Patriots’ Branch carrying grief for lost dogs in return to Arizona

New England defensive lineman Alan Branch returned to Arizona this week with a heavy heart. Four of his dogs died in a Gilbert boarding facility in June.

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CHANDLER, Ariz. — Patriots defensive tackle Alan Branch has a unique perspective on Super Bowl XLIX. He played for the Cardinals from 2007 to 2010, and for the Seahawks from 2011 to 2012.

Unfortunately for Branch, his return to the Valley this week is dredging up more recent, painful memories.

Four of Branch’s dogs died early on the morning on June 21, victims of an infamous incident known locally as the "Gilbert 23." Twenty-three dogs died at the now-closed Green Acre Boarding Facility in suburban Gilbert due either to a lack of oxygen or a poorly functioning air conditioning unit while crammed into a 9-by-12-foot room. 

"Those guys are definitely on my mind," Branch said Thursday. "They were part of the family, so you never really get over that."

Branch lost Tonka, a Staffordshire bull terrier; Francis, a hound mix; Buick, an English bulldog; and Snickers, a deaf and blind toy Manchester terrier. Tiny, his Great Dane, survived.

Branch and his wife, Ashley, who live in the Valley in the offseason, left the dogs at Green Acre while they attended a funeral out of town, then went to Branch’s minicamp with the Bills, for whom he played at the time, then attended another funeral in Indianapolis.

"The night of the second funeral is when we got the call from (owner Todd) Hughes," said Branch, who had to deliver the news to his oldest daughter, 7. "Originally, they told us my dog Tonka chewed through an electrical wire fence and all four dogs ran away. We knew right then it didn’t sound right. How does he chew through an electric fence? And then we had a blind and deaf dog. Our dogs have gotten out before, but Snickers never goes out."

Green Acre owners Todd and Maleisa Hughes were on vacation in Florida when the dogs died. They left their daughter, Logan Flake, and their son-in-law, Austin Flake, in charge of the facility. Austin Flake is the son of U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz. 

Logan Flake told authorities that she checked on the dogs around 11 p.m. the night before, but when she checked again at 5:30 a.m., several had died and others were ill because the air conditioning wasn’t working. 

The Flakes tried to hose down the dogs with water and cool them with ice, but they didn’t call a veterinarian for help, and all but five of the dogs died. The Flakes then placed the dead dogs in a shed.

Super Bowl XLIX

The incident and inconsistencies in the stories of Logan Flake eventually led police to launch an investigation. Meanwhile, animal rights activists and animal lovers launched protests and took the story in a direction Branch never expected.

"It was crazy the way animal lovers came out and supported us. We really appreciated it," Branch said. "But some got a lot more into than I expected or than I’m willing to go. They were having a rally at the court, I believe, and someone was wearing a ‘I Can’t Breathe’ shirt." 

"How can you compare the two things? That’s a man who died, and these are dogs. I love my dogs to death and they are part of the family. I’ll never forget this and it hurt, but that went too far. Most of the people were good to us and again, we really appreciate them, but some went over the top."

In August, a grand jury charged the Hugheses with 22 felony counts and seven misdemeanor counts of cruelty to animals, plus a felony count of fraud. The Flakes were charged with 21 felony counts and seven misdemeanor counts of cruelty to animals. All but the fraud charge were dropped because it was unclear whether the dogs suffocated due to neglect or malfunctioning air conditioning, despite some Sheriff’s Department evidence that the air conditioner did not play a role.

Protesters have wondered whether the decision to drop the charges was politically motivated given the Flakes’ relationship to Jeff Flake.

"I even heard recently that the prosecutor was a Sen. Flake supporter," Branch said. "I don’t know how true that is, but with everything that has happened in this case, it sure sounds like something fishy is going on."

Branch acknowledged frustration with the legal process, but said he is past his anger and never really expected anything to happen to those charged.

"People want jail time, but whatever," he said. "That doesn’t matter to me. I just don’t want this to happen to anyone else. I want justice, but I want Arizona to have stricter laws when it comes to what you need to do to be considered a dog boarding facility. 

"We thought we were leaving our dogs in good hands. That obviously wasn’t the case. This shouldn’t happen ever again. People should never have to go through this."

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