Denise asked the animal service officers if she could look in the green bag. They told her she really didn't want to do that. In the bag were the remains of Pepper, her family's beloved 8-year-old dog.
Pepper, a black-and-white Jack Russell mix, had been beaten, skinned and stabbed. He'd only been identified by the blue nylon collar and the gold, bone-shaped tag found near his body. A groundskeeper happened upon the grisly scene early the morning of Sept. 7, near the entrance to the popular Foothill Park in Simi Valley, California.
"I wanted to be sure, so I just squeezed his legs. I knew they were his," Denise later told The Huffington Post, holding back tears. "Pepper was the perfect dog. He gave us so much love."
It's more than grief that her family is now facing. "Given the brutality of [the crime], and the details we know, we're scared," said Denise, who asked HuffPost not to print her last name or other identifying details. "We're thinking of moving. I have no doubt that this is someone who will move on to bigger things -- like to kids."
Law enforcement officials don't have any leads. But some are worried. "Any person capable of doing this to an animal is also capable of doing it to a human," said Bryan Bray, a field operations supervisor with Ventura County Animal Services who was involved in the case.
Denise and Bray are right to be concerned. From Colorado to Australia, research on predictors of child abuse, domestic violence and other criminal behavior increasingly points to a link between animal abuse and violent crime.
Now law enforcement and animal safety experts -- as well as veterinarians, social workers, lawyers, judges and even the FBI -- are working together to redouble their efforts to identify and prosecute perpetrators in cases of animal abuse. Keeping animals safe, they argue, helps keep people safe, too.
Before they were notorious
History is full of killers who were violent toward animals before they began targeting people. During his youth, Albert DeSalvo, the man most people believe to have been the "Boston Strangler," shot arrows at dogs and cats he had trapped in wooden crates. Jeffrey Dahmer mounted the heads of frogs, cats and dogs on sticks, and Charles Manson tortured animals as satanic sacrifices. Multiple school shooters, including Kip Kinkel, Luke Woodham, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, reportedly tortured and mutilated animals in the years prior to their shooting sprees. The Louisiana theater gunman, John Houser, bragged about hurting animals. And most recently, before gunning down two Virginia journalists in August on live television, Vester Lee Flanagan II, too, told acquaintances that he'd killed his two cats.
Of course, not every animal abuser will go on to carry out heinous acts against people. But experts suggest there is enough evidence now to take seriously the public-safety implications of animal mistreatment. Animal abusers are five times more likely to commit violent crimes against people than non-abusers, according to one study conducted by Northeastern University and the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Another study, by the New South Wales Policy Service in Sydney, suggests that animal abuse could be a better predictor of sexual assault than previous convictions for homicide, arson or firearms offenses.
"You always hear police, prosecutors and judges say that they have more important, bigger cases to work on," said Allie Phillips, director of the National Center for Prosecution of Animal Abuse, a Virginia-based program affiliated with the National District Attorneys Association. "So I tell them, 'Hey, wouldn't it have been nice to stop that [sexual abuser or murderer] before they did that?'"
"People need to understand that it is never just the dog," said Dr. Martha Smith-Blackmore, a forensic veterinarian at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University and an expert on the link between animal cruelty and violent crime.
Detecting violence in the home
Animal cruelty is not only a predictor of future criminal activity. It's also a red flag for ongoing domestic violence. In 1998, a New Jersey public child protection agency found that in 88 percent of homes where the agency was providing services following physical child abuse, animal abuse had also occurred. And multiple studies show that over half the pet owners who enter domestic violence shelters say their abuser had threatened, injured or killed family pets.
Child abuse and intimate partner abuse can be hard to prosecute, not least because victims often struggle to reveal information about personal trauma. Bringing pet abuse into the questioning may help in these scenarios.
"When asked about harm to animals, the truth may come out," said Smith-Blackmore, who is the vice president of animal welfare with the Animal Rescue League of Boston. "Loyalty to protecting an animal can be so strong, they just can't help it. Sometimes asking about animal safety will unlock the door to personal safety as well."
Research suggests this tactic can be effective. One 2000 study found that including a screening question about animal cruelty on a domestic violence crisis line resulted in an 80 percent decrease in domestic violence homicides.
Phillips, who has been teaching the criminal justice community about the link between animal and human violence for over a decade, is advocating for better coordination among organizations charged with the health and welfare of both humans and animals. In some parts of the country, for example, people investigating alleged animal abuse are required to report any evidence that a child might also be endangered. And in certain jurisdictions, child welfare workers might be required to report suspected animal abuse.
Phillips wants to see more of that sort of cross-reporting. "Whoever is the first in the home needs to look around and look at everyone, whether they have two legs or four legs," she said.
