It was reported, in the blackness of a January night, as a rubbish fire in front of a Masonic temple in North Sacramento.
Residents heard disturbing sounds, possibly of an animal in distress, at about the same time.
Fire investigators who arrived on the scene discovered a horrific sight: a melted puddle of plastic, a metal gate from a pet carrier and the remains of a small dog that someone had burned to death.
The case touched off extraordinary public outrage and an investigation by a task force determined to find a perpetrator. On Friday, officials announced that they had arrested an Oakland man who has been charged with felony animal cruelty.
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In front of the temple’s iron gate, where citizens had left flowers, notes and dog treats, Sgt. Lisa Bowman of the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department and Capt. Michelle Eidam of the Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District thanked the public for providing information that led them to Willie Bee Turner, 20.
Both agencies received “many, many tips” about the case, said Bowman, “and we were able to put enough pieces of this puzzle together to identify this one person.”
Turner, who has an outstanding misdemeanor warrant from the Pleasanton Police Department, was being held Friday in the Sacramento County jail on a felony charge of “malicious maiming” connected to the cruelty case. Further charges related to arson may be forthcoming, Bowman said.
Bowman and Eidam said they were unable to comment on Turner’s motive, why he was in Sacramento last month and who owned the dog.
They said the case reflects a growing public concern about animal cruelty, and an increased effort by law enforcement and the District Attorney’s Office to apprehend and prosecute those responsible.
“It’s shocking, and it’s something near and dear to the hearts of many families,” said Bowman. “The community is just not accepting it. We encourage people to report these things. They should know that it’s not a lost cause.”
Research has suggested, she said, that animal torturers often go on to commit serious crimes against children and adults.
“History shows that a lot of very, very violent people, including serial killers, first abused animals,” she said. “A lot of criminals start with an act like this,” so enforcing laws against animal cruelty are particularly important.
Investigation of the North Sacramento case began with minimal evidence and no witnesses.
In the early morning of Jan. 22, Metro firefighters responded to a report of debris fire in the 3000 block of Becerra Way, off of Marconi Avenue. In front of the George A. Primrose Masonic Temple, they found a melted plastic dog carrier and the charred remains of an animal.
A necropsy performed by a Sacramento County Animal Control veterinarian determined that the pup was a tan, mixed-breed female, about 8 months old. The vet concluded that the animal was alive at the time the fire was set.
Once the case became public, the sheriff’s and fire departments were inundated with tips. It was a case, said Eidam, “that touched the heartstrings” of the community.
The Sacramento SPCA offered a reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person responsible. More than 70 people have contributed to the award fund, with donations ranging from $5 to $5,000, agency director Rick Johnson said Friday. The reward now stands at $21,000, he said.
“The outpouring of support was huge,” Johnson said. Neither he nor the law enforcement agencies identified the person or people who provided the tip that led to Turner.
Sheriff’s and fire investigators, in addition to setting up a special tip line, went door to door to interview residents in the neighborhood where the crime occurred, said Bowman. The two agencies worked hand in hand, “almost like a task force,” to gather information. “The community was very engaged, and that helped a lot,” she added.
Animal shelter personnel see cruelty on a daily basis, but the North Sacramento case struck a special chord, said Johnson.
“The nature of the crime was just so horrific,” he said. “Everyone who read or heard about it understood that this poor animal had no options at all.”