Dr. Lucas' Little Shop of Horrors
Paul Skendrovic cannot forget that smell--the thick stench of death and rot that met him as he entered the eerily quiet house. The Arlington police detective had been dispatched around 10 a.m. on February 2 shortly after a neighbor called to complain of a "bad odor." What he saw as he peered into a broken window of the vacant ranch house at 3403 Littlestone Court sent a shudder through him: a floor covered with 4 inches of animal excrement and what he figured to be two badly decomposing animal carcasses.
While more Arlington police officers, health department and animal control investigators--even a team of firefighters wearing biohazard suits--gathered at the home, Skendrovic began trying to locate its owner. The house belonged to Lissa Patrice Lucas, a local veterinarian who had practiced in Dallas and Tarrant counties since 1979. Neighbors who congregated in the yard told police that although they had seen Lucas make periodic brief visits to the house, often in the middle of the night, she had not lived there for years. Checking city utility records, Skendrovic learned that power and water to the house had been shut off for non-payment in 1991. Lucas listed her permanent address as that of her parents, a few miles across town.
Skendrovic called her parents' home several times. When Lissa Lucas did not return his calls, he says, he drove to the home in southwest Arlington. No one answered the door. Hours later, Lucas appeared at the house on Littlestone, saying she suspected that it had been burglarized, but police had not acted on her complaint. She opened the door and let Skendrovic inside.
The scene was so squalid, Skendrovic still cannot find adequate words to describe it.
"The interior of the house, it was...I...well, every inch of the floor was covered with animal feces. The next thing I saw was a dead dog lying on a card table with a needle still stuck in it. There were cats, mostly cats, and dogs everywhere. They were all dead. Some were so decomposed we couldn't tell the color, the breed, nothing. There was a little dry dog food scattered around but not enough to matter. They had no water. One of the vets we worked with on the case said there was evidence of the dogs eating each other. Some of the bones were picked clean."
Before the day was over, the remains of 25 cats and dogs--and one ferret that was found in a freezer--were removed from the house. One of the dogs, a Doberman, had mummified.
Arlington police prepared an arrest warrant for Lucas on suspicion of animal cruelty. Accompanied by her attorney, she turned herself in to police the next night and was released on $10,000 bail. The Tarrant County District Attorney's Office charged her with animal cruelty, a Class A misdemeanor that carries a punishment of up to a year in jail, a $4,000 fine, or both.
But Lucas' troubles were only beginning. Just three days after the discovery in Arlington, police in Irving were called to investigate a complaint of a bad odor and possible animal mistreatment at the Towne Lake Animal Clinic in south Irving. The business owner was registered as Lissa Lucas, DVM. It was the second of two clinics she had operated in the city.
Again, police tried to track down Lucas to get inside the building. According to Irving police reports, officers reached Lucas by phone around 7:30 p.m.; she told them she would drive to the clinic from Arlington immediately. After another call hours later, she said she would arrive by 10:15. When Lucas did not arrive by 10:35, police unbolted the southwest windows and climbed inside.
Inside the small, prefabricated metal building, bloodied syringes littered the floor. In one small room, a row of pet carriers--the type used to transport animals on planes--lined the wall. The floors of the small cages were covered with feces. As police moved about the clinic, they found dead dogs and cats wrapped in plastic trash bags and stashed inside a refrigerator. Inside the freezer compartment, cat carcasses shared space with an open container of ice cream.
As the night slipped into early morning, investigators removed from the clinic three live animals: two malnourished dogs and a worm-infested cat. Nine animals were dead.
Animal control officer Russell Perry inventoried the animals, then questioned Lucas about specific carcasses. "The first being the animal in the far northwest corner that had died apparently on the floor of unknown causes and had been there several days," Perry wrote in that dispassionate voice reserved for official reports. Lucas, he wrote, claimed that she had seen that very dog walking around "at approximately 11:30 that same day."
When Perry pointed out the clear imprint of the dog's body on the floor, Lucas offered this explanation: "That was probably made by their [her staff's] cleaning method when they open the door and clean out all the waste into the parking lot."
Just as she did in Arlington days earlier, Lucas denied any knowledge of how the animals met their end. She did not know how they wound up in the refrigerator. She was arrested and charged, again, with misdemeanor animal cruelty in the cases of the three surviving animals. Both the Arlington and Irving cases are pending; no court dates have been set.
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.
