‘Dead cats over dead cats.’ Judge refuses to lower possible sentence for accused hoarder

Cheryn Smilen was well-known among South Florida’s passionate pet-rescue community, feeding street cats every night, rescuing many with hopes of finding them forever homes.

Or so fellow pet rescuers thought. Instead, police and prosecutors said, Smilen hoarded dozens of cats inside a Northeast Miami-Dade efficiency, then left them there to starve. When the foul smell finally brought police officers to the home, they found a horrific scene.

All of the cats were emaciated and malnourished, most barely clinging to life. Bones and other material indicated some cats had eaten each other. Miami-Dade Detective Judy Webb, an animal-cruelty investigator, recalled seeing “dead cats over dead cats over dead cats.”

“These cats had been dead for months, not weeks. Some of them were in different stages of decomposition,” Webb told a Miami-Dade judge Wednesday during a key hearing in Smilen’s criminal case. “There’s no way she didn’t know this was happening.”

The facts were troubling enough that Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Alberto Milian, after hearing from animal rescuers and police on Wednesday, refused to consider lowering a possible sentence for Smilen. That means that Smilen, if she is convicted of multiple counts of animal cruelty at a trial in December, faces at least 29 months in state prison.

“I believe the judge believes that animal-cruelty cases really do mean something,” said Michael Rosenberg, the founder of Miami-Dade Pets Trust, a well-known animal rights organization that had 25 volunteers show up to court. “This was a horrendous case.”

One of the cats rescued in February 2018 at the Northeast Miami-Dade home of Cheryn Smilen, a pet-rescue volunteer accused of animal cruelty. - Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office

Fellow rescuers told the judge that they had pressed Smilen, 54, for months to know if the cats she was rescuing were being cared for properly. She insisted they were, but refused to disclose where the cats were.

They were found in February 2018 at the rented efficiency on the 2500 block of Northeast 182nd Terrace. Neighbors reported seeing and hearing the cats scratching and crying at the windows, but Smilen was nowhere to found.

The tiny efficiency was caked in feces. The ammonia smell of cat urine overwhelmed rescuers. The air-conditioning unit worked, but was not on, leaving the cats in unbearable heat. “Fleas jumped on my legs,” Detective Webb testified.

To make matters worse, officers saw plentiful bags and cans of cat food stocked inside and outside the home, but Smilen had not given any to the animals.

Smilen chose not to speak at Wednesday’s hearing, and there was still no explanation as to why she didn’t feed the cats. Defense attorney Gabriela Centofanti said her client was not contesting the allegations but had been beset by depression and anxiety — and the stress of caring for an elderly mother suffering from her own health problems.

Prosecutors Kathleen Hoague and Helen Page Schwartz asked the judge to sentence Smilen, if convicted, to at least 364 days in jail, followed by probation and forbidding her from working with animals. By his ruling, Milian signaled even that possible sentence was too low.

Smilen is one of a handful of South Florida animal-rescue volunteers who have been charged with cruelty in hoarding cases in recent years.

Gisela Tacao, who used to run Gigi’s Rescue, was arrested in 2015 after authorities found hundreds of dogs in a warehouse, and her home. Four years later, she is still awaiting trial.

In 2012, Ileana Arnais was arrested and charged with animal cruelty after police found dozens of sick and malnourished dogs and cats inside her Hialeah home. She too believed she was helping the animals.

Arnais’ defense lawyer said she was diagnosed with a hoarding disorder. The Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office wound up giving her 15 years of probation, with the condition that she not have any pets.