Sarah Marie Wilson, 36, is accused of leaving her pets in a vacant apartment for more than a month without water
SARASOTA — A 36-year-old woman was arrested in Sarasota on Tuesday, nearly a year after maintenance workers found three dead pets in her former Manatee County apartment.
All three animals, two dogs and a cat, died of dehydration.
Sarah M. Wilson was charged with two counts of animal cruelty — a third-degree felony punishable by up to five years in prison, five years probation, and a $5,000 fine — according to the Manatee County Sheriff's Office.
"She left those animals behind and, as people do, she went off the radar," Manatee County Sheriff's spokesman Randy Warren said. "We did more intel on her and came up with an address in Sarasota."
Wilson was arrested without incident at 944 42nd St. and booked into the Sarasota County jail. She was released after posting $3,000 bail.
According to reports, on Jan. 16, 2018, maintenance workers at Champions Walk Apartments first entered Wilson's unit for nonpayment of rent. They found two skittish chihuahuas without water and living in filthy conditions.
The workers left water for the dogs and notified the apartment office, but animal services was not called. Fifteen days later, they placed a note on Wilson's door about the rent. It is not known if the dogs were checked at that time.
On Feb. 26, 2018, staff came back to the unit, again for nonpayment of rent, and they found the note still affixed to the door. Inside the apartment they found a dead tan chihuahua in the living area, and a dead black cat behind a headboard in a bedroom. A cleaning crew later found a second dead dog, a brindle chihuahua, underneath blankets in a closet.
A large feeder was full of food, but three large water containers were found to be empty and dry. The apartment was infested with fleas.
According to reports, two days after the dead animals were discovered, the apartment manager asked Wilson by email if she still lived there, and she replied that "she had a few more items to get out and still needed to move the dogs."
The manager sent a second email telling Wilson that her dogs had died. In her reply, Wilson blamed the dogs' death on an over-the-counter flea medication, reports show.
Detectives tried to interview Wilson, but were only able to contact her by email. She told them, via email, she was the sole caretaker for the animals, and that they died around Feb. 26 — the same time workers entered her apartment and found the animals in advanced stages of decomposition.
Wilson insisted she had left food and water for them while she was renting a moving truck.
During the investigation, a veterinarian performed a necropsy and determined that the animals had died two or three weeks before they were found.
The sheriff's report said Wilson wasn't truthful about the time she spent at the unit, and that she failed to provide water for the animals for more than a month.
Wilson has a criminal history, including charges for obtaining a controlled substance by fraud, trafficking in illegal drugs and obtaining property in return for a worthless check.
Shona Otto, president and founder at Bradenton-based Underdog Animal Rescue, said action should have been taken the first time staff found the pets without water.
"Animal services would have put a note on the door and checked it again in 24 hours," Otto said. "That's their job; the welfare of animals in Manatee County."
There are multiple animal rescue groups in the county that could helped Wilson. But often, Otto said, rescues need time to find space for them.
"I think people wait until the last second when there are no other options," Otto said. "Part of it is being a responsible pet owner and giving people time to find a place for your animal to go."
There are even options for pet owners who are sick, injured or on military leave, and who do not want to give up their pet. Donte's Den is a Myakka-based animal care facility that provides boarding, adoption, extended and lifetime care for displaced pets.
"There are some kindhearted people who will do that," Otto said. Her group only accepts surrendered pets.
"She didn’t care and she should be prosecuted. She should never own another animal again," Otto said. "To think the dog was holed up in a closet dying because it doesn’t have any water is sad."