Melissa Hamilton, 49; Gregg Nelson, 57; and Susan Nelson, 43, are facing charges of three counts of child abuse and 66 counts of animal cruelty, according to police.
According to the charging affidavit, Gregg Nelson was ready to end his relationship with his wife, Susan Nelson, and his live-in girlfriend, Hamilton. He wanted to take his three daughters with him, but his wife wouldn’t allow him.
Gregg Nelson requested a wellness check, stating that the residence was uninhabitable for his children.
When Officer Anthony Binz arrived, Susan Nelson told him that her home was a mess and that she was in the process of cleaning it and re-homing the animals, according to the affidavit.
The acrid odor of ammonia assaulted Binz’s nose while he was standing in the driveway, according to his narrative in the charging document.
When the officer entered the home, he saw various species of animals, according to the police report. Some of the animals were caged and sat in their own urine and feces. Some were without any food or water. All the animals appeared to be infested with fleas, and some appeared to have mange.
Binz also found animals that appeared to have been dead for a while because of inadequate care and nutrition, according to the police report.
A police video shows a dog inside a cage with a plastic funnel and what looks like a sink on top of it. An officer pans to the left, where a small, thin black dog sits on gray material in front of a plastic bin that contains egg cartons. A water bottle and a soda can are in front of the dog. A walk up the wooden hallway exposes a large litter box among various forms of trash as dogs bark in the background. At the end of the hallway are two rooms that appear to be in disarray.
The police video pivots to the left as a light shines on a bunk bed with no top mattress. The floor wasn’t visible because of the piled-up garbage, which was ankle deep, according to the police report.
There was nowhere to walk in the home without stepping on debris or animal waste. The counters and furniture were also covered in debris, according to the charging affidavit, and flies plagued the entire house.
Binz wrote that the home was “the absolute worst residence” he had been to in his five years as an officer because of the “overwhelming odor of ammonia [and] animal hoarding” and the overall living conditions, according to his report.
He notified the Department of Children and Families, calling for an immediate response. The agency removed the three girls — a 7-year-old, a 9-year-old and a 10-year old — from the three-bedroom, two-bath home and sent them to stay with a family member, according to police.
More chaos followed.
Gregg Nelson said he was having chest pains and requested an ambulance. He was later taken to a hospital.
Hamilton said she had taken 17 Xanax pills to end her life because she felt everything was going to be taken from her, according to the police report. She was also taken to a local facility for treatment and evaluation.
Susan Nelson, who remained on the scene, signed a consent form that allowed officers to enter her home and another form that allowed the animals to be removed. She wasn’t under arrest at the time and could have revoked her consent at any time, according to the police report.
By the time paperwork had been completed, Susan Nelson had been transported to the Volusia County Branch Jail with no bond. Gregg Nelson is in Edgewater police custody, according to police, and Hamilton is at another facility because of her suicide attempt. Law enforcement will be notified of her release, as a holdover affidavit will be in place for her arrest.
Agencies in the community are pooling time and resources to help the children and the animals as they recover from conditions that are likely to have lasting physical or psychological effects, experts say.
More animals died on their way to the Edgewater Animal Shelter, said administrative assistant and volunteer coordinator Renee Sortman.
Sortman said two guinea pigs died in the “all hands on deck” effort to care for the animals.
“None of them were in good condition,” she said, noting that all the animals showed some form of neglect, including dehydration.
Police reported that, in total, the home contained four dogs, two cats, nine live guinea pigs, 12 rabbits, four hamsters, 10 sugar gliders, 14 birds, a gecko, a tortoise, a hedgehog, seven bearded dragons, a leopard-spotted gecko, 95 mice and 60 adult rats with 23 babies.
“This is a unique case here,” Sortman said. “We haven’t seen something like this for a while.”
Animal hoarding, however, isn’t unique, said Randall Lockwood, former senior vice president of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals’ Anti-Cruelty Speciality Projects.
Lockwood said there have been cases of animal hoarding where the total number of animals nears 1,000, but the average case is 50 to 60 animals.
ASPCA estimates that about a quarter-million animals fall victim to hoarding.
It’s too early to tell how long the rehabilitation of the animals will take, Sortman said.
Each animal could need a different amount of recovery time, according to Lockwood, who said dogs fare better at being brought back from extreme neglect, compared with their feline counterparts, which are more susceptible to death from parasites. Some animals never completely recover, he said.
Why the Nelsons and Hamilton lived with so many animals is under investigation, according to Edgewater Police Department officials.
The department is accepting donations of clothes, toys and money for the girls.
Lockwood pointed out that animal hoarding is recognized as a serious mental illness listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
“It is something that’s very resistant to treatment,” he said, noting that he has seen animal hoarders move from state to state throughout his career. “We know without intervention, without monitors, there is a very strong likelihood that this would be repeated again."