The work, Lucas testified, convinced her of a dire need for low-cost services for people who could not otherwise afford routine veterinary care for their pets.
"I worked in a number of clinics where many, many times an animal's health, well-being, their ability to survive was based upon the client's financial status," she said. "The prices were so inflated that the owners would opt to perform euthanasia on the animal even though it would be otherwise medically healthy."
Lisa Tucker, a 29-year-old Arlington city employee, first met Lucas during the vet's internship with Dye 14 years ago. "There was nothing strange about her then that really got my attention," Tucker says. In fact, far from the image Lucas now projects, she was a caring, hard-working, and neatly kept vet, Tucker recalls.
"I had a cat with feline leukemia that I had taken to Dr. Dye. Another person had left a cat behind that also had leukemia, and Dr. Lucas asked me if I would take the cat and keep it at my home because mine had already been exposed to the virus. She promised she would come to my home regularly to check on the cat and provide all the medicine and special food that it needed."
Lucas kept her word and stopped by frequently to check on the cat, until it was living fairly well with the chronic and incurable disease. Tucker eventually married and moved away. She returned to Arlington five years ago but had lost track of Lucas. By 1994, Tucker had acquired a shar-pei and a shepherd/sheltie mix. She heard that Lucas had started her own practice, "Protect 'Ur Pet," with one clinic in Irving and another in Watauga. Among other services, she offered low-cost vaccinations. So Tucker took her dogs to the Irving clinic for their shots.
"When I first saw Dr. Lucas again in 1994, I couldn't believe how she had changed," Tucker says. "She was very heavy. She was scraggly-looking. Her hair was dirty, and she just looked...bad. She told me she had had personal problems. She had just had a baby, but she wasn't married. She said the father of the baby had been killed in a plane crash."
(Former clinic employees tell the same story. Several of them reported seeing the child, a boy, many times. But attempts to confirm the plane crash story were unsuccessful.)
In early 1994, formal complaints against Lucas first surfaced. Besides the two small clinics she had opened (she rotated between the sites--two days a week at each), Lucas conducted weekend vaccination clinics out of her van at spots around the Dallas and Fort Worth area.
"It was a strictly mobile practice," Lucas would later testify. "I started with nothing. I mean nothing except two trunks and initially an ice chest for vaccines at the two locations."
People were turning out en masse for her low-cost services. Her vaccinations and sterilizations generally cost half of standard vet fees. Rabies shots were $5, spaying about $25. Dr. Joseph Cukjati, a longtime Irving veterinarian who would later testify against Lucas, recalls driving past her clinic one afternoon, where at least 40 people had lined up with their pets to see the vet. "I remember thinking, 'My God, what am I doing in my traditional little practice? That woman must be making real money.'"
If Lucas was making money, she apparently was not funneling it back into the business. Former employees have testified of filthy conditions at the clinic, lack of proper diagnostic equipment, and not even the barest of boarding facilities for animals kept overnight.
"What passed for kennels was just a row of pet taxis, and those were filthy," recalls Tammy Reams, a mother of two from Keller who worked as a receptionist and assistant to Lucas for three months in 1994. The ex-employees tell of Lucas coming into work well after 5 p.m. each day. Faced with a full surgery schedule for animals that had been at the clinic since early morning, the vet would work through the night--often in 12- to 14-hour shifts to complete as many as two dozen spays and neuters. (A local vet with more than 30 years' experience says that while neutering a male animal is a relatively quick and simple procedure, spaying a female is another story. "That is abdominal surgery," the vet says. "On a normal day you might be able to do three, maybe four spays at the most.")
The long shifts seldom passed without Lucas taking several beer breaks, according to former employees' testimony. Often in the middle of surgery, Lucas would send her assistant out to buy beer for her.
"I went and bought her beer several times," testified Stephanie Lavy, who worked only 10 weeks for Lucas before quitting in June 1994. "She would give me the money and tell me to go down to the 7-Eleven on the corner and buy a 12-pack."
Lucas was partial to Miller Genuine Draft Light. In bottles.
In her testimony, Lucas denied ever drinking on the job. She claimed that a former partner in her clinic had a drinking problem, but not her. Sometimes, Lucas said, she and the other vet would drink a beer together after work, perhaps while going over paperwork or discussing the practice. But otherwise, she said, the stories of boozing on the job were fabrications--the product of petty employees who had ganged up on Lucas in hopes of seeing her fail.
