Charges dropped against Arizona animal abuse suspect: Here's what to know

In recent days, a situation involving the welfare of dozens of animals at a Chandler home has generated a high degree of interest on social media.

The case revolves around the owner of a rescue called the Special Needs Animal Welfare League (SNAWL), which was run out of a home near Cooper Road and Pecos Road.

Chandler Police found dozens of animals on the premises on Sept. 22 in poor health and in "unbreathable" conditions.

On Sept. 26, officials with the Arizona Humane Society said some of the dogs found had to be euthanized.

"These dogs were suffering horrifically. If a microchip is present, we will contact the last known rescue group to return the ashes," read a portion of the statement.

In a twist, however, charges related to the incident were dropped, according to officials with the Maricopa County Attorney's Office, as the case has been sent back to Chandler Police for further review.

The Chandler Police Department is now asking for the public's help for information on any of the dogs that were adopted out to SNAWL.

Detectives are searching for photos and veterinary records of the animals that documented their condition before being placed in the rescue's care. 

Here's what to know about the case.

Who's the suspect?

April McLaughlin

April McLaughlin

The suspect was identified by Chandler Police officials as April McLaughlin. She was identified in court documents as the owner of a rescue called Special Needs Animal Welfare League (SNAWL).

However, the suspect has been known to use different names. When FOX 10 Investigator Justin Lum spoke with the owner of SNAWL prior to the events on Sept. 22, the owner identified herself as ‘Sydney McKinley.’ We have also learned through several advocates that the owner of SNAWL went by a number of other aliases.

McLaughlin has appeared on FOX 10 in the past, years before the animal abuse allegations that eventually led to her arrest. In 2019, she appeared on FOX 10 to talk about the non-profit rescue she was starting up.

"I rescue special needs dogs because it's my passion, and I want to help as many dogs as I can," said McLaughlin. In that news report, she identified herself as ‘April Addison.’

What led to the suspect's arrest?

According to Chandler Police investigators, various rescue groups and individuals sent special needs dogs to SNAWL. However, since Aug. 8, 2023, there has been an increase in calls related to allegations of animal cruelty at McLaughlin's home.

Allegations state she had over 30 dogs in the home.

"Private investigators took photos of various dogs in poor health and in hoard-like conditions," read a portion of the court documents.

In addition, officials said people began to question the welfare of the animals, as McLaughlin failed to provide updates on the dogs.

According to court documents, unsuccessful attempts were made to get some of the dogs back by various animal welfare groups. On Sept. 9, there was an attempt by officials with the Arizona Humane Society (AHS) to check on the animals.

"Upon arrival, AHS noticed an odor of urine and feces near the front door, and noticed a large cluster of flies near the front door," read a portion of the court documents. "AHS was able to see into the backyard, and observed disabled and fully mobile dogs."

Court documents included the description of various dogs in various degrees of declined physical state or neglect.

AHS officials, according to court documents, visited McLaughlin at her home again on Sept. 12 and Sept. 19. On the Sept. 19 visit, McLaughlin allegedly refused to allow AHS officials into her home to check on the welfare of dogs inside but did agree to surrender two dogs that were in the home at the time.

As mentioned above, Chandler Police went to McLaughlin's home on Sept. 22 to serve a search warrant. Court documents state that officials found 55 dogs inside the home that were in need of immediate medical attention. 

Some of the dogs found, according to a veterinarian cited by investigators, were in such a poor condition that they were to be prepared for possible euthanasia. The bodies of five dogs were also found at the home.

In addition, court documents state that an industrial hygienist deemed the air quality inside to be of such a poor state, that members of the fire department had to don self-contained breathing apparatus in order to enter the home.

The house, according to investigators, was also deemed to be condemned due to air quality and the home's general condition. In a separate statement from Chandler city officials on Sept. 27, however, it was stated that a legal process needs to take place before a building can be condemned.

"The occupant of the residence is legally allowed to return to the home. The fencing, which was temporarily erected Friday night to help secure the property, has been removed," read a portion of the statement.

Did investigators make any other discoveries?

Besides the dozens of dogs found, court documents state that McLaughlin's mother was also found inside the home.

The woman, whose identity was redacted from court documents, was sitting on a couch and watching TV when crews arrived at the scene. A Family Crimes Unit detective later interviewed the woman, who said she moved in with the suspect in 2020 after she sold her home in Texas.

"She suffered a stroke shortly after and was hospitalized. After her stroke, she attended therapy for a couple of weeks and never went back. She is not under the care of a doctor and does not take medication," read a portion of the court documents. "The last time she was seen by a medical professional was approximately six months ago. Within that time, [the suspect] got a Power of Attorney over her, and took control of all her financials."

Court documents also allege that the woman's Social Security payments were used to pay the home's mortgage, as well as groceries.

"During our conversation, I asked her about the living with [the suspect]," the Family Crimes Unit detective wrote, in court documents. "The victim stated, 'I'd be better if I had more food.'"

Investigators also stated that the woman slept on the living room couch, as both bedrooms inside the home were filled with dogs.

"The last time she slept on a bed was three years ago," read a portion of the court documents.

What did the suspect tell investigators?

Court documents state that McLaughlin admitted she was at "the start of a hoarding problem," and had taken on too many dogs.

