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'This Was Like a Cat Mortuary'

Mount Vernon woman kept nearly 200 cats in her Burke townhouse

A raid on a Burke townhouse yielded a gruesome find — nearly 200 cats, almost all of them dead — in what officials are calling an extreme case of animal hoarding.

On Wednesday, July 13, around 6:30 p.m. officers served a search warrant on a townhouse on Lakepointe Drive, on the north side of Guinea Road in north Burke. Once inside the home, officers discovered nine adult cats and 38 kittens, all diseased. They discovered another 134 dead cats, kept in plastic bins.

The grisly discovery came five days after another raid on a single-family home in Mount Vernon. The owner of both homes, 82-year old Ruth Knueven, was issued two summonses for failure of owner to care for animals, one summons for failure to dispose of dead animals, and a petition for unfit owner. At the Mount Vernon home, officers found 187 live cats and 86 more dead in plastic bins.

According to neighbors, the Burke townhouse had been vacant for many years, but Knueven and her husband were regularly seen entering and exiting the townhouse.

"She's been coming and going religiously, never misses a day," said Carol Hutchinson who has lived with her husband Ronnie on Lakepointe Drive near the townhouse for 13 years.

Hutchinson said as far as she knew, the house had no electric service. She said Knueven would never stay overnight, but would often enter the house with black trash bags. Sometimes, blankets and quilts were seen covering the windows.

"She was elderly and a little eccentric, but you never thought there was something going on," said Hutchinson. "There were no odors, no dead anything."

Members of the Fairfax County Department of Health's Hoarding Task Force said Knueven's behavior fits the mold of someone with hoarding tendencies.

"People do think that everything they keep is valuable and they can’t make a decision to get rid of it," said Barbara Hobbie with the Department of Family Services and a member of the task force.

"I think animal hoarders truly believe they are rescuing the animals."

According to Officer Mike Lucas, Chief Animal Control Officer with the Fairfax County Police Department, officers raided Knueven's home in Mount Vernon in 2002, where they found over 100 cats. A court ruling allowed Knueven to retain six cats, with periodic monitoring visits from Animal Control. According to Lucas, a visit in 2003 revealed Knueven had 15 cats in the home, but all were in good health.

"It shows you how quickly someone can accumulate, go from 15 to several hundreds," he said.

For neighbors, who had noticed Knueven's strange behavior, but could never pinpoint it, the July 13 raid confirmed their suspicious that something was going on in the nondescript brick-front townhouse. Because officers found a higher percentage of dead cats at the Burke location, Hutchinson said she suspects Knueven used the townhouse as a place to store the dead cats, in Rubbermaid containers.

"Who knows how long she'd been putting those dead cats in the crates? This was like a cat mortuary. She was just stacking them up," she said.

According to John Yetman with the Hoarding Task Force, the Burke house was not condemned, but rather declared "unfit for habitation." He was quick to add, "This is a home that is restore-able. It can be repaired."