Couple with 116 cats on trial

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Details have finally emerged in the aggravated animal cruelty case against Edwin and Cheryl Criswell after the prosecution called its first witness in day one of their trial.

In Flathead County District Court Tuesday afternoon, All Mosta Ranch head Katherine Flentge Borton laid out the timeline of her interactions with and attempts to help the Criswells, who were arrested after being rescued along with 116 cats from a motorhome and two camper-trailers snowbound half a mile off Pleasant Valley Road in December.

Flentge Borton said she first heard from Cheryl Criswell in late spring/early summer 2010.

Criswell said she — along with her husband — ran a nonprofit cat rescue recently relocated to the area and that they were interested in funding sources. Flentge Borton referred the couple to a local shelter, the Flathead Spay and Neuter Task Force and the local office of the Humane Society. As time went on, she continued to talk to them on the phone and talked to Edwin in person while he sold firewood at a gas station, having contact with the couple roughly once a month.

According to Flentge Borton, their initial requests for information on how to support their cat rescue operation eventually turned desperate as the couple said they were running out of food. Their talks even turned to the possibility of going into business together. She and the Criswells made a handful of appointments to discuss the matter further, but the couple never showed up.

One of those appointments was made for Dec. 14, after Edwin called on the 13th to say they were out of food and snowed in. It was then that Flentge Borton learned the couple had more than 100 cats. After not showing for the appointment, Edwin contacted Flentge Borton on the 16th to apologize, explaining that he had put his truck in a ditch and had to walk home. He told her he was “done.”

“Flags were immediately going up,” she said.

Flentge Borton met him at the gas station from which he had called, which he had reached using their camping companion’s truck. She brought cat food, paid to put gas in the truck, purchased diesel fuel for their heater and made sure they had food for themselves. She did not, however, see their campsite. She said the couple was very evasive about where they were living to the very end.

“Even when they were desperate, they weren’t forthcoming,” Flentge Borton said.

They agreed to meet her at the Ranch the next day.

“We talked about what they needed,” she said. “They needed food and shelter and a warm place. They were obviously cold to the core. They were in very bad shape — hungry, very thin, very dirty. Their demeanors were very quiet and they couldn’t look you in the eye, and yet (were) very defensive at the same time.”

That was when Flentge Borton formulated a plan to have the Criswells move into her volunteer cabin. When they arrived, Cheryl was suffering from frostbite on one foot, which was blistered and black. Flentge Borton said Edwin carried Cheryl in. She refused to go to a doctor, and they treated her as best they could while the couple were at the ranch.

Still, the Criswells went back to their campers that evening because Cheryl said she couldn’t sleep without her cats, and Edwin followed to make sure she was taken care of. The following day, Flentge Borton and her husband finally visited the Criswells’ campsite and learned the full extent of their situation.

“The first thing that hit me as I went along was the wood smoke, and then the next was the stench, and I don’t know how to describe it because it was just a horrible stench,” she said.

She asked to go in the trailers, and Edwin was initially hesitant, but Cheryl let her in.

“I couldn’t believe what I saw,” she said. “Ed had told me that they had two camper-trailers that were retrofitted with kennels for these cats, and that is what I was expecting when I went into the green trailer. There were no kennels, there was a free-for-all.”

Flentge Borton said she walked in quickly so as to not let any cats out and was immediately jumped on by 15 to 20 cats. There were also two or three dogs. By her estimates, there were 66 cats in the one trailer alone, dehydrated and emaciated, many blind and coughing with runny noses.

“The ammonia smell and the feces smell was so strong in there, it was very hard to breathe,” Flentge Borton said. “I got out of there as quick as I could.”

She then went inside the other trailer.

“(I was) overwhelmed by diesel fuel before I even got into the door,” she said. “We’d been supplying them with diesel fuel for their heater system for their trailer, that’s where the diesel fuel came from, and there was a portable heater on the floor.”

To the left of the door was a bed with what Flentge Borton called a “very pretty quilt” covered with mounds of feces and puddles of urine, occupied by several cats and a small dog. Also inside the door was a kennel housing two chickens. She had to leave the second trailer quickly because the diesel fumes almost made her pass out. It was in this trailer that the Criswells were sleeping.

“It was a very desperate situation for all of them,” Flentge Borton said. “I don’t care what I found, I had to help them.”

The Criswells spent the following four days at the ranch as retrieval of the animals was coordinated, but continued to spend each night in the camper — Cheryl because she couldn’t sleep without the cats and Edwin because he wouldn’t leave Cheryl’s side.

Speaking from experience, Flentge Borton said to be an effective shelter or animal rescue operation, you have to have funding and resources in place before being able to take care of any animals.

“All you have to do is get out there and ask,” Flentge Borton said. “If you don’t ask, you won’t get anything.”

The trial will reconvene at 8:30 this morning.

Reporter Jesse Davis may be reached at 758-4441 or by email at jdavis@dailyinterlake.com.

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