Jeannie Davidson called the stray cat she took in "Trouble," a name that seemed perfect for a long-haired gray tabby that was always on the move. On the morning of February 16, 1994, Davidson dropped off Trouble to be spayed at Lucas' Protect 'Ur Pet clinic in south Irving. Davidson, who has taken in many stray cats over the years, had heard about Lucas' discounted costs. "I was hoping to save a little money, and I didn't have any reason to think there would be a problem," Davidson says, more than three years later.
The employee working the desk told Davidson to call the clinic at 7 o'clock that night to learn whether Trouble would be ready to go home. Davidson did, but was told the cat had not yet recovered from surgery. The employee told Davidson the clinic would call when Trouble came out of the anesthesia.
By 10 p.m., Davidson still had not heard from Lucas. "I was getting worried, so I decided to just drive over and wait," says Davidson, who lives only a few blocks from the clinic. She remembers thinking it odd that the entire staff would be working so late at a clinic that was not set up as a 24-hour business.
"It was even stranger when I got there," she recalls. "The waiting room was filled with people, all of them in the same situation as mine. We were all waiting for our animals to come out of surgery."
She sat for hours, growing more agitated with each tick of the clock. "I started noticing the place was dirty. It smelled of urine," Davidson says. "I had been in such a rush to get to work that morning, I just didn't notice those things at the time."
Finally, after repeated inquiries about the cat's welfare, a groggy Trouble was released to Davidson--at 2:45 a.m.
Beyond being enraged over her marathon wait at the clinic, Davidson soon noticed that all was not well with Trouble. Over the next few days, the incision on the cat's abdomen grew swollen and red. The wound began weeping pus. The cat grew listless.
One week after the surgery, Davidson took Trouble to the Animal Medical and Surgical Hospital in Irving. There, Dr. Julie Bradford examined the cat. Trouble was running a temperature two degrees higher than normal. The incision--which Lucas had closed with large metal staples rather than the more widely accepted filament sutures--was now an angry wound. Bradford, who would later testify to her findings at the hearing over Lucas' license, found that the skin had been severely over-gathered and inverted, which did not allow for direct edge-to-edge healing. Some of the staples had lacerated the surrounding skin.
Bradford repaired Lucas' surgery by cutting away the dead skin, cleaning the site, and resuturing the incision. She prescribed antibiotics. Three years later, Trouble is alive and well, but nervous around strangers, Davidson says.
Davidson, as well as three other complainants against Lucas, declined to be photographed for this story. Each cited a fear that Lucas might retaliate in some way. Davidson, for instance, claims that shortly after the state launched its investigation of Lucas, Davidson came home one night to find three of the stray cats she regularly fed dead on her front porch. "There were no signs of trauma, and someone had left an open can of tuna there that had been partially eaten," Davidson says. "I can't prove anything, but I have my theories."
Four months after Davidson's experience with Trouble's surgery, Christina Cernosek took her calico kitten Sunshine to Protect 'Ur Pet to be vaccinated for rabies and spayed. Cernosek says she heard of Lucas through a friend whose dog had been spayed and turned out fine.
"And to be absolutely honest, we were trying to save money," Cernosek says from her home in Tampa, Florida, where she and her husband, Michael, relocated nearly two years ago. "Sunshine was a cat we took in off the street. We didn't know whether she was even healthy, and we were a little concerned about spending a lot of money on her."
Cernosek thought it more than a little odd that she couldn't pick up her cat until 1 a.m.--12 hours after dropping the animal off at the clinic. "I never saw the vet," she says. "I wanted to meet her, but her assistants would just tell me she was in surgery, or she was too busy to see me."
Sunshine went home with Cernosek that morning, and the incision healed well. Eight days later, as instructed, Cernosek returned to the clinic with the cat to have the staples removed.
"This time I went back to a room, and the business manager came in to take the staples out," Cernosek recalls. "The table was filthy. I said to the woman 'Aren't you going to clean off that table?' She pulled out a spray bottle that looked like nothing more than water and cleaned it off."
Removing the staples from Sunshine's belly turned into an ordeal. "She was screaming and yowling and it took two women and myself to hold her down," Cernosek says. "When I finally got her home, she was oozing blood. She tried licking it, but she just couldn't keep up with it." Cernosek decided to take the cat to the 183 Animal Clinic, a 24-hour facility in Irving.
There, Dr. Kathleen Foster found the cat had a high fever and a 2-centimeter hole at the incision site. Tissue was protruding from the wound. Foster cut away the dead tissue and redid the stitches.
