All across Thurston County, cats are turning up dead.
At least 12 have been found since February. And the violence is ramping up — seven of these cases were reported in August alone, the latest on Tuesday.
The mutilated remains of beloved pets have shown up in public places around Olympia — on front lawns, in neighborhood parks, even on the grounds of a church.
There may well be more cats involved. A case reported in Lacey, Washington, in February, involved body parts that could have come from three different cats.
As the reports have come in, so have donations. There is now a $35,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the killer.
The case has become serious enough for authorities in Thurston County to set up a 10-person task force, led by a former police officer with decades of experience investigating animal cases.
The team, which includes a homicide detective, is to meet Thursday to put together a game plan for hunting down the cat killer. If found, the person could face as much as two years in prison for each cat killed.
On Tuesday, a cat was found dead in Olympia, near where another cat’s body had been discovered just days before. All the signs indicate that the killer was the same one who has been plaguing the county for months, authorities say.
The cat had been slit down the stomach and laid out, just like the other cats found in Olympia. The cats were “displayed for people to see,” said Erika Johnson, the animal cruelty investigator leading the task force. “Kind of like an arsonist goes back to the scene of fire. They want people to find these animals.”
“It’s for shock value,” Johnson added. “It’s like a trophy.”
In most cases, the perpetrator has been meticulous. The cuts are clean and there is little other evidence, an indication that the killer has experience doing this. In some cases the spines have been removed, in others the organs have been laid out next to the body. Some of the cats have been found dismembered.
“It appears to be the same person,” said Ben Elkins, a major crimes detective with the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office.
The killer has not been seen on video anywhere. The only slip-up was a surgical glove that was found near a cat called Tubby in Olympia, and potentially some DNA from Ollie, a fluffy white cat that was killed at the beginning of August in West Olympia.
Ollie had fought back, and her nails are being tested.
The results have not been disclosed, and Ollie’s owner, Rhiannon Stockert, is struggling to deal with the loss of her pet.
Ollie, a slightly overweight and cross-eyed cat that liked to sleep indoors, was discovered with her spine ripped out and displayed not far from home. Stockert has struggled to sleep since the killing. She eyes people who walk past warily and has had security cameras installed.
“She’s family,” said Stockert, breaking into tears during a phone interview. The episode has made her fearful that the killer may return, she said. “It’s definitely a creepy feeling to know that this person has that type of evil in them.”
With each new case, a growing fear and fervor have taken hold in the community. At least 150 tips have flowed in to local authorities. In these uncertain times, stroking the neighborhood cat has become cause for suspicion, and walking around with a can of open sardines is reason enough to turn neighbor on neighbor. A Facebook group is dedicated to bringing “justice” to the killer.
Washington isn’t the only place that has dealt with a potential grisly cat killer. The deaths of hundreds of cats in south London prompted a yearslong search for the so-called Croydon Cat Killer, who has not been caught. A man was arrested in Saudi Arabia for posting on social media a video of him killing several cats.
Although there is no indication that the suspect in Washington has hurt people, it’s possible that animal killings could lead to something worse, authorities say. “What if this is a steppingstone for a future serial killer, or a person who’s going to do something to a human being?” Elkins said. “I don’t know what their issue is, but it’s not normal.”
Animal abuse is correlated with other types of violence, including domestic abuse. The Chicago Police Department cites research that “up to 75 percent of domestic violence victims report that their partners threatened to harm their pets,” and the FBI has started including animal cruelty crimes in its statistics because it says they are an early indicator of violent crime.
Some people Johnson has prosecuted for violent crimes started with animal cruelty, “just desensitizing themselves.”
It is possible that the cat killer could move on to people, Elkins said.
“There have been past cases where perpetrators were caught that turned out to be serial killers,” he said. “Is that the case in this? We don’t know, but we’re not taking any chances.”