FREDERICK, Md. – A woman who was found living with more than 300 mostly dead cats pleaded guilty to 46 misdemeanor counts of neglect Tuesday, abruptly ending her trial on animal cruelty charges.
Patricia K. Nicholson, 51, of rural Mount Airy, entered the Alford plea after a lunch break following about 2 1/2 hours of testimony in Frederick County District Court. In an Alford plea, a defendant doesn't admit guilt but acknowledges the state has enough evidence to produce a guilty verdict.
Judge O. John Cejka, who presided at the bench trial, set sentencing for Nov. 29. Nicholson faces a maximum penalty of 11 years and four months behind bars plus a $46,000 fine, but Assistant State's Attorney Kirsten Brown said the state wouldn't object to a suspended jail sentence and three years of supervised probation, provided Nicholson gets psychiatric treatment and doesn't acquire or care for more animals.
Nicholson was found living in a house with 184 dead cats and 119 live ones, of which 46 had to be euthanized, according to court records and trial testimony. In return for her guilty plea to failing to provide adequate food, shelter and air to the 46 cats that were put down, prosecutors dropped 76 other counts of that offense and 122 misdemeanor counts of inflicting unnecessary pain and suffering.
"Someone who loves animals is supposed to take care of them, and she completely disregarded that," Brown said in her opening statement.
Defense attorney Raymond Carignan said Nicholson was a single woman who tried to rescue feral cats.
"She did the best she could to take care of these animals," Carignan said in his opening statement. But, Carignan said, "she tried to take care of more cats than she could."
Animal Control Officer Michael W. Douglas testified that when authorities entered Nicholson's home near Mount Airy Dec. 16, they found two refrigerators stuffed with cat carcasses and every flat surface covered with at least three inches of animal feces.
Amid reeking rooms filled with cat-carrier cages stacked six high, they found other remains — some in plastic containers lovingly labeled with names and death dates going back to 2001, and some decomposing in closets and atop the mattress on which Nicholson apparently slept.
"Every room was another horrific event," Douglas said.
He said Nicholson's water heater had broken and flooded the filthy kitchen floor, making a soup through which the officers waded to catch the skittish cats.
"The whole floor consisted of, like, walking through chili," Douglas said.
The officers also found three live dogs and one dead dog in the house, according to court records and testimony.
Veterinarian Brooke Loewenstein, who examined the live animals taken from Nicholson's home, described each one's ailments, including dehydration and infections of the eyes, ears, respiratory tract and skin. All the illnesses were consistent with living in squalid conditions, she said.