KCSO: 4 people charged in major animal cruelty case

Several people were charged after KCSO deputies discovered a home filled animals, some of which were found dead and decomposing.
Published: Mar. 15, 2023 at 4:52 PM EDT
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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT) - The Knox County Sheriff’s office charged four people in a major animal cruelty case, officials with the office announced Wednesday afternoon.

The case involves four people, all of whom are facing animal cruelty charges. Those people are Haylee Elisabeth Morris, 22, Michelle Lee Burgess-Morris, 50, Thomas Jason Morris, 51, and Isabella Madison Morris, 19.

Haylee Morris, who operated a pet sitting service, had previously been accused of animal abuse. One of those complaints, made to the sheriff’s office, prompted their first response, according to incident reports obtained by WVLT News.

Previous Coverage: Knox County pet sitter accused of neglecting animals under her care

KCSO has been working on this case since July 16, 2022, when deputies first performed an animal check on the Morris’ home, the reports said. Since that first visit, KCSO deputies visited the home six times, the reports said. The reports outlined the details of KCSO’s visits to the Morris house and summarized the animals found there and the charges the Morrises are facing.

First Report: July 16, 2022

Deputies first responded to 8112 Leclay Drive after receiving a tip from a woman who had left a dog, named Colby, with Haylee Morris. After getting the dog back, the owner said that it was in an extremely unhealthy condition, which was verified in the report by a testimony from the dog’s veterinarian.

“Colby has had rapid weight loss since he was at the clinic,” the vet stated. “He appears emaciated and ribs can be seen. Colby is extremely dehydrated and will require fluids. He is lethargic. The odor on Colby’s fur strongly suggests he has been laying in his own feces and urine. Colby has live fleas crawling on him despite being given Bravecto on 6/30. His overall health has deteriorated noticeably in the past two weeks. Veterinary recommendation is not to send him on transport until he is healthier.”

Upon arrival, the responding officer said he could smell “something rotten” coming from the garbage can outside the home, adding that a truck in the driveway was full of trash. Additionally, the officer noted that there was open animal food, dirty toys and empty bowls on the house’s porch.

“I knocked on the door numerous times. Several dogs could be heard barking. A strong smell of urine was emitting from the home,” the report said.

After knocking multiple times, a woman answered the door and told the officer that she was Haylee’s grandmother, according to the report, and that she was not home. After calling Haylee, she came to the house and spoke to the officer, telling him that she was watching an aggressive dog. Haylee also did not let the officers inside the house because the house’s air conditioning was broken.

While there, the deputies also got a list of animals Haylee had fostered from Young-Williams Animal Center. One of those animals, a dog, reportedly died after less than 24 hours in Haylee’s care. She told the officer that the dog died because it was old and overweight. However, when the officer asked an employee at Young-Williams about the dog, that employee told him that the dog “had very good results from the blood work obtained from the vet staff.”

On top of the dog that died, Haylee told the officers she had adopted eight rabbits, two dogs, two hamsters, two birds and a cat, all of which had died.

Second Report: March 5, 2023

Another officer went to the home on March 5, almost eight months after the first visit, on another complaint of abused animals, according to the second report. That report also said that the sheriff’s office had received five complaints tied to the address about animal abuse.

Since the officer was not able to execute a warrant, he said he left a warning at the door when no one answered. That report also said the officer had heard multiple dogs barking inside the home’s garage, but the officer couldn’t tell how many there were.

Third Report: March 6, 2023

The third report outlines a discussion between Thomas Morris, Haylee’s father, and an officer at the sheriff’s office. According to the report, two officers were supposed to inspect the Morris’ home, but the day of the scheduled visit, Thomas called to reschedule.

Thomas told the officer that Haylee had been cut by a knife, which had been put in a trash bag, while taking out the trash. Additionally, Thomas told the officer that his other daughter had injured her shoulder while playing catch, meaning no one would be at the home.

That visit was rescheduled to March 7.

Fourth Report: March 7, 2023

The fourth report outlines the rescheduled visit between the Morrises and officers from the sheriff’s office. It was around this time that accusations of animal abuse had begun circulating online, and the Morrises brought that up to the officers, who told them they would follow up on any possible privacy concerns, but most of the issues the family had were matters of public record.

During that encounter, the officers noted that the home was dirty and smelled.

“The smell was consistent with urine and feces. Large black flies were circling in the porch area especially at the door,” the report said. “Upon entering the home through the front door, I could see feces dried to the floor and it appeared to have settled in to the edges of the walls. Puddles of urine were along walls and on the floor”

Officers added that there was trash inside the home, packed up against the walls.

