How massive case of alleged animal cruelty was uncovered

Published: Sep. 28, 2017 at 5:08 PM EDT
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A man who went to mow a lawn made a gruesome discovery-- dozens of dead animals inside a South Hero home. He says the trailer's windows were shut and there was no power. Then, he went inside.

"The smell and the devastation, it was really bad," David Gardner said. "My lungs were not right for three days after."

The smell of 80 dead animals inside the house is something Gardner can't forget.

"When I went in, I found a lot of dead animals in cages and a lot of flies and a lot of fleas," he said.

Gardner and his family were renting out the home to Ashleigh Tillson, 30. Tillson now faces cruelty charges after police say they found 88 animals inside: birds, reptiles, fish and small mammals. All but eight were dead.

The Grand Isle Sheriff's Department says cases like this are rare in this community and this is the biggest one that they have seen. The lead investigator for the Humane Society says it's the saddest case they have seen.

Neighbors and people who frequently visit the area say they had no idea what was going on here.

"I didn't think anybody lived there," said Cyndi Reynolds of South Hero.

Polly Lee-Milton frequents the area to visit the graveyard across the street.

"I never saw any activity or anything," Lee-Milton said.

Travis Dubuque was picking up the propane tank at the property after he disconnected it over a month ago.

"It was bad a month ago; I had no idea what was going on inside the place," he said.

When WCAX News checked out the home, there were flies everywhere and a rotten smell emanating from the house. But we couldn't see inside because the building is boarded up.

Gardner says that he knows Tillson. She is his cousin's daughter. Gardner tells me he thinks she had good intentions and things just got out of hand. Right now, his focus is on the animals.

"Our concerns were the animals on the inside and that's all it really comes down to is that," Gardner said.

Ashleigh Tillson is due in court in three weeks.

We first reported on Tillson's arrest Wednesday night. Since then, we've heard from several of people who gave their animals to Tillson who are concerned about their welfare. We know that two rabbits, four lizards, a hedgehog and a chinchilla survived. They were taken to the Chittenden County Humane Society. We're told some of the animals are now staying with the volunteers who rescued them.