Catherine Anne Vandermaesen, 65, is facing a felony charge after deputies discovered that she had her elderly father and older sister living in a home infested with up to 700 wild rats and other animals.
Deputies with the Ventura County Sheriff’s office arrested Vandermaesen on March 14, 2019, after conducting a welfare check at the house. The home is located in Ojai, which is located northwest of Los Angeles.
Vandermaesen was released from jail the next day and is due back in court on April 2.
Here’s what you need to know.
1. Police First Went to the House to Perform a Wellbeing Check But Vandermaesen Did Not Allow Authorities to Enter the Home
Detective Joseph Preciado of the Ojai Police Department explained during a news conference that deputies went out to Catherine Anne Vandermaesen’s home on March 13, 2019, after getting a call from the Ventura County Adult Protective Services. The organization had expressed concern for Vandermaesen’s 74-year-old sister. Vandermaesen was reportedly caring for both her older sister and her 96-year-old father.
Vandermaesen and her sister, whose first name Detective Preciado did not state, did not allow the deputies inside the house. They told the officials that everything was fine inside the home. Preciado said the deputies noted that both of the women had fecal matter and urine stains on their clothing. There was also a strong ammonia smell coming from the house and from the women.
The deputies asked again if they could come inside the house to check on their father. They again refused but brought their father outside in his wheelchair.
2. Investigators Discovered Hundreds of Rats in the House; Detectives Also Noted the Home Was Filled With Urine & Fecal Matter
Detective Preciado explained that a task force was immediately created to investigate the situation further. About 20 law enforcement agents returned to the home the very next day, on March 14, 2019. They asked Vandermaesen, her sister and her father to all exit the house, which they did without resistance.
The house was filled with fecal matter and urine. Investigators said they estimated that the house was also infested with anywhere between 200 and 700 rats. They gave a wide estimate because the rats were found not only within two bedrooms but also in the walls, in the garage, and in the garbage.
Detective Preciado said the city of Ojai has an abatement plan for clearing the house of all the rats, describing it as an unsafe and unsanitary situation.
3. Officials: The Three Adults Were Living in the Front Room With Dozens of Animals
Catherine Vandermaesen, her sister and her father all appeared to have been living in the front room of the home. Detective Preciado said the three adults were also living with animals in that small space.
He said the family had 12 dogs. There were two grown bunnies and a parrot kept in cages. There were also 55 wild rats kept in cages. Detective Preciado noted that the rats were not pets. The Ventura County Animal Control and Humane Society Ojai were called out to remove the animals and care for them. Detective Preciado said the pets, specifically the dogs, all appeared to be in relatively good condition and fed well, but clearly were not taken outside much if at all.
Detective Preciado said law enforcement had been at the house about six months prior to Vandermaesen’s arrest. At that time, the house was not in its current condition. It is their assessment that the state of the home gradually worsened over that period.
He also mentioned that the family had dealt with a similar situation in the past, and had been given “all the resources” they needed at the time to prevent these unsafe living conditions from happening again.
4. Catherine Vandermaesen is Charged With Felony Elder Abuse & Animal Neglect
Investigators determined that Catherine Vandermaesen had been responsible for caring for her older sister and her elderly father. She was arrested on March 14 and booked into the Ventura County Pre-Trial Detention Facility. She was released from custody the following day.
She is charged with felony elder abuse and a misdemeanor charge for failing to take care of the animals.
The elder abuse charge is described in the California penal code as such:
“A person who knows or reasonably should know that a person is an elder or dependent adult and who, under circumstances or conditions likely to produce great bodily harm or death, willfully causes or permits any elder or dependent adult to suffer, or inflicts thereon unjustifiable physical pain or mental suffering, or having the care or custody of any elder or dependent adult, willfully causes or permits the person or health of the elder or dependent adult to be injured, or willfully causes or permits the elder or dependent adult to be placed in a situation in which his or her person or health is endangered, is punishable by imprisonment in a county jail not exceeding one year, or by a fine not to exceed six thousand dollars ($6,000), or by both that fine and imprisonment, or by imprisonment in the state prison for two, three, or four years.”
During the news conference, Detective Preciado said he could not comment on any mental health issues. But he did say that Vandermaesen had developed an “unhealthy pattern” that she had carried over into the residence.
5. Adult Protection Services Stepped In to Assist the Victims & Officials Tagged the House as Unlivable
Catherine Vandermaesen is not permitted to live in the house. According to a news release, the City of Ojai Code Enforcement designated the property with a yellow tag. That means the house has been deemed unlivable and dangerous.
Vandermaesen sister and father were both transported to the Ojai Valley Hospital Emergency Room on March 14. Ventura County Adult Protection Services took over custody of the 96-year-old man and are caring for him. The organization also helped the sister obtain temporary housing.