Here’s another chapter out of my life. It’s a tell all story that has haunted me for years. Be prepared to be outraged!
An activist is someone who cannot help but fight for something. That person is not usually motivated by a need for power or money or fame, but in fact is driven slightly mad by some injustice, some cruelty, some unfairness, so much so that he or she is compelled by some internal moral engine to act to make it better.
― Eve Ensler
I got my first taste of activism after the news broke the story in Denver, Colorado. I spent four years on the battleground fighting breed discrimination. It was a classic case of fear and ignorance. This was different. In the battle to save our town’s beloved non-profit rescue organization, Save A Pet (SAP), from a hostile takeover, I came face-to-face with a lying, greedy sociopath. Malinda Bustos (MB) was running a non-profit she named Humane Society of the Desert (HSOD). Looking back, plagiarizing the name “Humane Society” was an early clue of her motive to deceive the public. When this real-life scam artist got wind of an opportunity to seize the assets of Save A Pet in the summer of 2015, rumors that SAP was in jeopardy got real. By the time I received an urgent call for help, it was already too late.
For years, MB bankrolled her princess-like lifestyle—million-dollar house, Mercedes Benz and show horses—on dollars donated and estates bequeathed to her non-profit. She knew how to rub elbows with wealthy donors and put on glitzy fundraisers. Now she wanted to get her grubby hands on the impressive fortunes of SAP—just a few miles down the road. Time was up when Save A Pet was forced to move and find a new location for their dog kennels. That’s when the black widow moved swiftly to spin a story and cast her web.
The Save A Pet saga began in 1981 when Mary Sydnes organized a small group she named “Friends of Needy Animals.” Mary was determined to find a safe place to care for the unwanted strays that littered the streets. She put her mind and resources into fundraising and started the town’s first thrift shop to generate some quick cash. Two years later, Mary purchased 1.6 acres with a house and a carport on 18th Avenue in Desert Hot Springs. By 1984, Save A Pet was incorporated and permitted by Riverside County to shelter fifty-five dogs. It was a non-profit animal rescue that limped along and struggled for many years, built mainly on the backs of volunteers and meager donations. There were management and compliance issues that plagued the rescue from its humble beginnings right up to its demise. It was the sheer will of the volunteers that kept the lights on, kennels cleaned, and strays from going hungry. Being the only game in town made Save A Pet the only safety net to prevent homeless pets from taking a one-way trip to the Riverside County Shelter death camp. It was backbreaking and lifesaving work. I was grateful for its mighty efforts.
Before the passing of the beloved founder Mary in 2010, Save A Pet had earned such a good reputation in the community that it was not uncommon for long-time donors to bequeath estates and other valuable resources. After Mary’s passing at age ninety-three, her resourceful Board of Directors voted to invest a substantial amount of working capital into their dream of building a state-of-the-art animal hospital. It was bold and ambitious and something our town desperately needed—a prize that MB desperately wanted.
After delays, setbacks and other unpleasant surprises, construction of the Animal Hospital of Desert Hot Springs was completed in the Spring of 2013. Ambitious undertakings had always been the spirit of Save A Pet. It was a proud moment Mary would miss, but one in which the whole town celebrated. We had Mary and her Friends of Needy Animals to thank for all of it. It was living proof of what a small group of like-minded people could accomplish. It was astonishing to witness how far the non-profit had succeeded—and devastating to watch it fail.
To this day the rest of the story remains somewhat of a mystery. The question everyone wanted an answer to was why. Why had SAP failed to secure a new location for the rescue when they had the resources to do so? The County had warned the organization one year earlier, due to a zoning issue, that they needed to relocate their kennel. However, the small house, converted to a cattery, could remain on the 1.6 acres. The clock was ticking for the Save A Pet dogs.
A perfect storm started brewing when Save A Pet board members accepted an invitation by MB. Recent resignations, set off by a newcomer on the board, had downsized SAP’s board members from seven to only three. First, the three SAP members toured the well-manicured grounds surrounding the kennels and office space on the spacious five-acre HSOD property. Of course, they saw plenty of room for expansion and the very real possibly to relocate the SAP dogs. Heads were nodding up and down. MB had lured them onto the property with hints of a merger between the two non-profits. Then she just kept turning on the charm.
