VALRICO — It took 15 minutes to get through the front door of a $300,000 house.
Investigators used broomsticks and mop handles to push away debris. From inside a gated Valrico community, they removed a frail older woman and some of her cats — eight dead and 15 alive.
Hillsborough County Animal Services said both the woman and the cats appeared neglected. The Department of Children and Families was summoned, to see whether 74-year-old Alice Santy, a woman who showed signs of hoarding, needed help.
Now, the Sheriff's Office is investigating to see how Mrs. Santy, who is married, came to be left alone with the cats and shoulder-high clutter in her house on Crowned Eagle Court.
Sheriff's Office spokesman J.D. Callaway said the county has an "active case open." He wouldn't elaborate.
"We're not speculating on what might be, what could be," he said. "We're looking for the facts right now."
Mrs. Santy was taken from her home Wednesday. She initially was put in the care of Baylife Crisis Center because she appeared to be in poor mental and physical health and was emaciated, said Hillsborough County Animal Services investigator Ken Vetzel.
Her husband, James Santy, was not at the house when authorities seized the cats and sent his wife to the crisis center.
Bay News 9 reported that James Santy had been located living in a condo in Davenport, south of Orlando, and that Mrs. Santy had joined him there after her release from the center.
The Times could not reach them for comment.
Relatives worry that people will get the wrong idea about the Santys.
Mrs. Santy's niece, Tammy Canard of St. Petersburg, said she is worried about both her aunt and her uncle.
"They've been married over 40 years and he's never left her side," said Canard, 41.
Canard and her brother, Louis Bary Santy, considered "Aunt Alice" and "Uncle Jimmy" to be a second set of parents.
"My uncle raised us," she said.
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When officials intervened Wednesday, they found mounds of purchases and collected items inside Alice Santy's house, and garbage piled high in her kitchen. Roaches crawled in plain sight. Cat feces littered the floor. The swimming pool was green.
Bags, boxes and other items could be seen from the street, pressed up against the floor-to-ceiling windows. Neighbors reported that when Mrs. Santy went out, she often came home with shopping bags.
There's a fine line between lifestyle choice and a dangerous environment, say people who have dealt with hoarders.
That's why working with adult hoarders can be difficult, said Nick Cox, DCF's regional director.
Before intervening with force, officials must believe the person is at risk.
"That's the kind of issue that us and law enforcement will be dealing with," Cox said. "Whether this person has the mental capacity to choose how they live."
He wouldn't say whether the agency is working with Alice Santy.
People hoard for many reasons, said psychologist David Tolin, who researches compulsive hoarding. They may have an "exaggerated sense of the usefulness of things," he said. Or they keep something for sentimental reasons. Or, they're just indecisive.
Mrs. Santy's niece and nephew knew she was a collector of everything, including stray cats. She loves animals, they said.
Louis Bary Santy figured collecting was part of Mrs. Santy's personality.
His sister, Canard, thought it might be something more serious. She said she believes Mrs. Santy has a hoarding problem.
"They're not bad people," Canard said of her aunt and uncle.
"They just need help."
Amy Mariani can be reached at (813) 226-3374 or [email protected]