A rescue group was called in to remove dozens of dogs living in deplorable conditions, but it wasn't their typical puppy mill or hoarding case.
At the end of an isolated Florida dirt road, organizers and volunteers found a trailer with dogs stacked on top of each other, living in their own urine and feces.
It's a sight Guardians of Rescue has seen before, but what made this one different is many of these dogs had already been rescued once.
The property was touted on social media as a medical foster home for dogs, a place where those animals needing closer supervision or special attention could get it.
HIGHWAY'S MISSING PAW
The dogs on the property had a wide range of injuries and ailments, some just needed a home. But one case that stuck out, was a 1-year-old brown terrier mix, named Highway.
He ended up at the medical foster after being hit by a car in Georgia in July.
According to social media posts and Lea Moore, who coordinated the rescue effort of Guardians of Rescue, Highway suffered bi-lateral femur fractures, a fractured pelvis and rib, and a ruptured bladder.
Dragon Paws rushed to his aid, pulling him from the county shelter and asking for donations to pay for his care.
Moore says it appears only his bladder was repaired. Nothing was done about his leg.
"The foster family said that they duct taped it to his body... they didn't know what to do," said Lea Moore, organizer for Guardians of Rescue's efforts in the region.
Sandra Ables and her family were living in the trailer with the dogs.
After four months on Ables' property, rescuers found Highway with his back paw almost fully chewed off.
"The nerves die, and that leg becomes totally unusable and that's why he decided to try to chew off his foot. It's just dead weight," said Moore.
Dragon Paws posted multiple times on social media about the terrier, receiving comments and shares. The Union County Sheriff has issued search warrants to find out if Dragon Paws also received money - donations for Highway and other dogs found on the property.
"There were dogs that had fundraisers specifically for spay and neuter that when taken off property had not been spayed or neutered...Forget the fact that we have medical dogs there. The basics were not taken care of," said Moore.
According to rescuers, almost all the dogs were found with fleas, hook worms, and were malnourished.
11Alive's investigative team, The Reveal went to Florida to ask Ables and her husband about the dogs.
SANDRA ABLES: "We're not going to make any comment."
INVESTIGATOR REBECCA LINDSTROM: "Have you been taking care of the dogs?"
SANDRA ABLES: "We asked you to please leave."
Just weeks before, when Guardians of Rescue was on property getting the dogs, Moore says they received a very different reaction from the foster family.
"They were excited to see Guardians. They saw it more as a saving grace, than trouble," explained Moore.
When we asked Moore who the Ables pointed the finger at for not providing proper care, the Ables said - Dragon Paws.
"They were just the fosters and not the people who manage the finances who allow for them to go get veterinary care and have it paid for," said Moore.
While in Florida, The Reveal team stopped by the Union County Sheriff's Office to get more information on the criminal investigation.
Sheriff Brad Whitehead said the investigation started with a citizen calling police after hearing dogs barking and seeing some concerning things on the property.
"There was some mistreatment of some of the animals so we'll move forward with the criminal aspect of it. This is going to be a very complex case. At this point in time it does appear as if there are two different states involved," said Sheriff Brad Whitehead.
Dragon Paws is a non-profit with a presence in three states, Virginia, Georgia and Florida. It is unclear how closely the operations are connected.
Terry Nicoll is the president, but the Georgia license giving them legal authority to operate is held by his wife, Denise.
The sheriff's office questioned Denise for more than two hours about what she knew and why she would keep giving the Ables' more dogs. The Reveal had the same questions.
INVESTIGATOR REBECCA LINDSTROM: There has been a lot of money raised, a lot of questions.
DENISE NICOLL: I am working with law enforcement, for the animals.
INVESTIGATOR REBECCA LINDSTROM: Is there anything you can say to the people who support Dragon Paws?
DENISE NICOLL: I am not allowed to say anything at this point.
Nicoll did later release a statement on social media describing the investigation and social media out pour as a ‘twisted tale’ of a foster gone rogue. Nicoll admits to giving the Ables dogs, but does not say how many stemmed from Dragon Paws.
The sheriff has said the dogs found on property came from multiple rescues and some were directly pulled from shelters by Ables herself.
Nicoll says she ‘trusted the wrong people’ and expressed frustration with navigating all of the laws and best practices surrounding animal rescue. You can read the Nicoll’s full statement at the bottom of this article.
Still, Moore says there is no doubt in her mind a crime has been committed. "No doubt at all."
The sheriff has yet to file any charges or name any other rescues involved. The lead investigator told The Reveal he is still waiting on the forensic medical reports and results from the warrants to determine how the Ables, Dragon Paws and other rescues are connected.
