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When Olivia went missing from her Cohasset, Minn., home one night in late September, it was storming so hard no one could say for sure if they heard gunshots.

All Pam Dowell knows is that one day she woke up and three cats were missing — her treasured pet Olivia, a feral cat named Emerald that slept at her house, and her neighbor's cat, Pumpkin.

When local authorities initially dismissed the issue of the missing pets, Dowell, once a cop, and her neighbors turned into part-time sleuths, recording another neighbor who frequently talked about how much he "hated cats" and boasted that "if a cat ever comes in my yard, I'll shoot it."

The mystery of what became of the cats has turned into a small-town drama about property rights, unleashed pets and civility. It's led to felony charges of animal cruelty and a subsequent backlash against Dowell and her neighbors, who also lost a cat. Dowell was so harassed on social media, she obtained a restraining order against the sister of the man charged with killing her cat, Steven Lee Mishow.

It's just a cat.

Dowell has heard versions of the phrase and similar sentiments ever since Olivia stopped coming home.

To Dowell, Olivia was much more than a cat — she was family. She often slept under the covers in Dowell's bed, and she loved her nightly treat of a pat of butter in a bowl of milk. Olivia also loved to play outside with her neighbor's cat, Pumpkin, whose hair was trimmed to make her look like a tiny lion. Both cats were fixed and declawed, trained to use litter boxes but allowed to play outdoors in the yard.

Concerned about Mishow's avowed hatred of cats, Dowell said she even invited him into her home and begged him, "please don't harm my pets."

After the three cats disappeared, Dowell and her neighbors went to police, who said it was unlikely the case would be pursued. So, Dowell and neighbor Jackie Jordan went public, appearing before the local City Council. Their pleas hit the local newspaper and a television station. Itasca County prosecutors got interested.

According to the criminal complaint, several people told police they heard Mishow say, "I'll kill every cat I see loose, especially on my property." Mishow initially told authorities he shot at some cats, but didn't kill any.

One neighbor got Mishow to say he shot Dowell's cat while the neighbor recorded their conversation. Faced with the recording, Mishow then told authorities that he shot at the cats intending to kill them, according to the complaint.

The evidence was enough to charge Mishow with a felony. But prosecutors didn't have enough evidence to charge him with killing the other cats, according to a letter from the county attorney to Jordan.

Contacted Friday, Mishow spoke briefly: "I will say this, there is a bad feral cat problem," he said. Mishow said Dowell's feeding of cats has brought skunks and bears into the neighborhood. The feral cats have created odors and caused damage to his home.

"Are you writing this down?" Mishow asked. "That's the reason I did what I did. I shot at them to protect and preserve my property."

Dean Scherf, a contracted security guard for Cohasset, agreed there are feral cats in the area, but he said the city has taken a "neutral" stance on the issue, assisting Isanti County on interpreting city ordinances. The city does have a leash law, which includes all domestic animals, and also an ordinance against firing guns inside city limits.

"It's kind of exploding into a bashing of each other on social media, if you will," Scherf said. "It's turned into quite a menagerie, with accusations going back and forth."

Zach Nugent, a spokesman for the Minnesota Humane Society, which assisted Itasca County on the case, said there are only a handful of instances a year that lead to charges.

"It's pretty rare," said Nugent. "It does happen, but charges aren't brought regularly."

Despite what some people think, you do not have the right to shoot a domesticated animal in your yard, "especially if you know it's someone's pet," Nugent said.

That didn't stop some in Cohasset from taking to social media to stick up for the alleged shooter, and to dig up information on Dowell's two divorces.

"They've turned their energy to 'Let's blame Pam,' " said Dowell. "They are trying to derail me by bringing up my history. Sadly, I have a lot of history that can derail me. But as someone said, 'You could be Charles Manson, that doesn't give people the right to kill your cat.' "

"Any pet loss is hard," said Dowell. "Then add in an act of violence and it's really traumatic. I want to make noise. I want people to know they cannot do this. I want sheriff's deputies to be aware this is a crime."

Dowell is so disturbed by the events, and by some negative public reaction to her pressing for charges, that she's put her house up for sale.

"If we're lucky, he might get a misdemeanor and nothing will change," said Dowell. "I'm going to move to some place more civilized, that's the only thing that's going to change."

jtevlin@startribune.com 612-673-1702

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