Lynden man charged with elder, child, animal abuse at ‘appalling’ home

The Whatcom County home where Mitchell O’Donnell is accused of abusing his son, starving his dog, and leaving his elderly father-in-law covered in human waste.
The Whatcom County home where Mitchell O’Donnell is accused of abusing his son, starving his dog, and leaving his elderly father-in-law covered in human waste. Courtesy to the Bellingham Herald

A teenage boy called police around 2 p.m. three miles west of Lynden. His father, he said, had been punching him daily and making threats to kill him.

Once Whatcom County sheriff’s deputies reached the house at 1520 Birch Bay-Lynden Road on Sunday afternoon, Sept. 18, they did not find a boy.

Instead, on the front porch was a confused man, 77, lying on a couch and draped in a dirty sleeping bag beside an open bag of hot dogs, according to charging papers filed this week in Whatcom County Superior Court. Authorities found the man “coated head-to-toe” in feces and urine. Flies buzzed around him. He could not stand on his own, and he could not say his name. Deputies knew him as the homeowner.

An ambulance took the man to St. Joseph hospital.

More than an hour later Mitchell Ray O’Donnell arrived home with his 13-year-old son. O’Donnell told deputies the boy’s call to 911 was a prank. His son reported his father coached him to give the same story, according to charging papers.

O’Donnell, 45, was handcuffed, and his son was taken into the custody of Child Protective Services. O’Donnell is the 77-year-old man’s son-in-law by a prior marriage and his sole caretaker, according to the charges filed Wednesday, Sept. 21. He had power of attorney over the man, and all three – O’Donnell, his son, and his father-in-law – lived together at the home.

O’Donnell gave deputies permission to go into the house. Conditions inside were “appalling,” said Deputy Prosecutor Evan Jones. A smell of human waste was overpowering, human feces littered the floor of the living room, and the toilet was clogged. A chain and padlock sat next to the fridge and O’Donnell had the key.

Outside, Champ, a “miserable”-looking St. Bernard dog, bit and scratched at his mangy and matted fur like he had fleas; his skin was stretched over his ribs, and he appeared gaunt and malnourished, according to the charges.

There was no running water, and a water pump in the shed had been broken for about a week, according to the statement read in court by Jones. Two tubs of green water were found outside: one O’Donnell called the “dog’s water,” and another he called his father-in-law’s “foot-soaking tub,” where the elderly man would bathe for hours.

On the ride to jail O’Donnell said he had been trying to push his father-in-law to independence, according to the charges.

At the hospital three emergency room technicians were called in to clean the elderly man. They called it “one of the worst cases they had ever seen,” charging papers state. The patient had a bedsore by his tailbone, and irritation on his buttocks, ankles and knees from being stationary for so long. He was slightly hypothermic. Staff found a catheter in his urethra, with no bag connected. That left him unable to control the flow of urine from his bladder and at risk for infection, according to charging papers.

The charges conclude he “was left immobile in the presence of a large, clearly starving dog.”

Champ was taken by animal control. He remained in poor condition this week, said Laura Clark, director of the Whatcom Humane Society.

O’Donnell made his first appearance in court Monday. Jones, asked for $10,000 bail. Superior Court Commissioner Alfred Heydrich called the charges disturbing – “that’s a bit of an understatement,” he noted – but released O’Donnell without requiring him to post bond.

“This is not, by any definition, a violent offense, though there are a lot of concerns about both the human and animal victims that are alleged here,” Heydrich said. “But frankly I don’t see a basis to impose bail, other than the court being upset about what’s being alleged, and I don’t think the court gets to do that under any objective standard.”

O’Donnell won’t be allowed to reside at the home while the case is pending. He’s accused of abandonment of a dependent person, criminal mistreatment in the second degree, harassment for threats to kill and animal cruelty in the second degree. The last charge is a gross misdemeanor; the three others are felonies.

His arraignment has been set for Sept. 30.

Caleb Hutton: 360-715-2276, @bhamcaleb