Friday, December 15, 2017
Public safety

Authorities discover hundreds of animals at Oldsmar home

OLDSMAR — Ever since moving onto Lee Street three years ago, Scott Giles did his best to avoid the people in the house with all the animals next door.

They are the reason, Giles said, that when he starts his lawnmower he often spends several minutes chasing snakes — usually black, 1 to 3 feet long — out of his yard.

They are the reason, Giles said, that his children can't play in the back yard for fear something will come over, or under, the fence.

But sometimes the people next door are hard to avoid. Like when the guy came over a few months ago with a question.

"He wanted to know if I'd seen a lizard. One of his big ones. … A bearded dragon, I think. They had lost it," Giles, 32, recalled Sunday. "I said no."

The neighbors have always known there were a lot of animals at 206 Lee St., but it wasn't until Sunday they knew exactly how many: 298, according to the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office — a wide array including spiders, hedgehogs, birds and lizards.

Two of the residents — Jeffrey O. O'Neil, 28, and Jennifer E. Kovacs, 26 — were arrested Sunday on charges of animal cruelty and child abuse. Their 16-month-old daughter also lived there.

Hours after the last animal had been taken, Joyce Kovacs, Jennifer's mother, sat on her front patio facing several news cameras. Kovacs, 63, tried to explain through tears the strange series of events that led to a day her neighbors have been awaiting for years — the day someone would finally take all the animals.

• • •

The animals weren't a problem at first, Joyce Kovacs said.

A recently retired teacher's assistant at Palm Harbor Middle School, Kovacs raised a son and daughter at the one-floor house with a brick facade. About three years ago, her daughter's boyfriend, O'Neil, moved in.

O'Neil liked animals. He brought a few at first, but the collection grew. Red-tail boas. Finches. Rabbits. Scorpion spiders. Lots of rats, to feed the snakes.

Over the last year, Kovacs said, the collection started to get out of control. The animals were breeding. O'Neil and her daughter had their first child, a daughter. Then they lost their jobs. Neither had worked since November, Kovacs said, and they didn't pay rent. Meanwhile, her house was starting to smell.

"I guess I've been an enabler. I'm done," she said Sunday. "There comes a time for tough love. And this is it."

Giles, the neighbor, said the house long has had too many animals and has smelled for almost as long as he's lived there.

A few days ago, Kovacs said, she told her daughter and O'Neil she wanted them and the animals gone. O'Neil said she'd have to take them to court.

She didn't have to. She just had to wait until Sunday, when the death of a close friend led to a late-night party, which in turn led to a feared kidnapping that never was.

• • •

Joyce Kovacs was not at her home Sunday morning, instead babysitting another grandchild. She got a phone call early Sunday to come back to the house — the 16-month-old was missing. O'Neil feared a kidnapping, Kovacs said.

But the baby was not missing. There was no kidnapping. Here's what happened, according to authorities and Joyce Kovacs:

On Saturday there was a funeral for Paul Heaberlin, 23, a friend of Kovacs' children who was hit by a car just after 2 a.m. on New Year's Day. After the funeral, there was a party.

Some time after midnight, a relative of O'Neil's came to the party and found O'Neil asleep and his daughter crying. The relative couldn't wake O'Neil, and decided to take his daughter to O'Neil's mother's house. The relative left a note saying so.

Jennifer Kovacs had gone to another party elsewhere, her mother said Sunday, and thought O'Neil was watching their child.

Joyce Kovacs thinks the note was hidden among food and drinks on her kitchen table.

When O'Neil woke up Sunday, his daughter was gone. When deputies arrived to the report of a missing child, according the Sheriff's Office, they found O'Neil and Jennifer Kovacs under the influence of alcohol. Then someone found the note. Then the deputies noticed all the animals.

Joyce Kovacs said her home was safe for her grandchild. The animals were kept in cages. The problem, she said, was the smell.

Authorities were not as generous. The Sheriff's Office described the living conditions as "deplorable." The animals were being bred and sold without proper licensing, said deputies, who called in the SPCA to help remove the animals.

Jennifer Kovacs had been arrested twice before Sunday, according to Florida Department of Law Enforcement records, on misdemeanor charges, but never convicted of a crime. O'Neil has a longer record, with more than 10 arrests and several felony convictions for drug possession.

Joyce Kovacs disputed parts of a list of animals found reported by the Sheriff's Office. Her daughter owned ball pythons, she said, not the larger Burmese pythons deputies reported finding. And there weren't 100 bearded lizards, Kovacs said — closer to 20.

O'Neil did sell some hedgehogs and rabbits at flea markets and online, Kovacs said, but he never sold lizards. He was in the process of getting licensed by the state, she said.

According O'Neil's Facebook page, he is the owner of J&J's Reptile/Rodent Shack & Rescue.

"Respecting and protecting many reptile/exotic species by promoting conservation education," he wrote, "to ensure the safety of our children's future and the safety of all wildlife!"

Times news researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Will Hobson can be reached at (727) 445-4167 or [email protected]

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