48 animal cruelty charges filed against former Tri-Cities animal shelter leaders
After years of investigation, Washington’s attorney general has charged the former leaders of a prominent Tri-Cities animal shelter with large-scale abuse and neglect of animals in their care.
In 2021, Neo’s Nation Animal Foundation started managing the taxpayer-funded Tri-Cities Animal Shelter. Less than a year after the foundation took over, employees and volunteers complained of widespread disease outbreaks, extreme malnourishment and overcrowded, unsanitary conditions.
Now, the attorney general’s office has filed 48 criminal animal cruelty charges in Franklin County Superior Court against former Neo’s Nation Director Rebecca Howard, Office Manager Justin Hernandez and the Neo’s Nation Animal Foundation.
If convicted, Howard and Hernandez face up to five years in prison and a $10,000 for each of the two felony charges. They also face no more than a year in jail and a $5,000 fine for each of the 14 gross misdemeanor charges. The foundation could owe $500,000 over each of the felony charges and $250,000 for each misdemeanor charge.
Initially, an animal control officer called the Pasco Police Department about her concerns, after noticing “ongoing cruelty” at the shelter. According to a lengthy affidavit, her position as an animal control officer allowed her to notice the conditions of dogs and cats she brought to the shelter – along with their deterioration as the animals stayed there.
In the end, according to the affidavit, the officer quit after witnessing the neglect. She smuggled a white and gray terrier pit bull mix named Brandt out of the shelter after he stopped eating. Outside vets later diagnosed him with kidney failure, which can be caused by starvation. Brandt later died from his condition, according to the attorney general’s office. A veterinarian said Brandt could have lived if he had been treated a week or two earlier.
According to the affidavit, multiple employees and volunteers interviewed by police stated Howard and Hernandez made every medical decision for the animals at the shelter, although neither had the correct credentials to do so. The affidavit alleges Hernandez may have falsely implied that he was a registered veterinary technician, instead of his actual certification of unregistered assistant.
The affidavit alleges Howard and Hernandez hid hundreds of the sickest cats and kittens in a locked, unheated outbuilding. The attorney general’s office says that action suggests Howard and Hernandez knew what they were doing was wrong.
Multiple cats were allegedly stacked three crates high, debris falling through the floors, which sometimes consisted solely of plastic Rubbermaid lids. Detectives said some debris hadn’t been cleaned up in months.
In addition to the animal cruelty, the affidavit alleges Howard and Hernandez and their Chief Financial Officer, Julie Chambers, voted to give themselves $25,000 bonuses at a time when no other board members were present.
Chambers is also accused of stealing more than $300,000 to buy a house in Richland. The $300,000 came from a donation meant to care for animals, according to court documents. Chambers is not charged with animal cruelty. Her embezzlement case in Franklin County is expected to head to trial next year.
Neither defendant has an attorney on record yet and no public defender has been assigned. The attorney general’s office didn’t respond to requests for comment prior to publication deadline.