On June 3, 1994, Kimberly Kendrick, an emergency medical technician living in Euless, took her mother's Doberman pinscher to Lucas' Watauga clinic for surgery to repair a hernia. At 4 p.m., a clinic employee told Kendrick that the dog, Misty Blue, had come through the surgery well. But when Kendrick stopped at the clinic that night to pick up the dog, she was told Misty had not awakened. Five frantic days passed before Kendrick could find Lucas and retrieve her dog.
When Lucas at last released the dog, it seemed confused and walked stiffly. Kendrick noticed blood running down the inner side of Misty's right rear leg. Kendrick, who did not return calls from the Observer, later testified that a clinic employee told her the bleeding was normal and no cause for concern.
But two days later, as the bleeding continued, Kendrick rushed the dog to the Story Road Animal Clinic in Irving, where she was examined by veterinarian Joseph Cukjati. The 61-year-old Cukjati--by far the most outspoken peer in his outrage over Lucas' practices--stanched the bleeding and administered intravenous fluids to the badly dehydrated dog.
"She was running a fever, and she had a heavy, bloody, purulent discharge coming from an incision approximately 6 to 8 inches long on her abdomen," Cukjati testified at the 1996 hearing. "The incision was closed with 'pig staples' (extra large staples that allow quick closure of a wound, but are frowned upon by most vets)." Cukjati said he found Lucas' work to be "an incompetent surgery done internally and externally."
Beyond the botched operation, Cukjati said, he found a 12-inch hair, which he surmised came from a human, caught in one of the 46 staples he removed from Misty's abdomen. He documented the incision and discovery of the hair with photos. Cukjati charged Kimberly Kendrick $401 to clean up what Lucas had started--a surgery that was intended to cost $75.
A fourth complaint, stemming from Lucas' surgery on a 5-month-old male boxer on July 29, 1994, was found to have insufficient evidence to use against the vet. On that morning, Charlene Jones of Haltom City took Buster to Lucas' Watauga clinic to have the dog's ears cropped--a common procedure for the breed. As had become the norm at Lucas' clinics, Jones was forced to wait far longer than she anticipated to take her dog home--in this case, seven extra hours. Jones took Buster home with his ears cropped and the incisions stapled closed.
Two days later, when one of the ears began bleeding, Jones returned the dog to the clinic. Lucas, Jones later testified, gave Buster an injection. He gasped for breath several times and died on the table.
A few days later, Lucas told Chuck and Charlene Jones their dog had died of complications from erlichia--a tick-borne illness that keeps the blood from adequately clotting. When Chuck Jones requested a copy of a blood test as evidence, Lucas told him she would mail it to him. The Joneses never received a copy of the test, and state investigators' reports say that Lucas never performed a blood test in the first place.
At her hearing, Lucas steadfastly denied every complaint filed against her, offering elaborate explanations for her actions in each case.
Trouble the cat, for example, caused her own problems by constantly licking the wound and probably tearing about Davidson's house in her high-strung way, Lucas said. (Bradford, the vet who followed up with Trouble, testified that all cats will lick a wound. But routine, instinctive licking could not have caused the intensity of the infection Bradford treated.)
Same story for Sunshine, the calico kitten. The licking caused the problem. That's it.
As for Misty Blue, well, Lucas said, "I did keep the dog slightly tranquilized because Misty is a biter. She is typically a one-person dog." As for Cukjati's charge that her surgery was substandard, and that a human hair was discovered in the surgical site, Lucas denies it.
"As far as a hair being in there," she testified, "I don't believe it. I think he's lying on that. I think he threw that in because when he removed the staples and threw them on the floor, when he cleaned up the staples, in that pack, you'll see eyelashes, you'll see Bronmid or Vetafil suture, you'll see hair and you'll see staples. And that stuff was cleaned up from the floor. That's not from my surgery."
Every complaint against her, in Lucas' opinion, was cooked up by thieving, competing veterinarians and emotional pet owners in a grand conspiracy to run her out of business.
Here is how Lissa Lucas sees it:
"I think that Dr. Cukjati saw a case that came from my clinic, got a hold of it, grandstanded, did everything he could to make it look as bad as possible, then charged out the gazoo when I charged $75. He got these people upset, then recommended that they turn me into the board. It's a familiar story; that's what happened in all of these.
