BARNESVILLE, Ga. — It was a "foul odor coming from the kennel" that led investigators to a horrific scene of dogs "emaciated enough to squeeze through the metal fence from one run to the other", according to documents obtained by the 11Alive Reveal Investigators.
The runs were filled with trash, feces, dirty or no water, pig carcasses, and no food, noted Georgia Department of Agriculture inspectors.
The 48 dogs and 18 live pigs were found after complaints were filed by people saying the puppies they bought from breeder Latitia and John Matthews were sick and had severely matted fur. They own Sweet Basil Farm & Kennel in Barnesville, Georgia.
At the point of the first complaint in September, Matthews did not have a license to breed. She had started the process, but never followed through.
The Department of Agriculture issued an order for her to stop breeding until she was approved for a license.
According to documents provided through an open records request, field supervisor Tommy Sheffield contacted Matthews in October, in order to set up a visit for her pre-license inspection. He noted that she wasn't able to make that week work.
Another attempt wasn't scheduled until January 15, but according to the inspection report, Matthews wasn't available for that one either.
Just days later, another complaint came in, claiming Matthews had sold two dogs that were "very matted".
The inspector contacted local law enforcement for further investigation and ended the report saying a follow up was pending.
Almost two months later, Sheffield, along with Lamar County Sheriff Brad White and his deputies, and interim District Attorney Elizabeth Bobbitt went to Matthews property to investigate.
That's when they found German shepherds, poodles, Labradors and Great Pyrenee dogs as well as the potbelly pigs, all living in horrible conditions.
The kennel had 18 outdoor runs under a tin roof.
According to officials, there were "decaying potbelly pig carcasses littered throughout the yard as well as inside two of the dog runs and pig pen."
In another run they found six piglets, two of which were dead in a swimming pool.
Some of the most gruesome details on the report cited a kennel where a red poodle and another dog were found with a dead pig and blood splattering the wall.
"There is significant blood spatter on the back wall of kennel from what appears to be an attack," notes the Department of Agriculture report.
The red poodle in that run was found with a gaping wound on it's neck that they believed was fresh.
► READ | Full March 2018 report
The report says that there was "no food available to any animals on the property", and all the animals appeared malnourished and thin.
They even stated in the report that they observed some of the dogs eating the deceased pigs.
Trisha and David Matthews were arrested by Lamar County Sheriff's Office and charged with 106 counts of aggravated cruelty to animals, cruelty to animals and improper disposal of dead swine.
This was one of three Georgia rescue operations between January and March. Over 1200 dogs were rescued, prompting an 11Alive Reveal investigation.
Georgia animal activists claim that the system isn't working fast enough in order to save animals living in unhealthy and dangerous conditions.
Through the Georgia Open Records Act we received the inspection reports to all three breeders.
One of the breeders was Craig Gray with Georgia Puppies.
He was arrested in March and charged with animal cruelty after officials found nearly 700 dogs living in deplorable conditions in Berrien County.
Violations were during an inspection in February 2018, and still had not been fixed by follow up inspections in April and May.
The next inspection should have been 30 days later, but Department of Agriculture Inspector Ben Thornhill and Supervisor Tommy Sheffield didn't return until February 2019, 10 months later.
Darcy Butkus, a private investigator that helps "sniff out" animal abuse under the name Inspector Bark says, "The inspector was supposed to go there every 30 days from the end of May last year to December to reduce the number of dogs. He was supposed to reduce down to 100 and that never occurred, because the inspector and the supervisor never followed through. Shame on them!"
The situation was so horrific, it even drew the attention of U.S. Senator Dick Durbin, of Illinois. He sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, demanding it step up its own enforcement of breeding operations.
According to disciplinary documents involving both Thornhill and Sheffield, the visit may have been delayed even longer, had it not been for a list of "high risk establishments" put out by Program Manager Mark Murrah. Murrah wanted divisions to take a closer look at each of the facilities and Georgia Puppies was on it.
In the department's review of the case, Sheffield and Thornhill didn't even go onto the property when they visited in May. Instead, they spoke with Gray at his front gate.
"I wanted to take the man at his word. I don't want to make enemies. I don't want to be ugly unless I have to," responds Sheffield on why they didn't inspect the kennels.
Throughout the disciplinary documents it is stated that Thornhill has a history of insubordination, time reporting issues, and "going to the same facilities at too high a frequency, while avoiding others".
The Department fired Thornhill and Sheffield was suspended for three days without pay.
To prevent problems from building, violations should have set timelines for completion, with penalties for those that fail to comply. If someone doesn’t have the money to run their business properly, then they shouldn’t be in business, advocates said.
Reveal investigators sat down to talk with Mark Murrah. He says the IT Department is working on software updates to track inspection dates and send alerts when a facility is past due. He would also like to see the program flag troubled facilities.
Other state agencies, such as the Department of Early Care and Learning and the Department of Public Health, post their inspection reports of daycare facilities and restaurants online. Murrah said to be open to the idea, but lawmakers would have to allocate more money. He has yet to ask for it.
A department spokesperson says they have done "a preliminary needs analysis and are in the early stages of the procurement process in an effort to better understand what funding will be required."
When asked whether he feels the Department of Agriculture is doing a good job holding pet breeders accountable he replied, “I think we’re holding them accountable the best we can as the rules are written."
The Reveal is an investigative show exposing inequality, injustice, and ineptitude created by people in power throughout Georgia and across the country. It airs Sunday nights at 6 on 11Alive.