Next came an arranged-by-design meeting by MB, billed as a friendly meet-and-greet for the two boards to talk. That’s when things got weird and fuzzy. The vice president of SAP, Chuck Bennett (CB), described his “Yes” vote on the merger as only his willingness to move forward with special council to see if an agreement by both sides could be reached. Ann Woods (AW), the treasurer, simply agreed with Chuck. Dirk Voss (DV), the president, was absent (more about him later). So only two board members were in attendance—Chuck and Ann. The proposed meet and greet was a con job. MB had orchestrated the hostile takeover of SAP by recording fraudulent board minutes: two “Yes” SAP votes in favor of the merger and a unanimous “Yes” vote in favor by HSOD board members. None of it was remotely legal and it all could have been contested. But before opposition forces could mount an attack and hire legal counsel to prove that fraud had been committed, Ann had already lost her mind.
Ann was a gentle soul and now in her mid-seventies, a veteran volunteer of Save A Pet for decades. She was kept especially busy during kitten season when unwanted litters were dumped on her doorstep. As a seasoned grandma, she had mastered around-the-clock bottle feedings and general care of the newborns. Abandoned kittens, feral cats, and cats in need of medical care were Ann’s thing – making her top management in the feline department. This cozy cattery of felines was Ann’s soft spot, giving MB all the clout she needed. She demanded that Ann, the treasurer, hand over all the SAP bank accounts, passwords and keys to the safe—or else. Taking the fifty-seven SAP cats as her hostages, MB played and won a game of emotional blackmail.
As things went from bad to worse, no one in the small army of opposition, including myself, could stop Ann from caving in to MB’s hostile demands. As Ann’s worst fears turned into panic, she lost all ability to see logic. Before we could retain legal counsel, SAP was in the hands of the devil. In exchange for handing over the keys to the SAP kingdom, Ann was granted permission to remain on the property and care for the cats. The scam of a merger left Ann and the cats out in the cold rain. Stripped of non-profit status and funding, Ann would be unable to manage the cattery. When this terrible news got out to the rescue community, the non-profit Kittyland stepped up to cover the last remains of SAP with an umbrella. The old Save A Pet sign on the property Mary had purchased came down. The cattery remains, adjacent to the vacant dog kennels. The new sign reads “Kittyland Cat and Kitten Rescue.” RIP Save A Pet.
MB walked away with millions in SAP assets—including the recently built animal hospital—without a scratch. Dirk resigned as President and was awarded an employment opportunity as the new hospital manager. (It didn’t to matter that he had no previous job experience.) Naturally, Chuck and Ann would live on to rue that day they innocently said “Yes.” Both honest to the core and devoted to the SAP mission, they shared many sleepless nights. Without suspicion, their trust made them easy targets for the con when SAP had become most vulnerable, weakened by the loss of key board members and under the gun by the county’s threat to take action. Rebel forces could not stop the fatal blow to Save A Pet. Its fate ultimately rested in the hands of grandma Ann. She would not sacrifice the lives of those 57 needy felines. Who could really blame her?
On a lazy unsuspecting morning in the spring of 2018, Facebook messenger popped up with a message. Next, an email landed in my inbox—both from rebel forces. Something was up. This news was received with doubtful eyes and a load of skepticism. All our previous attempts had failed to launch a complete investigation by the District Attorney. We had evidence of fraud and embezzlement three years ago. Although we did get the attention of Michael Hestrin, Riverside County DA, we were dumbfounded and furious when his office dropped the investigation less than two months later after interviewing several key witnesses. All inquiries as to why went unanswered by the DA’s office. Mysteriously, MB managed to slip away from her accusers and continue with her business as usual. Like taking candy from a baby, she continued to defraud the public and steal their money. Worse than that, the Save A Pet dogs went missing once they were in her custody. She never wanted them or Ann’s cats. Oh, how we hated her.