"McLaughlin advised some of the dogs that had injuries had been in that state ranging from weeks to months," investigators wrote. "McLaughlin advised she had been a new rescue for a year, but did not adopt any of the dogs out."

McLaughlin, according to investigators, said she started an animal rescue to help dogs with special needs to show that they can be adopted.

"McLaughlin advised she thought she would have been able to handle 20 dogs," read a portion of the court documents.

As for matters involving her mother, McLaughlin, according to court documents, told detectives that she used her mother's Social Security payments to pay the home's mortgage, as there is no other type of income coming in. In addition, she stated that her mother does not have access to a phone because her mother has been taken advantage of in the past, and has misplaced her mobile phone.

McLaughlin, according to court documents, also stated that her mother has access to food and that there is food for her in a refrigerator/freezer unit.

However, investigators said dog remains were located in the freezer, next to human food. McLaughlin would later tell investigators that she did not believe ther was anything wrong with storing food next to deceased animals.

What was the suspect accused of?

Court documents state that McLaughlin was accused of the following:

  • 55 counts of Animal Cruelty by way of Neglect and Abandonment (A.R.S. 13-2910A1), which is classified as a Class 1 Misdemeanor.
  • 55 counts of Animal Cruelty by way of Failing to Provide Medical Treatment (A.R.S. 13-2910A2), which is classified as a Class 1 Misdemeanor.
  • 1 count of Vulnerable Adult Abuse with Intent (A.R.S. 13-3623A1), which is classified as a Class 2 Felony.

As mentioned above, however, officials with the Maricopa County Attorney's Office have announced that McLaughlin's case has been sent back to Chandler Police for further review. Charges against her have been dropped, and she was released from jail after posting bond on Sept. 27.

What about the dogs?

As mentioned above, some of the 55 dogs found - five, to be exact - had to be put to sleep, according to AHS officials.

We spoke with a woman named Shira Scott Astrof on Sept. 26, prior to AHS' announcement. She said she took in two disabled dogs - Chester and Rudy - into her animal rehab center in California. She also said that for the past 10 months, the dogs were under McLaughlin's care.

"It was like a dream when she reached out. I work from home now. My mom works from home. I really want to take them in," said Astrof. "For literally two years, we received photos and videos daily."

After AHS' announcement, Astrof said she believes one of the dogs euthanized was Rudy.

News of the dogs' euthanizing came days after officials with a group named Yaqui Animal Rescue issued a statement, in which they formally requested Arizona Humane Society to "hold any and all euthanasia for dogs that may need humane intervention."

The statement from Yaqui Animal Rescue reads:

"On behalf of the investigative team that worked so diligently and determinedly to save the 55 dogs at April Addison’s horrific home, please consider this a formal and written request to hold any and all euthanasia for dogs that may need humane intervention.

We know the conditions of the home were so atrocious that some dogs may not be capable of surviving this. However, rescues and fosters are willing and ready to travel within a 24hr notice to say goodbye if need be. We have also attached a list of rescues and owners who are ready and willing to retrieve their dogs as well as others that may not need euthanasia.

Please give us the ability, dignity, and respect to visit our pups one more time before having to say goodbye if that is what is recommended for the dog. We also ask that someone reach out to us to explain the process of retrieving animals after a criminal investigation, and that this organization understand that our love for animals will always be a first and utmost priority.

Thank you for your attention regarding this matter, and look forward to hearing from you."

In the same statement, officials with Arizona Humane Society wrote that the remaining dogs are still being cared for by the organization's veterinary staff.

"As a reminder, the majority of these animals were in need of medical attention. We remain cautious, but hopeful, while establishing prognosis and therefore outcomes," read a portion of AHS' statement.

According to an FAQ page on the City of Chandler's website, a court hearing is set to take place on Oct. 11, after McLaughlin filed a petition with Chandler Municipal Court in a bid to take back many of the dogs that have been seized.

"The court will determine if the City of Chandler has met the legal threshold required to demonstrate that the owner subjected the animals to cruel mistreatment, neglect or abandonment. If that legal threshold is met, the court may terminate the owner’s rights to the animals," read a portion of the website. 'If the petitioner is not found to have violated the law, the court would order the animals to be returned to owner. Thereafter, the losing party has fourteen (14) days to appeal the Chandler Municipal Court’s decision to the Maricopa County Superior Court."

Officials also said on the FAQ that once an animal's ownership right is transferred to Chandler Police, and any right to appeal a court's decision has expired, the city can then transfer permanent ownership of the animal to the Arizona Humane Society.

"If the Arizona Humane Society is awarded custody, they can begin the process of returning dogs that have microchips to the last known former owner or rescue group. If a dog does not have a microchip, the Arizona Humane Society can review veterinary records, photos and other information to place the animals with trusted rescue partners or by adoption," read a portion of the website.

What are other people saying about the case?

As the investigation continues, dog owners and animal groups are speaking out.

"This has been a sick con from the start," said Shira Scott Astrof.

Astrof said her staff was led to believe that McLaughlin only had four dogs at her house, which they were not allowed to visit for a very specific purported reason.

"She told us her ex-husband was after her, trying to kill her, and so she was like, ‘I don’t let people go to my house. I’m in hiding,’" Astrof recounted. "I know how that feels, trying to hide from a stalker, and none of us questioned it."