Iowa woman vanishes while facing 14 counts of animal neglect in two counties

By: - October 14, 2022 1:06 pm

These are two of the dogs that a pet rescue organization took from the home of Michelle Evans, an Iowa woman who faces 14 counts of animal neglect in Cass and Adair counties. (Photos courtesy of AHeinz57 Pet Rescue and Transport)

A series of arrest warrants have been issued for a central Iowa woman who disappeared after being charged with 14 counts of animal neglect.

The warrants charge Michelle Renee Evans, 56, with failure to appear in court and with violating the terms of her pretrial release agreement. Court records indicate Evans has lived in the towns of Bridgewater in Adair County, and Anita in Cass County.

Evans has pleaded guilty to six counts of animal neglect in Adair County, and pleaded not guilty to eight counts of animal neglect in Cass County. But in recent months, state officials and her own attorneys have lost contact with her and whereabouts are unknown.

Cass County Attorney Vanessa Strazdas. (Photo courtesy of Cass County)

“I don’t have any way of knowing where she is,” Cass County Attorney Vanessa Strazdas said Friday. “She hasn’t been picked up by law enforcement on anything else. At some point, she’ll probably show back up, but until then we just kind of hang tight.”

Court records indicate Evans was arrested in March 2021. At that time, police alleged that in July 2020, a friend of Evans transported nine of Evans’ dogs to AHeinz57 Pet Rescue and Transport in DeSoto, to give them up for adoption. According to police reports, Amy Heinz, the executive director of the rescue operation, told officers that all nine dogs had “horribly matted fur” that was infested with fleas. One dog had to be taken to an animal hospital for a blood transfusion due to flea-bite anemia.

The next day, members of the pet rescue went to Evans’ property in Bridgewater in response to a request to take away seven additional dogs, five of which had to be taken to a pet hospital in Des Moines for treatment. Dr. Alexandria Baltes, a veterinarian at the hospital, told police she believed several of the dogs she treated had sustained “serious injury” as defined by Iowa law.

A few days later, police executed a search warrant at Evans’ Bridgewater property and found “excessive animal waste” inside the home. At least 33 live dogs and 12 dead dogs were removed from the property, according to court records. A few weeks later, Evans entered into what police records describe as a “deferred prosecution agreement.”

In March 2021, Adair County authorities alleged that Evans had failed to comply with the terms of that agreement and charged Evans with six counts of animal neglect causing unjustified pain, distress or suffering, resulting in serious injury or death. Each charge, which stemmed from the 2020 investigation, is an aggravated misdemeanor.

This is one of the dogs that AHeinz57 Pet Rescue and Transport says it recovered from the home of Michelle Evans, who faces 14 counts of animal neglect. (Photo courtesy of AHeinz57 Pet Rescue and Transport)

A few months later, on Aug. 26, 2021, Cass County authorities charged Evans with eight counts of animal neglect with injury, and a warrant was issued there for her arrest. Police records indicate Evans had relocated from Bridgewater to the town of Anita where she had at least eight dogs in her care that were suffering from neglect.

A few weeks later, on Sept. 17, 2021, Evans was granted pretrial release in the Adair County case, on the condition that she not live with or have any contact with dogs, cats or domestic animals.

In November, Guthrie County Attorney Brenna Bird, who was prosecuting the Adair County case due to a conflict of interest in the Adair County prosecutors’ office, filed papers with the court claiming that Evans had failed to submit to a mental health evaluation. “The state is gravely concerned for the welfare of any animals that may be in her care,” Bird told the court.

Bird asked that while on release, Evans be subjected to electronic monitoring, a substance abuse evaluation and treatment and a mental health evaluation, and that Evans be “visited to ensure that there are no animals in her residence or any place she may be staying.”

The court agreed to that request and gave Evans 72 hours to contact the Fifth Judicial District Department of Correctional Services to arrange for supervision.

In March 2022, Evans’ court-appointed attorney withdrew from the Adair County case, saying he had lost contact with Evans, who was not responding to his calls and emails. In May, Evans pleaded guilty to the six counts of animal neglect in Adair County, and a presentence investigation was ordered. That same month, in the Cass County case, a warrant was issued for Evans’ arrest, charging her with failure to appear in court.

In July, the Department of Correctional Services informed the Adair County court it could not locate Evans to complete a presentence investigation. A warrant was issued for Evans’ arrest in that case. That same month, in the Cass County case, another warrant was issued for Evans’ arrest, this time for failure to appear for a pretrial conference.

At roughly the same time, Evans’ attorney objected to the AHeinz56 Pet Rescue organization request to provide a victim’s statement to the court at sentencing, arguing the organization was “not an appropriate third-party victim in this matter.”

The court said it would take that matter up at Evans’ sentencing hearing. But before that hearing could take  place, the probation officer assigned to monitor Evans during her pretrial release in the Adair County case told the court she lost contact with Evans. The court then canceled the sentencing hearing, revoked Evan’s pretrial release and issued a bench warrant for Evans’ arrest.

Both the Cass County and Adair County criminal cases currently remain open. In Cass County, a trial that was most recently scheduled for July was canceled. In Adair County, a sentencing hearing most recently scheduled for Aug. 19 was canceled. Warrants for Evans’ arrest remain in effect.

Strazdas, the Cass County prosecutor, said she has no reason to think Evans was operating a business — such as dog breeding — in connection with the dogs.

“I don’t have any reason to think she was a dealer,” Strazdas said. “She just gets dogs, for lack of a better way to put it … I don’t think it was for breeding or income.”

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Clark Kauffman
Clark Kauffman

Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing. His 2004 series on prosecutorial misconduct in Iowa was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. From October 2018 through November 2019, Kauffman was an assistant ombudsman for the Iowa Office of Ombudsman, an agency that investigates citizens’ complaints of wrongdoing within state and local government agencies.