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Internal records allege Jefferson County animal shelter sold opioids, used Texas vet's drug license to run clinic

After a nearly three-month investigation, the I-Team has uncovered several allegations of potential wrongdoing involving controlled narcotics and an embattled veterinarian hundreds of miles away.

HOUSE SPRINGS, Mo. — For more than 40 years, it has been working to provide second chances for thousands of cats and dogs that otherwise might not have a home.

But following a nearly three-month investigation by the 5 On Your Side I-Team, several serious allegations are now coming to light about Open Door Animal Sanctuary in Jefferson County.

Founded in 1975, the non-profit boasts on its website and social media pages that it has grown to become one of the largest no-kill animal shelters in the bi-state region.

Longtime executive director Tracie Quackenbush spoke to 5 On Your Side for a separate story in 2016 about the guiding mission of Open Door.

"We believe that if you're no kill, you have to have a quality of life or you're not doing them any good," she said.

On its website, Open Door lists a number of community and corporate supporters that include big names like Purina and Domino's.

And if you've ever been to the Mardi Gras pet parade in Soulard, then you've attended one of the shelter's largest fundraisers.

According to Open Door's most recent financial information posted on its website, it brought in more than $1 million in total revenue in 2017 and nearly $2 million the year prior.

But internal shelter records and communications obtained by 5 On Your Side suggest that for several years, Open Door might not have been doing everything completely by the books.

The information, which includes emails, investigative findings, receipts, drug logs and written testimony, was provided to the I-Team by more than a dozen former Open Door insiders.

These are ex-employees, volunteers and board members who came forward out of what they call concern for the animals and lack of accountability of the management at Open Door.

Some of the individuals even signed nondisclosure agreements with the pet shelter, but still agreed to talk to the I-Team about their first-hand experiences.

"Sometimes doing the right thing is not the easiest thing. You have to be willing to go all the way. The animals cannot speak up for themselves," said Ashley Sims, a former volunteer and member of Open Door's governing board of directors.

Sims asserts that shortly after she was appointed to the board in 2018, multiple people came to her worried about how drugs were being mishandled and animals mistreated.

She said it was also something that had been bothering Dr. Amy Wolff, a veterinarian who did some work for Open Door in their pet clinic.

"That was a big problem for the vet when she came on. She was like 'This cat hasn't been seen in years,'" Sims recalled.

In fact, some of these concerns were spelled out in a March 2017 letter that Wolff sent to Quackenbush.

Wolff, who longer works at Open Door, wrote, "There are several violations of how controlled drugs are handled."

She went on to warn Quackenbush, "...there are several issues with how the drugs are transported around the facility and storage once they are in the veterinary clinic."

It's unclear how Quackenbush or any other staff members responded, if at all.

But one employee, Tina Roesch, told 5 On Your Side she saw the alleged violations on a routine basis.

"[The drugs] were kept in a Rubbermaid cabinet with a lock that was left open and hanging on the door handle. Most of the time, it wasn't even shut," Roesch said. "Nobody would know if you took them home."

The assertion would appear to violate federal and state laws that require controlled drugs to be safely secured and monitored to avoid them being potentially diverted for illegal purposes.

In at least one instance, though, it appears some drugs did end up in the hands of someone who shouldn't have had them.

An October 2017 email from Quackenbush to her board members contains the subject line "Tramadol."

Quackenbush writes that she sold more than 200 pills of the controlled pain medication to a dog trainer who did not have a prescription.

According to a receipt detailing the transaction, Quackenbush charged the trainer nearly $40 for the pills, which the Drug Enforcement Administration classifies as a level IV controlled substance that can be prescribed to both humans and animals.

The sale also appears on Open Door's drug log, which was obtained by the I-Team. The Missouri Division of Professional Regulation confirmed that at the time, the shelter lacked a pharmacy license.

The dog trainer, who spoke to 5 On Your Side on the phone and did not want to be identified, confirmed he bought the Tramadol from Quackenbush for his sick dog. He said he was under the impression it was just "a friend helping a friend."