The officers reported that several animals were in the home, including at least one dog that was in poor condition. The Morrises told officers that the dog was “riddled with cancer and under Veterinarian care in Maryland.” The family was not able to provide any medical records for the dog, however.

Additionally, Haylee told the officers that, while there were enough rooms for everyone in the house to have their own room, one was used for storing animal crates since a child who lived there was a “sleep between kid” who did not want to sleep in their own bed.

After speaking with the family, the officer said he contacted Adult Protective Services and the Department of Children’s Services to report the condition of the home.

After that visit, the report stated the Morrises said they had nine dogs, one bearded dragon and one parakeet in the home. Of those animals, the Morrises said, three dogs were service animals. The report said that they were not able to provide paperwork confirming that fact.

Fifth Report: March 8, 2023

The fifth report only stated that on March 8, a sheriff’s office employee responded to the home to take pictures. WVLT News has reached out to KCSO for copies of those records.

Sixth Report: March 8, 2023

Also on March 8, officers responded to the home to remove the nine dogs and bearded dragon, according to the report. Additionally, the reporting officer stated that the house was in bad shape.

“When I walked to the door, a strong smell of decomposition, trash and urine was present. I entered the front door, I noticed wet towels flat on the floor in the common area to absorb a liquid leaking from the ceiling,” the report said, adding that a spackle knife had been used to scrape up hardened feces from the floor.

While removing the animals the sheriff’s office knew about, the employee who was taking pictures of the home found more dogs upstairs. After discovering the additional animals, the report said, several more Animal Control officers and KCSO patrol officers were called in, even on their days off, to assist in removing them.

While upstairs, the reporting officer said he found fresh cat food, prompting him to ask Isabella Morris if there was a cat in the home, but she said there was not.

“It was at this time Officer Morrison heard a cat meow coming from the bathroom attached to Isabella’s living area,” the report said. That cat was eventually found in Isabella’s bathtub in a crate under more clutter, the report said.

Another dog, a 12-month-old German shepherd puppy was found inside Haylee’s closet.

“The closet had a large amount of items in front of it (blocking the door from opening),” the report said. It was later determined that the puppy had several infections and had been spending time standing in its own urine and feces.

Two guinea pigs and a leopard gecko with no food or water were found in another bedroom, the report said.

As officers were moving through the house, they said they found another bedroom with a note on the door stating “STOP Babies Present. What good reason do you have to enter?? NONE Leave babies alone and STAY OUT.”

Inside that room, which was covered in hay and waste, officers said they found a dead cat, guinea pig, rabbit and ferret, all decomposing.

“Some feces was fresh, most had begun to change color from age, turning white and growing mold. There was a large amount of general trash throughout the upstairs area. Two rooms had feces and various amounts of hay in them,” the report said. It also noted that the upstairs was so cluttered that there could have been more dead animals in the home.

While searching the garage, officers said they found another dead rabbit.

Outside the home, officers said they found at least eight more cats, three rats, a turtle and a dead bird in the house’s crawlspace.

“The findings were so extensive, veterinary cruelty checks needed to be conducted on each animal and the deceased animals were sent to the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine for necropsy testing (to attempt to determine the cause of death),” the report stated.

That report also included examples of complaints made towards Haylee by people whose animals she had watched over. Several of those complaints said animals had died or became injured while in Haylee’s care.

Seventh Report: March 9, 2023

On March 9, the sheriff’s office, along with Adult Protective Services, arrived at the home and removed 43 animals from the home and took them to the Young-Williams Animal Center. This was confirmed to WVLT News previously by Young-Williams employees.

Previous Coverage: Young-Williams helping after 43 animals removed from Knoxville home, center says

In total, 17 dogs, 12 cats, two guinea pigs, three rats, one bearded dragon, one gecko, one turtle and one parakeet were taken to the animal center. Another five animals were removed from the home but were dead. Additionally, two more dead animals had to be left in the home because they were so decomposed, they could not be sent to a facility for necropsy.

Another dog was not taken to Young-Williams, but instead given to its owner.

Officers added that there may have been more animals in the home, but it was so full of trash and clutter that they could not search completely.

“If there were additional dead/decomposed animals, they were not visible in the clutter and garbage throughout the home,” the report said.

Eighth Report: March 13, 2023

The final report provided by the Knox County Sheriff’s Office lists the charges each of the four suspects are facing. All four of the Morrises are charged with two counts of aggravated cruelty to animals as a class E felony, two counts of cruelty to animals as a class a misdemeanor and two counts of violation of rabies laws as a class C misdemeanor.

Only Michelle Lee Burgess-Morris is in custody.

In total, at least 29 animals were found living at the house with six found dead. Many of the reports stated that “several” animals were found in various rooms. According to the reports, another 25 animals were reported dead either during or shortly after being in the custody of Morris.