FLORAL CITY (FOX 13) - A mother and daughter were jailed in what Citrus County detectives described as a horrific case of animal cruelty that turned out to be the center of a scam.
At a news conference Wednesday, deputies said their investigation began July 10 when they were called out to a home in Floral City when a pet cremation company could not get a hold of a family to whom the remains belonged.
Deputies were stunned by what they found on the property: A dead horse, five dead rabbits, dogs and cats that were either decomposing or tossed in the trash, and nearly 40 other animals that had been left to suffer, starve, and dehydrate.
Investigators determined the home was being rented by Nancy Freeman, 74, and her daughter, Katherine Freeman, 41. But detectives said as they looked further into the case, they determined the mother and daughter were criminals.
"These two women had done this same exact thing across several different states and they had never been caught," said Heather Yates, a spokesperson for the Citrus County Sheriff's Office.
Investigators found similar cases in Kentucky, Tennessee and Arkansas. They said, each time, the Freemans would tell a sad story, get people to get them some deals, run up unpaid bills, then take off, leaving animals behind to die.
"They get behind on the rent, they destroy the property, and they flee in the middle of the night," said Deputy Michele Tewll.
"These people are con-artists," added Animal Control Officer Lora Peckham. "And it's puzzling, why did they do it? We can't answer that."
One of the surviving horses was a retired thoroughbred racehorse and a direct descendant of Secretariat and Seattle Slew, deputies said.
Greg Jarmon, whose family owns the home in Floral City, said his father knew the Freemans had animals, but had no idea this was going on.
"It was very shocking. My father, when it rented it out, [Nancy] said that she was a cancer survivor. She made the claim about being the widow of a vet, so my father obviously took pity and wanted to help them out in any way he could," Jarmon said. "It's one of those things, you try to help people out, you try to give them the benefit of the doubt and obviously it kind of bit us in the butt in the end."
The Freemans lived in the Floral City house for two years. Jarmon said they ran up $8,000 in back rent and caused $30,000 in damage to their house.
He said that doesn't compare to the suffering the animals went through.
"Whether we're going to be able to recover anything from them is doubtful," he said. "Just the smell alone you knew that these animals were suffering, so it's nice to know that they're being punished."
Investigators said the Freemans were able to evade authorities by using several aliases.
They were arrested at a hotel in Hillsborough County. Detectives aren't sure whether they were trying to get away.