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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Crime/Public Safety

$300,000 was given to help homeless Tri-Cities pets; instead, it bought a house

UPDATED: Fri., Nov. 12, 2021

By Cameron Probert Tri-City Herald

PASCO – A leader of a nonprofit in charge of the Tri-Cities Animal Shelter is accused of stealing $300,000 to buy herself a house in Richland.

Julie Chambers, the chief financial officer of Neo’s Nation Animal Foundation, is facing two felony charges in Franklin County Superior Court – first-degree theft and money laundering.

Then, on Thursday, dozens of reportedly neglected or abused dogs and cats were removed from the shelter in Pasco in a separate investigation by city police.

Pasco police officers were at the shelter at 1312 S. 18th Ave. for several hours Thursday while the animals were removed and handed over to the Benton Franklin Humane Society, Silver Cloud Cat Sanctuary, Tumbleweed Cat Rescue and Mikey’s Chance Canine Rescue.

Four dogs were considered malnourished and 30 cats were sick, said police Sgt. Rigo Pruneda. Details on their condition were not available.

The shelter remains operating, with volunteers caring for the remaining animals.

In the theft investigation, Franklin County Sheriff’s detectives say Chambers, a Tri-Cities chiropractor, withdrew the money from the foundation’s account without permission in order to buy the home with cash.

She also is charged with taking foundation money to pay off her credit cards.

The money was taken after the foundation received a $545,000 donation in April from the estate of a retired railroad engineer.

But Chambers’ defense lawyer told the Tri-City Herald on Thursday they will show she was owed the money and no crime was committed.

Attorney Scott Johnson accused the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office of improperly investigating the case.

Shelter foundation

Neo’s Nation Animal Foundation took charge of the Tri-Cities Animal Shelter in December 2020 and handles animal control services in Pasco, Kennewick and Richland under contracts with the cities.

Rebecca Howard is the foundation president and in charge of handling shelter operations. Chambers was the secretary/treasurer in charge of the finances.

Chambers, 42, of Kennewick, is still a chiropractor licensed in Washington state, though her LinkedIn page lists her CFO position as her full-time job.

She’s currently free on her own recognizance pending trial on the two charges.

Judge Jackie Shea Brown also signed off on letting her travel to California and Nevada for scheduled trips, according to court records.

Animal shelter donation

The criminal investigation revolves around the large donation the animal shelter received last spring.

Thomas Ashby, a retired railroad engineer, divided his $1.5 million estate among the animal shelter, the American Legion Post 34 and the Salvation Army.

Ashby donated $545,000 to the shelter at the recommendation of his longtime friend Kurt Bautch.

The check was deposited in the foundation account on April 8. Then, Chambers withdrew $300,000 from the account on April 27, say court records.

But it wasn’t until June 29, that someone told Pasco police about the alleged theft. Court records do not say how they learned about the crime.

Because the city of Pasco pays the foundation to provide animal control services, the police department turned the investigation over to the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office to avoid any possible conflicts.

Court records show that Howard, the shelter director, told investigators that Chambers didn’t have permission from the foundation’s trustees to withdraw the money, according court records.

Richland house

Investigators claim Chambers was trying to use the foundation’s account to show that she could afford buy a house on Meadows Drive in Richland.

Her real estate agent told investigators that Chambers wanted to buy the $362,000 house for cash and initially tried using the Neo’s Nation bank statement to prove she had the money.

However, the agent told her that the money needed to be in an account with her name on it. That’s was when Chambers produced a second statement for her personal account showing $90,000 and a pending $300,000 deposit.

Chambers then produced a cashier’s check for the price of the house from her personal account, according to court records.

She also took another $31,000 from the foundation account between May 2 and June 9 to pay off her credit cards, show court records.

When police visited the house on Sept. 1, they found it was rented to Howard’s daughter Christian Howard.

She said she’d learned about the circumstances of how the home was purchased and was already making plans to move out.

She also told police that Julie Chambers had told her that she was planning to sell the house quickly and move to California.

Owed the money

Johnson, Chambers’ attorney, told the Tri-City Herald that the case was not investigated properly and they will prove her innocence.

“Our client loaned the nonprofit a large sum of money to get the nonprofit off the ground and then was repaid when the nonprofit had funds to reimburse her,” he said Thursday.

He said they are launching their own investigation into what happened, and have brought in finance experts.

“There was absolutely no crime committed in this case,” Johnson said.

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