have few leads and little evidence with which to work. Worse, their limited resources and heavy caseloads have prevented them from making the misdemeanor-level case a priority.
As the weeks pass, cat owners are beginning to suspect the killer may never be caught. The rash of killings is an example of why many child psychologists and Humane Society officials say it's time for new laws that take specific aim at animal cruelty and emphasize treatment and prevention over punishment.
While North Dallas residents have various ideas about why their cats are being killed, they agree that one of the most disturbing aspects of the case is the possibility that the killer may soon become bored with cats and begin stalking a different prey -- people.