It takes a lot to shock seasoned law officers. But what Sheriff Monte Belew and members of the Henry County Sheriff’s Department found while investigating an animal cruelty complaint Thursday morning in Henry County did just that.
About 8:50 a.m. Thursday, sheriff’s officers arrived at a singlewide mobile home at 2465 Dale Cemetery Road to investigate an animal cruelty complaint.
They made their way past a front yard overflowing with pens and kennels, and saw the home’s front door propped open.
Inside, they could see a dog cage holding a one-and-a-half-year-old boy.
“Throughout the whole trailer, there’s no toys, there’s no blankets, there’s no anything,” Sheriff Monte Belew said at a Friday morning press conference.
“Everything that that child possessed or played with was in this kennel right here.”
“In short, the child was living just like any other animal on the property,” Sheriff’s Investigator Scott Wyrick said. “In a cage, in filth.”
Sharing the room with the child were eight snakes, including a 10-foot-long boa constrictor only three feet from the child’s four-foot by four-foot cage.
Two snakes were kept above the child’s head, and a collection of old pizza boxes were heaped on top of the cage.
Belew said it was obvious from the wear and tear on the cage that the boy spent a lot of time inside of it. Three buckets stacked up against the left of the cage contained mice, and between 15-20 dogs were running loose inside the home.
“There’s feces on the floor, there’s no flooring in some places, there’s thousands of cockroaches, maggots,” Belew said. “The kitchen is unlivable. I can’t believe people can survive and live in these conditions.”
What followed was a day-long ordeal that saw the boy taken into the care of the Department of Children’s Services, several hundred animals rescued, and three of the home’s residents taken into custody on a host of charges.
Arrested were Charles E. Brown, 82; his son, Thomas Jefferson “T.J.” Brown, 46, and T.J. Brown’s live-in girlfriend and the child’s mother, Heather Ray Scarbrough, 42, all of 2465 Dale Cemetery Road north of Buchanan.
All three were charged Thursday at the home with aggravated child abuse, aggravated animal cruelty, animal cruelty, manufacture of marijuana, possession of a firearm during a dangerous felony and possession of drug paraphernalia.
In addition, T.J. Brown, who has a previous felony conviction from Florida, was charged with being a convicted felon in possession of a firearm.
“This is an ongoing investigation,” Belew said. “There may be more charges to come in the next few days.”
Joining Belew for the press conference were several sheriff’s officers present during the probe, including Chief Deputy Damon Lowe, Capt. Adam Jenkins, investigators Wyrick and Gary Vandiver and Lt. Daniel Powell of the Henry County jail.
“With all of the law enforcement years of experience up here, it’s hard to find something that actually shocks us. It’s hard to find something that will shock my conscience that says, ‘Oh my gosh, I’ve never seen this before,’” Belew said.
“Well, I’ve never seen this before, and I can guarantee you that none of these gentlemen up here with me have seen this before, either.”
“As we disassembled the cage, the urine and ammonia smell as we did that was just unreal,” Wyrick said.
Eighteen volunteers from Animal Rescue Corps came to the scene, and spent the day helping to document and find temporary homes for the hundreds of animals on the property.
Assisting them was Dr. Michael Neal of the Paris Veterinary Clinic, who examined each and every “grossly abused” animal on site.
All told, the group helped remove 56 dogs, 86 chickens, 10 rabbits, eight snakes, four parakeets, three cats, three sugar gliders, one pheasant, one gecko, and 531 mice, rats and hamsters.
Belew said he believed T.J. Brown was engaged in selling and trading animals at flea markets.
“He never said a word about the child,” Wyrick said. “He was just wondering if he would be able to get his animals back.”
As it happened, the child, who was non-verbal when discovered by officers, quickly made friends with a female deputy. She fed him, changed his diaper and stayed with the child until DCS arrived on the scene.
On top of the child and animal cruelty charges, officers found a marijuana growing operation, and seized 127 marijuana plants. They also removed 17 guns from the home, including an AR-15 military-style rifle.
The last person left the scene about 10:45 p.m., Belew said.
“This is a tragic situation, it’s a heartbreaking situation,” Attorney General Matt Stowe of the 24th Judicial District said. Stowe asked people to be mindful of possible warning signs for child or animal abuse.
“These things oftentimes can be hidden, especially when one is in a remote or rural area,” he said. “The truth is we never really know what our neighbors next door are doing.
“ It’s important that this serve as a warning and reminder to everyone to keep an eye out. If you see something that seems out of place, … let someone know.”
All three suspects are being held at the Henry County jail. Their bond has been set at $300,000 each.
The three are scheduled to appear Tuesday in Henry County General Sessions Court.