MORIARTY, N.M. – The cases were often heartbreaking: Families coming home to find their dogs had vanished from inside houses, behind locked fences and outdoor kennels in rural communities east of Albuquerque.
But with the recent arrest of a woman accused of stealing two pit bulls -- then throwing them from her moving car as the dogs' owner gave chase -- officials think they have confirmed longstanding suspicions that the animals were victims of an overzealous animal rescuer turned serial dognapper.
"It really cracked the case," Edgewood animal control officer Mike Ring said of the Nov. 16 arrest of 59-year-old Debbie Swenerton.
Authorities believe she stole dogs and then took them to shelters and said they were strays in need of adoption. Ring said he suspects Swenerton could be part of a larger network of local activists who are concerned about the treatment of animals in rural areas, where many dogs are tied up, live outside or are allowed to roam freely.
No one else has been arrested, and authorities said they are investigating other missing dog cases.
One of the pit bulls Swenerton is accused of trying to steal and throw from her vehicle suffered road rash, but the dogs were otherwise uninjured, according to the Torrance County sheriff's department. Swenerton was charged with cruelty to animals, burglary and false imprisonment.
Swenerton's attorney, Quinn Kirby, called the allegations ridiculous.
"Debbie cares deeply about animals and dedicates a great deal of her time and resources to animal welfare," she said in an email. "It is outrageous to suggest that someone like her would do something so heinous as to throw a dog out the window of a moving car. Debbie has not committed any crimes and we are confident that she will be exonerated."
Barbara Tellier, a friend of Swenerton's who runs the Alliance Against Animal Abuse Inc., said she believes Swenerton is being set up by officials in a county where animal abuse is rampant and officials don't care.
"Debbie is making waves," Tellier said. "She is emailing everybody trying to get help for these animals who are locked outside without enough shelter, or not enough water in the summertime, or running loose to get hit by a car ... and nobody is doing anything."
Tellier said Swenerton is "one of the most humane people I know" and that she and her husband build doghouses and pens for people so they can take their dogs off chains. They also take bales of straw to families to put in doghouses in the winter.
Ring estimated as many as 60 dogs have gone missing in the area over the last few years.
"It's a sad story when people are calling to report their animals are missing," he said. "You can hear the emotion in their voice. Some of them have children. These are family pets. It's heartbreaking, some of these cases."
Torrance County sheriff's officials say they have had a flood of new calls since news of Swenerton's arrest broke. One woman, approached at a hamburger stand, seemed startled to hear of the case.
"My dog is missing. A lot of dogs are missing," Melissa Crozier said. She said her dog, Simba, recently disappeared from inside her home, behind an unlocked door. "I came home and he was gone. I have no idea how he could have gotten out" unless someone opened the door.
Torrance County Undersheriff Martin Rivera said that's how most of the cases came in: "People get home from work and their animal is missing."
Rivera said authorities had long suspected Swenerton, who is known by law enforcement and animal control authorities in Torrance, Bernalillo and Santa Fe counties for calling to report suspected animal abuse. In most cases, he says, the animals were fine, with food, water and proper shelter. In most cases, they were also outside.
"I think she is thinking if they are not inside, they are being abused," he said.
He said authorities believe Swenerton took the dogs to shelters in Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Edgewood and other communities, possibly even other states, to be adopted. Additionally, he said, Swenerton had 20 dogs at her home in the mountain community of Tijeras, where she has a licensed dog rescue facility. Authorities say the animals were well cared for, and all were registered to the woman except one.
A microchip in that dog was traced back to a Bernalillo County family, whose shepherd mix, Alfie, went missing after the family was approached several times by a woman concerned about its care, authorities said. Swenerton told officers she had been given the dog.
No one appeared to be home at the address where the alleged pit bull thefts occurred on a recent afternoon, and the phone number that the resident, Senica Sanchez, gave police had been disconnected. The residence is an older mobile home with pulled curtains. A variety of vehicles and motorcycles were in the yard on the street last week, and two young pit bulls matching the description of those in the Torrance County sheriff's department incident report were tied up in the front yard.
When Swenerton was arrested, Rivera said, she was upset "because she felt she was doing the right thing. ... I think she just wanted to save these animals."