"Look at it this way. I was in Watauga in 1993. I grossed $225,000. My practice was split half of the time in Watauga and half in Irving. So if I'm such a lousy, horrible, terrible veterinarian, why am I not having problems in Watauga?"
But there were problems in Watauga, plenty of problems, say Lucas' former employees. Everything people had complained of at the Irving clinic was taking place at the ramshackle little bungalow that housed Protect 'Ur Pet in the quiet Fort Worth suburb.
"It was filthy there. There was a refrigerator there, but it belonged to the owner of the building, and we weren't allowed to store vaccines in there," recounts Renee Morrison, a plump 40-year-old woman who sells Avon part-time and worked as a business manager for Lucas for 10 months in 1994 and 1995. The vaccines, Morrison recalls, were stored in a plastic ice chest and floated in a pool of melted ice.
Morrison came to work for Lucas quite by accident in the fall of 1994. An animal lover, she had gathered up a sorry-looking stray cat off the street one evening and took it home to nurse it back to health. "But when my husband saw that nasty cat, he told me I couldn't bring it inside until a vet had looked at it," she recalls. "He was afraid it would give something to our other cat."
Morrison remembered passing a veterinary clinic on her way to her Watauga home that night. Although it was late, there were lights on inside. She told her husband she was taking the cat to the clinic.
It took hours for Morrison to get back the cat--which had tapeworms and ear mites--but she waited patiently at the clinic while Lucas worked. When Lucas brought the cat out, she asked Morrison if she would be interested in working at the two clinics. "She said she could tell I was an animal lover and that she could use someone like that at her clinics." Morrison started the next day.
At first, Morrison was only allowed to work the front desk, collecting patient histories and fees. Gradually, as Lucas began to trust Morrison, she was allowed more access to the back rooms in each of the clinics. Morrison learned how to give shots, and even claimed under oath that she regularly castrated cats when Lucas could not be found. The state Veterinary Practice Act does not allow unlicensed individuals to perform surgeries on animals. Nor does it permit them to give rabies shots without a licensed vet on the premises.
Over the next several months Morrison brought in Tammy Reams, a niece by marriage, to work as an assistant. She also hired her nephew Shane Ellis to help out. Both Reams and Ellis, as well as three other employees, would later testify to infractions they regularly witnessed while working for Lucas. Ellis testified that at Lucas' direction he routinely concocted a counterfeit vaccine against the tick-borne Lyme disease out of Vitamin B-12 and saline solution. The mixture mimicked the bright pink color of the authentic vaccine, and was sold to unsuspecting clients as the real thing.
Employees testified they witnessed Lucas draw blood from animals--ostensibly to be sent to a lab for testing--but that many of the samples never made it out of the building. Clients were often told that blood tests revealed a negative reading on heartworm--a common and potentially fatal disease--when in fact their pets' blood had never been tested.
It seems only logical to wonder why these employees stayed on with Lucas, and why--after witnessing such abhorrent behavior--did they wait so long to report it?
Morrison, sitting on a black futon in Tammy Reams' tiny house in Keller while The Days of our Lives drones on from a giant-screen TV across the room, shrugs her shoulders sheepishly and says, "I really thought she might change. I thought we could help her. But she just got worse."
When Morrison finally blew the whistle on her boss, she did so with a vengeance. She helped round up other employees to assist state investigators in their review of Lucas' practice. She wrote letters. She helped provide what patient records she could--though Lucas' record-keeping was practically nonexistent.
When Lucas learned that Morrison was the chief informant in the case against her, she came out armed for a brutal battle. At the 1996 hearing, Lucas' Dallas attorney, Mitchell Madden, made much of the fact that Morrison was a victim of incest and a diagnosed manic-depressive who took lithium to level out her moods. (Morrison openly confirms as much. She says she stopped taking lithium in February 1995 with the support of her physician and her minister. "I am a Christian," she says, numerous times, "and the Lord will not desert me.")
Still, Lucas brought out Morrison's difficult past in her legal proceedings. Referring to Morrison as a "mad woman" when not taking her medication, Lucas said she had reprimanded Morrison frequently for her moodiness with clients. And, Lucas claimed, Morrison also was motivated by pure revenge. Earlier, Lucas had turned Morrison's brother--a convicted drug dealer--into authorities on a possible parole violation.
Ever since, Lucas testified, Morrison was out to get her.
