Horror lurked in country home;childern, animals lived in filthy conditions

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Date: 2008-05-21

BY EMILY LE COZ

NEW ALBANY - On its grassy perch off County Road 87, the double-wide trailer of Ramone and Janet Barreto looks like a happy home.

Lush flowers hug the front porch, and clean white rocking chairs flank the door. In the yard, numerous toys lay scattered about - a sign of children at play.

But that's where the beauty ends.

Beyond the deceptively normal yard lurks the site of indescribable child abuse and severe animal neglect, a case so horrible that many officials who deal with such cases said it's the worst situation they've ever seen.

"The people that did this should be shot, or at least when we come to spay and neuter these animals we should spay and neuter these people along with them," said Mississippi State University School of Veterinary Medicine Professor Phil Bushby.

That might not be necessary. The Barretos face homicide charges after their 2-year-old adopted daughter died Monday at Le Bonheur Children's Medical Center in Memphis.

Doctors who treated the girl had notified authorities that the couple might have abused their daughter. In their follow-up investigation, law enforcement agents also discovered a mass puppy breeding operation on their property.

As a result, the Barretos also face animal abuse charges from the Tupelo-Lee Humane Society, which was granted custody of the more than 185 dogs and 25 cats found stuffed in filthy cages behind the house.

One duck also was found dead in a cage with no food or water.

Eight other Guatemalan children adopted by the couple are in protective custody. It's unclear at this point how the Barretos were able to pass mandatory home visits required by the Department of Homeland Security to adopt international children.

On Tuesday morning, the house - located about five miles south of New Albany - was sealed off by yellow police tape. But the front door remained open to allow air to circulate through what law enforcement officers had described as a stuffy and dirty environment.

Some even talked about cockroaches falling from the ceiling.

A peek through the open door revealed clothes and toys strewn across the floors, piles of junk on the dining room table, and the happy faces of dark-haired children smiling from photographs hung on the wall.

A heap of children's shoes - mostly pink - lay abandoned by the front door.

Behind the house, sealed from view by a homemade fence covered in opaque plastic, were more horrors: Hundreds of animals in tiny, raised cages made from chicken wire. They were made to breed time and time again, their babies snatched and sold for profit at flea markets.

They included cocker spaniels, poodles, Lhasa apsos, rat terriers, English bulldogs, Chihuahuas, schnauzers and other popular breeds - many that would fetch between $300 and $800 apiece, according to Debbie Hood, TLHS director.

"If you buy at the flea market, this is where your puppy was raised," said DeAnn Massengill, a volunteer and animal expert, who spent the day caring for the animals there.

There were nearly 70 cages in all, most containing five or six pets who shared a few feet of space and a bucket of brown water. Urine and feces had fallen through the wires and accumulated in vast piles beneath the cages. Some of the excrement had become matted in fur and stuck to the wire inside the cage, where it formed large piles the animals had to maneuver around.

In one cage Tuesday morning, a small dog birthed two pups atop a mound of feces. In another cage, the furry waste became so heavy it ripped the floor, causing a hole the animals took care not to fall through.

Flies buzzed incessantly throughout the enclosure, feeding mostly on the feces, but also the pus running from some of the animals' eyes.

In a larger enclosure, a cocker spaniel's fur became so matted that the clumps prevented it from walking normally. Most of the animals there also had matted fur - in some cases, the problem was so bad even the veterinarians couldn't identify the breeds.

"I see crowding and neglect, hair coats matted, feet irritated from walking on the wire with urine and feces on it," said veterinarian Sonya Bryan from Tupelo's All-Animal Hospital. "Each dog needs a good physical."

TLHS staff and volunteers are keeping the animals fed and hydrated on the site until a clean, off-site location can be found.

Daily Journal reporter Danza Johnson contributed to this story.

To adopt a dog, help

The Tupelo-Lee Humane Society will be processing and evaluating the puppy mill animals and then will put them up for adoption. The adoption fee will be determined at a later date for these animals. Because of the extra manpower, the additional sheltering fees, the veterinarian expenses, the spay/neuter expense and shots, there will be a different adoption price for the animals. Anyone who contacts the shelter with interest in an animal will be the first contacted after they have processed the animals. To assist the shelter by volunteering, donating or to express interest in adoption, call the shelter at (662) 841-6500.

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