Back in January, friends and police portrayed Nicole Marie Caruso alternately as a dog groomer and a dogfighter, an animal rights activist and a drug dealer, a beloved worker with loyal clients and a thief who pilfered piles of animal meds from her employer.
Her co-workers, bosses at two jobs, friends and neighbors defended the 26-year-old. They called the charges of drug dealing, theft and animal cruelty preposterous. Baltimore County Police Chief James W. Johnson told reporters at a televised news conference full of props and photos that the evidence indicated a marijuana and dogfighting ring at Caruso's Lange Street townhouse in North Point.
Now, two months later, prosecutors have quietly, and without television cameras rolling, vindicated Caruso of the charges that her lawyer said most seriously harmed her reputation in the animal-loving community. They dropped all charges related to mistreating dogs that had been filed against her and her two housemates, one of them her boyfriend.
Assistant Baltimore County State's Attorney Adam Lippe said veterinarians disagreed with the police conclusion that pit bulls Dutch, Whezzy, Lucia, Bruno, Gotti and Kane were used for fights. The dogs -- some owned by Caruso, others by her roommates -- were aggressive, but all were spayed or neutered, and healthy, Lippe said. Caruso and the others still face drug and theft charges.
Caruso's attorney, Brian G. Thompson, called the initial statements and charges by police proof of an overzealous investigation that unfairly dragged a respected dog groomer "through the mud in public as some kind of Michael Vick character" to capitalize on visceral public reaction to dog fighting.
But authorities say the case is far more nuanced. They are prepared at trial to say that although the dogs didn't fight, they played rough and were trained to be aggressive to protect the sale of $5 marijuana bags from the house. One law enforcement official noted that these dogs "were not the type to bring home to your child."
Bill Link, who owns SoBo Dog Day Care in South Baltimore's Locust Point, where Caruso worked for six months and had a loyal following of dog owners from as far away as Towson, said this week that he would wait until all the charges are adjudicated before deciding whether to bring Caruso back to work.
She is accused of stealing medicine and equipment from Link's business to treat the dogs at her home.
"I need to let things settle down with her," Link said. His company's Web site links to Caruso's Facebook page, on which she wrote this week:
"To everyone that has supported me, THANK YOU!! my most exciting news to report is ... the cops had to admit they were wrong about dog fighting. ... They put me through the ringer [sic] and now who is going to announce on the news that they lied ??????"
Police initially linked Caruso and her housemates to the bloodthirsty sport based on evidence that included bloodstains on an inside wall, photos of injured dogs, a torn-up back yard and the bulk medicine that detectives said indicated Caruso nursed dogs injured in fights back to health. They also pointed out a collar with bite marks, a leg iron with a 2 1/2-pound weight and a treadmill with paw prints, evidence, they said, of dogs forced to work out.
Neighbors said Caruso bought the treadmill for $30 on Craigslist to lose weight herself, that she treated not only her dogs but countless strays and other injured animals she found, and that her dogs' injuries were the result of aggressive play, not sport.
Prosecutors said they are prepared to proceed with a trial and that they don't have a problem with the way police investigated or with the conclusions they reached. Caruso's attorney wishes police had done more work before making arrests and announcing the busting of a dogfighting ring on television.
"The only evidence they had was pit bulls and a torn-up back yard," Thompson said.
A Baltimore County police spokesman declined to comment.
Caruso still has a long way to go. Court records show she has money problems. Even with animal cruelty charges dropped, she faces the possibility of prison time if convicted of the remaining charges. Her dogs are at a shelter, but her attorney said they won't be destroyed and she might get them all back.