Administrative Law Judge Cathleen Parsley would have none of it. On December 19, 1996, she issued a 51-page "Proposal for Decision" and a proposed "Final Order" to the Texas State Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners. With a few exceptions, Parsley supported the findings of the board's investigation of Lucas' practices. She agreed that the vet, in her deceitful relationships with clients and haphazard surgical methods, had violated numerous sections of the Veterinary Practice Act and the Rules of Professional Conduct. The judge proposed a five-year suspension of Lucas' license, with all but 90 days of the suspension probated.
The decision allowed for Lucas to continue her practice while she pursued appeals.
But that was before the discoveries were made in Lucas' Arlington home and Irving clinic. Just days after police filed charges of animal cruelty against Lucas, the board amended the conditions of the suspension, and revoked Lucas' license. Ron Allen, the board's executive director, says the board is within its rights to take such action in cases where a vet who continues to practice poses a danger to animals or the public.
"I would say this is clearly one of those cases," Allen said shortly after the board's amended decision last February.
No one involved in the cases against Lissa Lucas has seen the woman lately. When contacted last week, police detectives in Arlington and Irving were unaware of the status of the Lucas cases. Lucas' criminal defense attorney, Melvyn Bruder, has been granted three continuances in the Arlington case since June. He asked Tarrant County Criminal Court Judge Phil Sorrells for more time to prepare.
"I'm anticipating going to trial, but I don't know when," Bruder says. He says he'll fight the animal cruelty charges based on their "vague and ambiguous" nature.
Madden, Lucas' civil attorney who has represented her before the veterinary board and at other administrative hearings, says the status of his client's license remains on hold until the criminal proceedings come to an end--either by trial or plea bargain. Madden has argued throughout the seemingly endless procedures against Lucas that the board has violated several of her rights--such as holding illegal private discussions about her case.
All of Lucas' business phones have been disconnected. The prefab building that once served as her Towne Lake Veterinary Clinic is now a janitorial supply business. Last week the lights were blazing inside the house at 3201 Littlestone Court in Arlington. There were mops and brooms propped against the brick house near the double garage doors--encouraging signs of life and certainly better hygiene.
Theories still flow about what might have driven Lucas to commit such extreme acts of cruelty as alleged. No one knows for sure, for instance, whether she brought the animals to the Arlington house dead or alive. Her former employees claim they knew Lucas was storing animal carcasses in trash bags in the Irving clinic--although they don't know why.
"I know of two occasions that dead cats were left in the Irving clinic," Morrison testified. "One cat died and was wrapped in plastic and left for a long time in the breezeway. Another cat was wrapped and left in her office. When the smell became so strong it could be smelled throughout the office, then [another employee] disposed of it through animal control."
Yet Gary Reynolds, Irving's animal control supervisor, has no record of ever going to Lucas' clinic to pick up dead animals. The city, he says, has offered free pickup of dead animals from veterinary clinics for years. "It's well publicized in the veterinary community. All they have to do is call us. We pick them up weekly," Reynolds says. "But in her three years here, we never got a call."
Arlington police detective Paul Skendrovic still puzzles on what would compel a person to do what Lucas is charged with. "I can't even guess why this happened," he says. "My feeling after talking to her and other people is she just got in over her head. She tried to take on too many animals, and she just couldn't deal with it."
That might explain the statement Lucas gave to Skendrovic the day of the gruesome discovery at her vacant home. "Lucas advised that she had brought approximately 15 clinic animals to the residence in August 1996," Skendrovic wrote in his February 2 incident report. She then explained that she often took animals home with her to recuperate from surgery. She preferred to monitor their recoveries herself rather than leave them unattended overnight at the clinic.
"Dr. Lucas advised that approximately 11 clinic animals died in a two-day period due to a 'flea infestation,' and she was able to take four animals back to her clinic," Skendrovic wrote. Yet the detective is more than a bit skeptical of that explanation. "I walked around that yard. There were no fleas," he says.
At least one local vet who is familiar with the Lucas case has no interest in psychoanalyzing her behavior. Beyond the alleged crimes of mistreating animals, Lucas, he says, has brought shame on a noble profession. He finds that intolerable.
"You know," the vet says forlornly, "it's always been that a veterinarian can walk into a bank and get instant credit. That's because we are known to have integrity. Most of us do our job out of true concern for animals, and the public trusts us. Then someone like this blows along and absolutely makes a joke of the profession.
"Whatever might have caused her to snap doesn't really matter," he says. "Ultimately, she had control over what happened. That woman, she's got a lot of meanness.
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