"We should never be selling. We're not a pharmacy. We shouldn't be selling any sort of medication to anybody, definitely not a controlled substance," Sims said.

Sims added that she tried to raise this point with her fellow board members, thinking they'd want to pursue disciplinary action, but she was wrong.

"They were more interested in protecting the executive director at all costs," Sims told 5 On Your Side.

In Missouri, health officials told the I-Team that animal shelters aren't legally supposed to have controlled drugs on their premises.

However, many of them hire or contract licensed veterinarians, who under the law are allowed to engage in controlled substance activities.

Though, regulations dictate that they are the ones solely responsible for any such activities that happen under their federal and/or state licenses.

Sims said in Open Door's situation, the vet's license they were relying on was another violation some board members and Quackenbush were willing to overlook.

"I think the executive director just never thought it would be questioned by anyone," she said.

The DEA confirmed to 5 On Your Side that from 2003 to 2018, Open Door engaged in controlled substance activities using the federal drug license of Dr. Melanie Mercer.

But Sims, Roesch and other former shelter volunteers and employees told the I-Team they have no idea who that person is. They couldn't even provide a physical description.

In fact, internal emails at Open Door point out that Dr. Mercer was not even an employee at the shelter or a resident of Missouri. On recent tax filings, she's only listed as a "director" who averages just five hours per week.

Dr. Wolff also wrote to Quackenbush in March 2017 that "...you have a veterinarian that lives in another state authorizing the purchase of controlled drugs."

That was followed up with an August 2017 email from a now-former Open Door board president to Quackenbush.

It reads, in part, that "...Melanie Mercer is not a practicing veterinarian at Open Door and the use of her name and DEA number cannot be used to order controlled substance drugs for Open Door."

Yet, that's exactly what the non-profit appears to have done for more than a decade, according to internal records.

Sims said, "That means she (Quackenbush) was ordering medication and receiving it on her own, which is against the law."

So, this begs the question: where was Dr. Melanie Mercer if she wasn't at Open Door?

The I-Team uncovered property and business records that seem to suggest she has been living and working as a veterinarian in Texas since at least the early 2000s.

Texas state vet records show in 2011, Dr. Mercer was even fined $500 after she admitted to improperly administering and prescribing controlled drugs.

"None of us knew there was a vet in Texas. None of us knew any of that," Roesch said.

5 On Your Side attempted to reach Dr. Mercer more than a dozen times over the span of several weeks. Our attempts include emails, phone calls and a handwritten letter.

But she never got back to us, making it unclear how much, if anything, Dr. Mercer knew about the way Open Door appears to have been using her drug license to get drugs to operate a vet clinic.

But Quackenbush appears to have known exactly what was happening and remained defiant.

In December 2017, she sent an email to a now-former board member that reads:

"For 16 years, Melanie and I did what we had to do so Open Door could operate the vet clinic. Five different board of directors went along with it and you can not tell me that the DEA and other key people didn't know Dr. Mercer lived in Texas. No one in 16 years questioned it."

But Roesch and others said they weren't allowed to speak up. 

"We were not to speak to them at all. We would be fired," she said.

She and Open Door later got into a dispute over the care of a sick dog. Roesch said she quit her job after three years and was banned from returning to the property.

Sims eventually shared her concerns with investigators from the Missouri Department of Agriculture, which oversees animal shelters.

Shortly thereafter, she said she and her husband were both removed from the board. 

"That's why I'm not on the board anymore. I wasn't welcome to have these opinions," she said.

Last year, state investigators looked into Open Door and conducted multiple site visits at its Jefferson County location and at PetSmart in Chesterfield, where the shelter adopted out cats.

RELATED: PetSmart cuts ties with Jefferson County shelter over 'serious concerns' about animal welfare

The shelter was never issued any fines or penalties, but the findings of that investigation were provided to 5 On Your Side through a public records request.

Open Door was found to have committed a number of violations pertaining to animal care and record keeping.

