Thursday, September 14, 2000

Fort Thomas woman left amid filth

Son who cared for her charged with abuse; house overrun with cats

By Jane Prendergast
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        FORT THOMAS — Neighbors complained for years about the stinking house on the corner. Dozens of cats roamed inside and out, yet nobody was ever home — or so they thought.

        Turns out, the woman who owned the place on Scenic View Drive in this otherwise well-kept neighborhood has recently been inside.

[photo] Fort Thomas police technician Ken O'Hara, in a biohazard suit, and animal-control officer Tony Van Mason prepare to enter the Scenic View Drive home.
(Patrick Reddy photo)
| ZOOM |
        For at least the last three weeks, she has been on a sheet on the garage floor, police said, with bed sores and a broken hip, amid more cats than officials could easily count.

        Wednesday, police, prosecutors, building inspectors and animal-control officers began to piece together intertwined cases: the neglect of a 69-year-old mother and the neglect of the cats.

        While animal officials waded through the filthy house trying to catch all the cats, the woman's 32-year-old son, Phillip, was charged with criminal abuse. He allegedly allowed her to stay in the garage from Aug. 20 until Sunday.

        That's when Bonnie Sarakatsannis arrived at St. Elizabeth Medical Center, where nurses and doctors realized she had not been properly cared for.

        Hospital officials' concerns led police to Phillip, Mrs. Sarakatsannis' caregiver. They got a warrant for his arrest and picked him up Tuesday night.

        From there, investigators needed to search the house for evidence in the case against him. They got a search warrant and stepped — barely — inside the ranch before being cast out by the smell of cat urine and feces.

Phillip Sarakatsannis
Phillip Sarakatsannis
        They were surrounded by cats, too. Animal-control officer Tony Van Mason said he thought he'd counted 20 to 30 at least when he heard a noise from the basement and opened the door. More cats tried to run out. He shut the door and stepped outside to catch his breath.

        Investigators put on plastic suits to protect their clothes and wore masks. Before long, they called the fire department for help — to borrow breathing apparatus.

        Barb Manyet and husband, Gene, live two doors from the house. They said it had been vacant at least 10-12 years. Mrs. Sarakatsannis, they said, lived elsewhere in a condo and was rarely seen in the neighborhood. Her son came regularly to mow the grass.

        They estimated they had caught 13-14 stray cats in the last three weeks. Mr. Van Mason always responded with cages, they said, and took the strays away.

        Mrs. Manyet had planned to walk the neighborhood Wednesday to collect signatures on a petition asking again for city help.

        Police knew about the stench complaints, but couldn't do any thing because laws don't permit them to enter private property without sufficient reason, Chief Steve Schmidt said. They got plenty of reason with the call from St. Elizabeth.

        “The city has responded in every instance,” City Administrator Jeff Earlywine said, “to the best that we could.”

        The city once ordered the family to replace a rotting garage door. They did. Mr. Sarakatsannis responded in writing last November after more neighbors' complaints about felines and smells.

        “We resent the intimation about stench,” he wrote. “Some people in the neighborhood wish to believe that every cat that walks Rock Hill and Scenic View is ours. That is not the case.”

        Neighbors were sad about one part — that their years of complaining ended only because Mrs. Sarakatsannis became severely ill. They stood and watched for hours as officials came and went

        They brought detectives water. Kids ran around the neighborhood trying to help animal-control officers spot stray cats.

        The Sarakatsannis name is well-known in Northern Kentucky: The family started Dixie Chili restaurant in 1929. Some of the relatives, including Mrs. Sarakatsannis and her late husband, Phillip Sr., branched off to develop Crystal Chili, which has since gone out of business.

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