A years-long dispute between a woman who runs a dog rescue out of her home and her increasingly annoyed neighbors has resulted in hundreds of phone calls to Animal Control, a felony robbery conviction, one dead dog and, we're guessing, some pretty awkward block parties.
"This has been going on for ages," Raanel Steel says, sitting in her South Dallas home on a recent afternoon. "It's just nonstop."
Steel has lived in here for 11 years. Her neighborhood is tucked off a major road, but it feels almost rural: the street is winding and narrow, bordered with thick trees. Most of the houses sit on gentle hills. On a recent weekday afternoon, Steel sits in her kitchen with a niece and a close friend. She's almost 60 and has short blond hair; she wears a worn plaid shirt, her black glasses perched on top of her head.
Outside, 16 dogs race around the two lots she owns side by side. In a nearly two-hour visit, they are mostly inaudible. From the street, at least during these cold months, you also can't smell them. But inside the house, even with the dozens of cinnamon candles Steel had burning, the scent of dogs is so strong it seems on the verge of becoming a solid, something you could trip over if you weren't careful.
Eight years ago, Steel started volunteering at the Humane Society and doing dog rescue. "People just dump dogs everywhere" in Dallas, she says. She began bringing animals home from the shelter that were due to be euthanized, or taking in injured or abandoned dogs from local vets or that friends and acquaintances found and brought to her. At times she's had up to 27 dogs on the two adjacent lots she owns.
Her next-door neighbors, a couple named Brent and Nancy Thompson, were less than thrilled about her new mission. "They just didn't like that at all," she says.
They repeatedly called Animal Control to shut her down, Steel says. "The city said they wouldn't do anything unless other neighbors called, so they started going door to door." At one point, Steel says, they also began circulating a petition to try to have her kicked out of the neighborhood. (The Thompsons couldn't be reached for comment.)
"We have been trying to get some help with this situation for at least six years," the Thompsons wrote in an undated complaint to Code Compliance, a copy of which Steel shared with Unfair Park. "Channel 8 even came out and did a story showing the barking, fleas and filth that we have been forced to live with. The stench of urine and feces and just plain stink that comes with this many dogs has made our home an undesirable place to be."
The result of all the calls to the city, according to Steel and a binder full of police reports she keeps, is that Animal Control has come to her home more than 150 times. According to the reports, they've never found a code-compliance issue. Many of them specifically state that they found reports of fleas or piles of feces to be unfounded. (Domanick Munoz, one of the animal cruelty investigators who's been called to her house frequently, didn't respond to phone calls seeking comment.)
"They're just harassing her," says Jonnie England, the director of Animal Advocacy and Communications for the Metroplex Animal Coalition. She has followed the case from the beginning. "I can't believe they convicted her. I thought they would throw it out."
Neighbor relations reached their nadir in 2009. Steel says that she'd just returned home from a friend's funeral when she heard her dogs barking furiously outside. She looked out the window to see what was going on and saw a neighbor, Jose Mejia, who disliked the dogs standing just in front of her fenced-in yard, filming the dogs as they barked at him. She says the dogs are usually well-behaved and don't bark that way.
"The dogs already don't like him," she says. "He hates them and they know it." Mejia, she says, "wanted to get the dogs to bark for fifteen minutes consecutively. If you get two tickets in a twelve-month period you have to move your dogs."
As the dogs became more and more agitated, Steel admits she lost her temper. But, she says, "He baited me. I was so sick and tired of the whole thing... I'm not some kind of crazy woman who just goes berserk."
Steel says she had been making curtains earlier that week; she grabbed the wooden dowel they were to hang on and ran out the front door. "I go running out of the house with the curtain rod," she says. "And I screamed at him to get off my property."
Mejia didn't budge, she says, just began laughing at her. "So I lost it, totally lost it. I took the curtain rod and knocked camera out of his hand and tried to break it. I picked up camera and audio recorder, gave him a filthy look and marched off to the house."
When Mejia demanded his camera back, "I said no, because I wanted to give it to an attorney" to prove that Mejia, along with the other neighbors, had been harassing her and provoking the dogs. (Court records indicate that Steel hit Mejia with "a stick," but it was later amended to read "a pipe.")
When she ran inside to call the police, she says, her dogs became so agitated that they started fighting, and one of them, a smaller dog she called Booger, was killed.
Steel was arrested soon after the incident. She sat in jail for five days, charged with aggravated robbery, a second-degree felony. Mejia accused her of beating him about the face and neck with the curtain rod, a charge she also denies; she wasn't ultimately charged with assault.
Reached for comment, Mejia wasn't eager to discuss the case.
"My side of the story is ultimately that we basically asked the city of Dallas to enforce their own code," he says. "And that has been it. ... As far as the case, the law was basically -- justice was given. That's my side of the story."
Steel is unlikely to do any prison time for her offense, but she's not excited about the prospect of ten years of parole either, which her attorneys say is an option.
"I'm 58. I'm not going to be thinking about this when I'm 70," she says. But she's more concerned that the conviction will lead to the city taking her dogs away. "The last thing on earth I want as a rescue person is for my dogs to be pulled."