But roadblocks remain. Confidentiality rules in some jurisdictions prevent social workers and health care professionals from reporting animal abuse -- even if they believe it could be a sign that people are being abused in the same household.
Phillips suggested that the public, too, can help by recognizing and reporting signs of abuse.
"That report can open up what is going on in that home," she said. "You never know -- it could look like something really small on the surface, but when investigators dig deep, they could find chronic violence. You could save lives."
Veterinarians are among the professionals best positioned to see early indications of animal abuse. Dr. Ron DeHaven, CEO of the American Veterinary Medical Foundation, said in June that it is the obligation of veterinarians "to report animal abuse to appropriate authorities, even when such reporting is not mandated by law or local ordinance."
But that isn't always a natural instinct for those in the field. "Most vets come to vet school with the orientation of loving, adoring, respecting animals," said Smith-Blackmore. "The idea of someone intentionally harming an animal is so foreign, they don't even think of it."
And distinguishing between an injury or death that happened by accident and one that was caused intentionally is not always as easy as it was in Pepper's tragic case.
Given the potential for a blind spot here, novel tools are emerging to help "veterinarians testify authoritatively that a particular injury is not consistent with falling off a bed but is consistent with being kicked by a boot," said Phil Arkow, coordinator with the National Link Coalition, which advocates for the recognition of connections between animal abuse and human violence.
Studies have found that specific patterns of injury can help vets distinguish between unintentional injuries and intentional abuse. In a car accident, for example, it's typically the rear half of the animal that gets injured, whereas blunt force trauma inflicted by a human may manifest on other parts of the body, said Dr. Rachel Touroo, who is director of ASPCA Veterinary Forensic Sciences and a forensic specialist for the ASPCA Veterinary Forensic Sciences Program at the University of Florida.
"Another red flag is the presence of a number of injuries at various stages of healing," Touroo said. "There is a lot of research yet to be done."
Stronger forensic evidence, Touroo and others say, can lead to more convictions, which could then translate into better protection for animals and humans.
Connecting the dots
All 50 states now have felony-level animal abuse statutes on the books. But there's great variation as far as what is considered abuse -- and even what is considered an animal in the eyes of the law.
Some states are currently considering revised legislation that would give authorities the power to impose stiffer penalties. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), for example, signed a law in August that criminalizes dogfighting. But advocates still say more action is needed.
"No one wants to make swatting a mosquito equivalent to setting a puppy on fire," said Frank Ascione, executive director of the Institute for Human-Animal Connection and scholar-in-residence at the University of Denver Graduate School of Social Work. "But clearly elevating [a crime] to a felony-level offense will make a particular behavior come to the attention of the public and law enforcement."
Just last year, the New York Police Department and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals began a partnership that has since quadrupled arrests for animal abuse in New York City. This past July, the partnership began offering rewards to the public for anonymous tips on animal cruelty cases.
Even the FBI is getting on board. Pepper's case is currently categorized as an "other" offense, meaning it is essentially lost in the agency's records. But beginning in January, when the FBI begins tracking animal abuse crimes, that kind of case will be categorized as an "animal cruelty offense with the data value of intentional abuse and torture" -- which could help law enforcement track abuse patterns and prevent future crimes, said Stephen Fischer, a spokesman for the bureau.
Randall Lockwood, senior vice president for forensic sciences and anti-cruelty projects with the ASPCA, has identified a number of risk factors to evaluate how much danger an animal abuser may pose to others in the future. The checklist -- which differentiates between, say, shooting an animal from a quarter of a mile away and binding an animal and setting it on fire -- is starting to be used in court cases, Lockwood said.
More thorough and detailed reporting, said Lockwood, should in turn lead to more serious attention from the public, lawmakers and law enforcers, as well as "a better psychiatric assessment of the perpetrator."
The issue of early intervention can be a touchy one, especially when it comes to children. No one wants to apply a label unnecessarily. At the same time, Lockwood said, "we know intervention works best when it occurs early in a disorder or disease" -- a relevant point in cases where a treatable mental illness can be implicated in a cruelty crime.
Counseling and treatment can benefit not just the perpetrator, but also any young people who observed the crime. Research shows that a child who witnesses animal abuse in the home is up to eight times more likely to become an offender themselves.
"Animal cruelty has traditionally been marginalized by legislators, by funders, by the public," Arkow said. "But we must recognize that animal abuse is a predictor crime, and an indicator crime, and that it adversely affects human health and safety."
Clarification: This story has been updated to note that Dr. Rachel Touroo is also director of ASPCA Veterinary Forensic Sciences.