The CEO of an animal rescue group in South Carolina was arrested after the bodies of 30 decomposing animals were found at her home, officials said.
Caroline Dawn Pennington, 47, is a well-known figure in the animal rescue community who is the CEO and director of the nonprofit rescue group GROWL, the Richland County Sheriff’s Department said in a news release.
She was arrested Friday and charged with 30 counts of ill treatment of animals after 30 decomposing animals — 28 dogs and two cats — were found in cages and crates in her home, officials said.
Police were called to Pennington’s home in Columbia on May 22 to conduct a welfare check after they got a call saying a “smell of death” was coming from the home, the sheriff’s department said.
Officers entered the home and “found a disturbing and extreme case of animal cruelty,” the release said.
They discovered the decomposing animals inside and found they had been dead for a “significant amount of time,” appearing to have died from “starvation and dehydration,” the sheriff’s office said.
“They were lying in their own waste and it is believed that they died in the cages and had not been moved prior to being discovered,” officials said.
The sheriff’s department removed the animals with help from local animal control authorities. It’s not clear why Pennington wasn’t arrested until Friday.
Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott called the discovery one of the worst cases of animal cruelty he’d seen.
“It’s appalling, and it’s heartbreaking,” he said. “This is someone who was entrusted by the community to care for these animals and find them homes. She betrayed that trust, and she betrayed the trust of these innocent animals who relied on her.”
In addition to operating GROWL, Pennington was employed by the Kershaw County Humane Society, a pet adoption center, the sheriff’s department said.
Now officials are looking into GROWL, asking anyone who has made documented donations to the nonprofit group in the last 12 months to contact the sheriff’s department.
Jamie Woodington, the president of the board of directors for the Kershaw County Humane Society, told NBC affiliate WIS of Columbia that Pennington resigned Thursday, citing unspecified personal reasons, and that the charges don’t involve animals from the Kershaw County group.
NBC News has reached out to Pennington’s lawyer for comment.
Her attorney, Ally Benevento of the Strom Law Firm, told WIS her client is experiencing mental health issues.
“This is an incredibly tragic case with unimaginably horrific allegations,” Benevento said. “It is difficult for anyone to comprehend how someone could allow to happen what happened in this case, but there are some significant and serious mental health issues at play that Ms. Pennington is dealing with.
“She and her family are working through some very difficult circumstances, and we respectfully request privacy and space so that she and her family can focus on the mental health issues that need to be addressed,” she continued.
Pennington was booked at the Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center on Friday and released on a $75,000 surety bond.