They include:

  • failing to maintain records of daily medications and treatments
  • forging rabies certificates
  • housing cats and kittens in storage areas
  • a kitten dying without a vet exam
  • improper storage of food and bedding
  • animals lacking official identification
  • failing to accurately record the name of the vet who administered the rabies vaccine on the rabies certificates
  • multiple expired medications (repeat violation)
  • incomplete labels for multiple medications
  • failing to retain records for one year

On Wednesday, PetSmart confirmed to 5 On Your Side it is suspending Open Door from its adoption program immediately.

A spokeswoman told the I-Team it's all because the company has "serious concerns" about the well-being and care of the shelter's animals.

Open Door has been part of the program at the PetSmart location in the Chesterfield Valley for several years, according to sources familiar with the situation.

But now, all of Open Door's cats have to be removed from the property and no more adoption events can be held at any PetSmart store.

In an email to Open Door, PetSmart said the company is launching its own investigation and that adoptions cannot resume until the shelter is declared in good standing by the company again.

Sims, Roesch and their supporters contend they're not speaking out to try and cause harm to Open Door. They say they just want what's best for the animals.

"It just has to stop. We all care about the animals. That's what I care about. I want the animals to succeed. I want Open Door to succeed," Roesch said.

5 On Your Side made repeated attempts over several weeks to secure an on-camera interview with Quackenbush or their attorney, Steve Spoeneman. Neither would agree.

Spoeneman referred the I-Team to this statement:

"What I can tell you is that ODAS, like all similar organizations, is closely regulated by various governmental entities and welcomes routine visits by regulators. It employs or engages not just one, but a number of licensed professionals where and as required. It follows all requirements and makes changes in its practices when recommended or directed to do so. It is governed by an independent Board of Directors. Most importantly, there is no activity which has been or is being sanctioned by any regulatory bodies known to me."

Open Door also released this statement on Thursday afternoon:

We are aware that two individuals have made false allegations regarding our programs and our organization to members of the media and other entities. We would like to inform the public that our organization always has been and remains a licensed animal facility in Missouri which is in compliance with all required protocol, documentation, staffing, and safeguards in place as required by the Missouri Department of Agriculture, the Missouri Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, and all other applicable regulatory agencies. Our operations are continuing uninterrupted and all of our animals are safe and being cared for at the same high level we have always provided.

We are saddened that this former volunteer and this former staff person, who were removed from Open Door Animal Sanctuary, have for their own reasons chosen to attempt to discredit our organization in a way that could impact our life-saving work. We are also highly concerned that the individual behind this organized effort to malign our organization is raising funds around the publicity this has caused for his own organization, the Animal Justice League of America. We are investigating the activities of all individuals and entities involved in this effort and will pursue appropriate legal remedies to stop these false accusations.

Open Door has been a 501 (c) 3 non-profit organization and a licensed animal shelter in the State of Missouri in good standing since 1975. We serve an average of 350 animals each day and rescue, rehabilitate, and rehome an average of 1,100 each year. We also support the community and work to reduce the unwanted pet population with a low-cost spay/neuter/vaccination program and a pet food pantry for low-income families. We ask the community for their support at this difficult time as our programs are supported 100% by donations. We also ask the public to trust that we will continue to meet our mission of providing homeless cats and dogs with the highest quality of life and a second chance to find a forever family. Thank you.

Vets and controlled substances in Missouri

For context, the I-Team dug through state disciplinary records regarding vets and controlled drugs to see how often there's a problem.

The Missouri Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, which helps regulates veterinarians, disciplined 28 veterinarians since 2003 for breaking controlled drug rules, including vets who lost or mishandled ketamine, opioids, and euthanasia drugs.

One veterinarian told the BNDD that putting drugs in secure storage “kind of sent a signal to people to steal them.”

The BNDD has disciplined three veterinarians since 2010 for providing controlled drugs to animal shelters that didn’t have their own state or federal drug registrations. One Jefferson County veterinarian transferred euthanasia drugs to a shelter in Barnhart, Mo., where drugs were not kept secure or documented.

Today, despite the mounting questions and allegations, Open Door remains a million-dollar operation. And by all accounts, it continues to be Quackenbush who holds the key.