Lake County law enforcement authorities will comb through a sampling of 5 tons to 10 tons of dog excrement in plastic garbage bags in an effort to determine the number of dead animals at Muddy Paws Dog Rescue in Deer Park.
Police spent about five hours Thursday at the shuttered facility off Rand Road and recovered the bodies of 20 dogs, three birds and an opossum, Lake County Assistant State's Attorney Mike Mermel said. Authorities initially estimated 17 canines died from neglect at Muddy Paws.
Mermel called Muddy Paws "a feces-filled, carcass-covered death camp for dogs." He said some of the deceased dogs starved to death after they were sent to Muddy Paws by other rescue operations.
At least 5 tons to 10 tons of dog excrement was found in a garage fronting Rand Road after Muddy Paws operator Diane Eldrup was arrested by Kildeer police Dec. 17, authorities said. Mermel said it's believed dead animals were hidden in the feces, but investigators will start by examining only 10 trash bags and halt the search if nothing is found in the sampling.
"The magnitude of this is beyond comprehension," Mermel said as investigators worked around him in the stench wearing white protective suits and rubber gloves similar to what's used at a hazardous materials call.
Eldrup, 48, is charged with 32 counts of animal cruelty. Kildeer police, who patrol neighboring Deer Park, arrested Eldrup after her estranged husband reported he found dead dogs on the property where she lived with the couple's 8-year-old boy.
Prosecutors said $8,000 in cash and a $17,000 cashier's check was posted by John Breseman of Algonquin to free Eldrup from the Lake County jail on the required 10 percent of a $250,000 bond. Mermel said records show Breseman, who couldn't be reached for comment, declared personal bankruptcy Dec. 14 in U.S. District Court in Rockford.
With yellow crime-scene tape around the front of Muddy Paws, Kildeer police received assistance Thursday from the Lake County sheriff's office and other agencies. Six of the recovered dog carcasses were sent to Lake County veterinarians who are donating their services to perform animal autopsies, known as necropsies.
Mermel said it's hoped the necropsies show a cause of death and provide an idea of how long ago the dogs perished.
Photographs shot by investigators depict a grisly scene inside the living quarters of Muddy Paws, where authorities said many of the dead dogs were discovered. Dogs were found on the floor and hidden in mattresses.
Some of the deceased dogs in the images were curled next to empty food bowls that had visible bite marks. Other photographs showed the dogs in various states of decomposition.
Mermel said investigators believe some of the dogs became so hungry they started eating dead canines.
"Incomprehensive cruelty in which these poor, helpless animals were killed," he said.
Dead maggots were found in a refrigerator that contained food inside the living area, not far from a child's bed, authorities said.
Waukegan police Sgt. Charlie Burleson, who handles animal abuse cases, was among those called to assist in Thursday's investigation.
"This is one of the worst torture cases I've probably seen," Burleson said during a break.
Visitors had started a memorial at the site. It included a cross, a plastic disc, stuffed dog, a battery-operated candle, dog treats, a squeak toy and a tennis ball.
Mermel gently placed some of the memorial items in the back of a sport-utility vehicle when police started wrapping up the day.