Bonnie Poe has raised pet monkeys for nearly 15 years. She's rescued them and taken care of them since then on her Southern Arizona ranch off a quiet Picture Rocks street. As a former licensed monkey owner, she even had federal certification to do so. All that changed last October when her first monkey, LaToya grew sick from valley fever.
"She was so severely sick with it that was she was starting to seize up and go paralyzed on me," Poe said as she fed candy to Romo, a rescue capuchin monkey like LaToya.
Poe's friends reached out for help for her through Facebook. She ended up finding a Florence woman, Gail Cassidy Mehrhoff. Mehrhoff alleged she ran an animal sanctuary as a 501(c)3 non-profit.
"She knew all about valley fever. She was an expert and she told me that she could really help me."
The offer seemed too good to be true.
"I was so distraught with LaToya and she was so- I mean I really thought I was losing her at that time. And Gail said she would come down and transport her immediately," Poe said.
Poe acknowledges that she signed a hand-written consent letter for Mehrhoff to care for LaToya, but not to keep her. That's exactly what Mehrhoff did, she says.
In fact, Mehrhoff then started posting to Facebook, asking people to donate for LaToya's care. In one post, she claimed to have raised nearly $2,000 and said her non-profit matched that amount. "497. [sic] Left [sic] to make this happen for the Love of Latoya," she wrote.
In another Facebook posting, she acknowledges that Poe owns LaToya. "Bonnie Poe, latoya's mom and [sic} are in constant contact," she wrote in a October 27 post.
"Gail said it was nobody's business but hers and her Arizona Animal Sanctuary farm and people were getting upset with that because they wanted to know where their donations were going," Poe said.
Then Mehrhoff cut all contact with Poe.
"I wanted to bring LaToya home and all of a sudden, she wouldn't let me see LaToya anymore. Or visit. Or anything."
We called Mehrhoff at two different cellphone numbers and left her numerous voicemails both at the phone number posted for the sanctuary, and also for a thrift store she owns in Florence. A records request filed by the News 4 Tucson Investigators to the city of Florence shows that Mehrhoff received a certificate of business license exemption for Finders Keepers Thrift Store doing business as Arizona Animal Sanctuary, Inc., last February. The animal sanctuary lost its 502(c)3 status with the Internal Revenue Service this year. But the listed address for the sanctuary led us to a house listed to another owner on an unmarked street. And at the thrift store, a man named Mel approached us.
The man declined to answer our questions, stating "no comment" after each question. He then asked us to leave the store.
As we were leaving, another man, David Silvas, came out of the thrift store to tell us he'd seen a monkey here at the thrift store.
"It looked healthy?"
"It looked healthy yeah."
"How many times have you seen it here?"
Poe hired an attorney to write to Mehrhoff and demand LaToya's return.
"But then she came to find out that this woman Gail Mehrhoff wanted to keep Bonnie's pet. Wanted to keep LaToya," said the attorney, Joe Gravina.
He said Mehrhoff has accused Poe of harassment but that a judge in Pima County declined that charge last week.
"To me it's plain and simple theft." Gravina said.
But law enforcement told Poe that LaToya's ownership is a civil matter. That may be where Poe ends up taking her case if she can afford more attorney fees.
"I'm just devastated. Beyond words. I have this pain in my heart that you know, she's so missed and loved here. We have other monkeys here, you know, she's part of a troop. They cry for her every morning. And I just want her home where she belongs," Poe said.
If you have a tip for the investigators, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 955-4444.