Sheriff Whitehead says his goal in these kinds of cases is to first rescue the dogs, then make sure those involved in abuse and neglect don't do it again.
The Georgia Department of Agriculture has since suspended Dragon Paws' license.
"They're helpless. Animals are helpless. That's ridiculous that if you can't take care of them then you don't need to have them. It's always been a passion of mine, my family, my department that we take care of animals," said Sheriff Whitehead.
BIG PICTURE PROBLEMS
Moore knows this looks bad, not just for Dragon Paws but for all rescues – where trust is essential. There are no taxpayer dollars to care for these dogs. Rescues rely on private donations to help the thousands of animals that would otherwise be killed each year.
"This has to be known. Because you are nothing without your credibility here and to allow her to fly under the radar is a false sense of security and allows for that to continue to go unchecked," explained Moore.
Guardians of Rescue says they wanted to be involved in helping the Union Sheriff's Department because of their investment in investigating this case and ensuring it would be prosecuted.
"One of the greatest takeaways I think for Georgia as a whole, is many of our cases don't come to fruition because we don't have motivated sheriff's and investigators that are going to put forth the time and effort that Union County Sheriff's, the investigators, and the sheriff himself have. They put massive dedication into this case and in seeing it come to fruition," said Moore.
Senator Kay Kirkpatrick has introduced a bill this session, SB338, that would require breeders and rescues in Georgia to get insurance, to reimburse those that have to step in. The measure passed the Senate on Wednesday and now moves to the House.
Rescues are expensive.
"On property that day, we had two veterinarians that were on staff being paid. We had behaviorists, trainers, handlers and of course volunteers. We rented vans to be able to do transport," said Moore.
Highway’s vet bills alone could run about $2,000. That’s why for the second time a rescue is raising money for his care.
After being removed from the property, Highway was taken to a vet where his leg had to be amputated.
"This is a totally different dog than the day we picked him up," said Moore.
Now with only three legs, Highway bounces around in the grass playing with a ball and getting some much needed human attention.
"We have a look of anticipation of love, which you did not see pulling him off that property. He was scared and he was defensive and did not feel good," remembers Moore.
Highway is currently recovering at home with a new volunteer foster.
Highway, along with some of the other dogs, are available for adoption through Guardians of Rescue.
DENISE NICOLLS' FULL STATEMENT
"As most people have read or been told, our rescue had an issue with a foster. The pictures posted are not of our home. I shut the page down not to look guilty, but due to the fact that random people decided to show up at other people’s home and put their family in danger.
There are only a few things that I can speak on about what is being spread around. A twisted tale. It keeps being said that we are tri-licensed rescue. We had a business license in Fl, Ga and Va as I thought that’s what I needed to have. We had an out of state Ga DOA license for the simple fact that our domicile was FL and my driver’s license reflected that. I had called DOA before applying and this is what I was told to do. The address would have been changed when filing our 990.
The few we do have in foster will be adopted out or transferred to another rescue. We trusted the wrong people, always thought they were being helpful in meeting off exits, etc. We are not the only people that were duped. We put our heart, soul, blood, sweat and a river of tears into this rescue.
We made mistakes, not out of lack of caring, ever. This recent event with a foster proved that we were not on the right side of reputable and that’s a fault and grief I cannot overcome. No one can make me feel any lower than I put myself thru. I ask that you do not blame any team member of the rescue other than me. They are hardworking, tireless animal lovers who have put in 100s of hours of behind the scenes work. They will be an amazing addition to any rescue.
DPR has saved many lives, strived to be better, working on new ideas, new and innovative ways to improve the way we do things. We have supported autism children, helped supply service dogs, we backed the blue and first responders. We are not perfect and trusted the wrong person/persons.
We have made mistakes in trying to understand the complex laws of each state where we are participating in. We were always learning. We needed to be in a community to get behind us and help support some of the things we needed. We needed to add board members to help guide the way. I am sorry that we will not be given the opportunity to learn from this. I am sorry to the lives we could have saved in the future. Rescue is a life filled with stress, heartbreak, hope and happiness. The strain to learn everything among all these is too much. The drama, innuendos, backstabbing, pettiness needs to stop among rescue. It only hurts the animals in the end.
There are so many good people that fight tirelessly for the animals, from rescuers, to shelter workers, to trackers, to animal control. I would ask that rescues please try to help any dogs that normally would have been brought back to our rescue. I can not ask for forgiveness but I ask for you to accept that I am honest in the mistakes I have made. I ask for you to look at the good we have done as a whole and not a sum of this horrific mistake."
The Reveal is an investigative show exposing inequality, injustice, and ineptitude created by people in power throughout Georgia and across the country. It airs Sunday nights at 6 on 11Alive.