Reports pin location of suspect in Alabama

A year after neglected dogs found, alleged abuser still on run

Arraignment comes down without accused present

Posted 10/29/19

The odor protruding from the home was so foul that three of the eight volun-teers were unable to cross the front door’s threshold.

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Reports pin location of suspect in Alabama

A year after neglected dogs found, alleged abuser still on run

Arraignment comes down without accused present


The odor protruding from the home was so foul that three of the eight volunteers were unable to cross the front door’s threshold.

It was a sweltering August night in 2018 when the Madison County Sheriff’s Department asked Dawn Knight of Rufus Refuge for her assistance upon discovering more than 20 abandoned animals, primarily dogs, in deplorable conditions at a residence off Bankhead Road in Bedias.

“There were dead animals inside and outside, on chains and off,” said Knight. “There were even more when we went back the next day and discovered an open grave with three dogs at the bottom.”

All told, the property became the final resting place for 11 neglected dogs. Another, Betty, would die shortly after her rescue. Eleven more were rescued and received treatment, but may never be normal again.

One of the dogs was discovered underneath the home. In a video shot by Knight at the scene, you could hear her crying out in immense pain. When they were able to locate and retrieve the dog from under the home, the situation was so bad that the decision was made to put her out of her misery.

In the same video, a dead dog was seen chained to a bathtub.

Knight also had a number of gut-wrenching photos, including one depicting the open grave described above. One of the dogs, who was discovered hiding and shivering in a kitchen cabinet, had a tumor that was larger than her head sticking out from her abdomen.

The search for Deborah Zortman, the homeowner and alleged abuser, now continues past her arraignment last week. She was arraigned in absentia Oct. 22 by the Madison County Court on 11 counts of cruelty to non-livestock animals.

The conditions at the home were originally discovered on Aug. 12, 2018.

According to Madison County District Attorney Brian Risinger, the arraignment took such a long time because of efforts trying to locate Zortman. There was also information suggesting she might have fled to Louisiana.

Zortman was living in the Bedias home, tucked away and hidden among a large stand of trees, with her mother, Thelma Metzger, and her young grandchildren. A Facebook post from Zortman’s account posted on Dec. 20, 2017, more than eight months before the abandoned dogs were found, makes a plea for justice for a starved beagle puppy found at a home in Kentucky.

The house lies in a Darrell Hall subdivision, which is operated by 5GLP.

According to a Darrell Hall employee, the house was foreclosed on and a 30-day vacate notice had been issued. But the residents disappeared before the month was up, leaving the state — and the animals — behind.

Knight, working tirelessly with other volunteers to compile information on the case for over a year, believes Zortman now resides in Alabama. This thought is shared by Zortman’s daughter.

“I was in shock about it,” said one of Zortman’s daughters, who asked not to be identified by name. “They had a few of those dogs for more than five years and they just did that to them. I could not understand how my grandmother let that happen.”

Her late grandfather, Earl Metzger, originally opened the home to a large number of dogs, who he believed were placed in his care by God.

“It was like they destroyed the last memory I had of my grandfather when they killed his dogs,” said Zortman’s daughter. “They were not just pets, they were family. It made me question everything I knew about them as people, because I never thought they were capable of something so horrible.”

Zortman’s daughter, who had fed and cared for the animals in the past, assisted Rufus Refuge in gathering information on the surviving dogs. She also named Alabama as the only place she would think they might have gone, possibly to meet up with her sister, Cassandra Metzger. The family lived in Alabama before moving to Madison County.

Cassandra, another daughter of Zortman’s, was eliminated as a person of interest in the case by county authorities.

Knight received many inquiries about the incident along with information. Shortly after the horrid discovery, correspondence came from an individual who spoke with Zortman days before she moved. According to the messenger, Zortman stated that she was moving to Louisiana, “40 minutes north of Shreveport.”

The messenger also claimed that Zortman offered them and their coworker one of the pigs also kept on the Bedias property.

Another source recently offered information regarding Zortman’s possible whereabouts in Jefferson County, Alabama. The source said she believes Zortman works at a nearby branch of Crossmark Inc., a marketing services company that has employed Zortman in the past. The source, who also wished to remain anonymous, was able to identify Zortman’s supposed supervisor.

The Meteor reached out to the supervisor at the position, who would not confirm if Zortman was an employee. She said she was unauthorized to release any employment information.

However, when stating the call’s purpose to locate Zortman, the supervisor did not immediately deny the employment or knowing Zortman, answering by saying “and?”

The case has been widely known and discussed throughout Madison County since August of 2018, but certain disturbing elements have only recently come to light.

Upon further investigation of the location, Knight and fellow volunteer Julie Dean discovered light yellow and lime-green residue on two of the dog bowls inside the Bedias home. They decided to collect samples of the substance and take them to the Texas A&M Veterinary Medical Diagnostic Laboratory for further examination.

The submitted jar and glove tested positive for ethylene glycol, the main ingredient in antifreeze. Some of the animals were poisoned.

To further confirm this, they brought two of the dogs back to the lab for necropsies. They found tissue that confirmed the two dogs were exposed to antifreeze.

“We could not understand why they were all dead or dying,” said Knight. “Then, after the samples were tested, it all made sense. Looking back, we had not known that Betty had it in her system at the time she died.”

Dogs can survive after consuming a small amount of antifreeze but will likely develop kidney damage within a few days. This often results in death.

The dogs who survived the ordeal are currently being fostered or have found new homes.

According to Knight, Teddy and Hope -- untouchable and unsocialized -- remained together in foster care, but Teddy ultimately got loose from the foster home and was never found. Hope is now in a home of her own and does the best she can.

Koda was adopted before he was returned after a couple of months as a result of aggressive behavior. There have not been any issues since and he remains unadopted. Tucker, Barney, Sebastian, Bo, Ely, Moose and Nellie have all been placed into homes and are, for the most part, doing well.

Shadow, Moose’s brother, has not been adopted. He is 10 years old and toothless, likely as a result of chewing on chains.

“None of these dogs got out of there without issues,” said Knight.

Madison County contributed $2,000 to assist Rufus Refuge in the rescue efforts. The organization is, in large part, dependent on outside donations.