By Jay Meisel
ST. LUCIE COUNTY - When law enforcement officers arrived at an animal shelter last year, they were shocked to find malnourished dogs and cats living in squalor.
An investigation showed the woman in charge of the shelter, instead of spending money for upkeep of the animals, bought a house, two cars and numerous other items, according to an arrest affidavit.
Palena Rae Dorsey, 58, 7295 West County Road 48, Bushnell, executive director of Sanctuary Animal Refuge, was arrested last week and charged with first-degree grand theft.
St. Lucie County Sheriff Ken Mascara said more charges may be forthcoming, as the investigation continues regarding the treatment of the animals.
Sheriff Mascara said Ms. Dorsey initially claimed the number of animals overwhelmed her.
"We know that's not the case," Sheriff Mascara said. "She had more than enough money to take care of them."
He added that she "had all the means to take care of those animals, but chose to spend it all on herself and her family."
Ms. Dorsey told investigators she used the money for personal purchases and that she was "'crazy' at this time and was not thinking in her right mind," her arrest affidavit said.
The investigation regarding the funds began after an acquaintance of Ms. Dorsey contacted the sheriff's office and reported the refuge received $575,000 from a will, the arrest affidavit said.
The woman said soon after the bequest, Ms. Dorsey bought a house with cash, home furnishings, clothes, electronics, two vehicles and Christmas gifts for her family.
The executor of the estate where the money came from told authorities the money was to be invested for the benefit of the refuge.
A records check showed, however, that expenditures from those funds included $18,000 in purchases from Home Shopping Network and similar businesses, $9,400 for groceries, $12,000 for home furnishings, a house for $193,000 and two used cars valued at $25,000.
Other specific items purchased with the money included tableware, kitchenware, Christmas decorations, computers, a television, a blu-ray player and food from such restaurants as Arby's, McDonald's and Taco Bell.
A member of the board of directors told investigators Ms. Dorsey told him that as of the end of 2010, she had not received the money from the bequest, although records showed she had received it, the affidavit said.
The money was not the only concern in the investigation.
More than 100 dogs and cats were rescued by various organizations, including the St. Lucie County Humane Society.
The refuge was located on property once occupied by Dogs and Cats Forever, an unrelated organization that takes in dogs and cats and has a no-kill policy.
Dogs and Cats Forever, which received some of the animals from the refuge, built a newer facility off Selvitz Road.