Former Angels Camp dog kennel owner Vonna Hughes was sentenced to three years on formal probation and 60 days in the county jail with a four-day credit on May 7, however the 70-year-old defendant may not spend time behind bars if she qualifies for an alternative program.

Hughes, who pleaded no contest to animal cruelty, is also required to pay $2,125 in restitution to the victim, Steven Mendoza. The defendant’s $750 court fine was suspended by Judge Susan Harlan after Hughes claimed that she was recovering from cancer and unable to work, prompting laughter from the audience.

The victim’s supporters and a pitbull service dog squeezed into the courtroom, some wearing purple “Justice for CiCi” T-shirts with matching purple hair.

CiCi was one of three pitbulls belonging to Mendoza who went missing while left in the care of Hughes at the Pet Bath House. CoCo and Casper were recovered in different parts of the county, but CiCi was found dead in a trash bag. Hughes reportedly deceived Mendoza regarding the whereabouts of his dogs and continued to bill him for their care. 

Before the sentence was read, Mendoza and his wife, Natalie, delivered tear-filled statements to the courtroom, describing the loss of their home in the Butte Fire and the added burden of the wrongful death of their beloved dog. 

“This ordeal has brought nothing but pain and suffering to my heart. I miss CiCi so much, it kills me inside,” Steven Mendoza said. “CiCi is on my mind every day. I have nightmares of me searching for CiCi but I can’t find her. Then I wake up crying. … Vonna kept telling me to let things lie, over and over again. She told me I need to get a new house, new stuff and new pets, and to start over fresh. How can someone just throw away a family member? … I miss CiCi so much. CiCi was my fur baby and she had feelings, just like everyone else. … Me and Natalie are here to seek justice for CiCi, because we are her voice, and to make sure that Vonna gets the maximum sentence.”

“It’s been a long road for Steven and myself since the Butte Fire. We are hoping for peace of mind through this tragedy of loss,” Natalie Mendoza said. “We are so relieved that this case is coming to an end and we can close this chapter and go on with our lives.”

Hughes, who wore a turtleneck and powder blue duster raincoat, declined to provide a statement following her sentencing.

According to Calaveras County Deputy District Attorney Jeffrey Stone, it is likely that Hughes will avoid jail time by qualifying for an alternative program such as electronic ankle monitoring or a work program.

Hughes must either be accepted into an alternate program or surrender herself to the Calaveras County Jail by June 21.

Outside of the courtroom, Steven Mendoza and his supporters expressed that Hughes' sentence was a disappointing conclusion to a lengthy ordeal that garnered a fervent public following. 

“I wanted to see her do some jail time,” said Julia Falknor, who has stood by the Mendozas through roughly two years of legal proceedings. 

Although he wanted to see Hughes serve a maximum sentence, Steven Mendoza said that he was grateful she could no longer work with animals under the terms of her probation and that a coalition of Jay Tee Kennels and Justice for CiCi members, friends and family helped shut down the Pet Bath House in 2017.

The Justice for CiCi Facebook page currently has over 700 members and is still active. 

According to Mendoza, who has temporarily relocated to San Andreas, CoCo and Casper are in another undisclosed kennel and are “safe.” 

“I want to move on, get home and let my dogs live out the rest of their days,” Mendoza said.

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Dakota graduated from Bret Harte in 2013 and went to Davidson College, NC where she earned a bachelor's degree in Arab studies. After spending time studying in the Middle East and Europe, she is happy to be home, writing about the community she loves.

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