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Alleged cat thief writes letter to Sonoma Sheriff

On the shortest day of 2021, a Southern California man wrote a letter to Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick about a cat named Nubbins that the man admitted taking from a vacation rental on Railroad Avenue in Sonoma in November.

The man, James R. Wakefield, a litigator and trial attorney in Irvine, California, alleged that Nubbins was a mistreated stray who was not owned by anyone and that it was a humane decision to take her, according to his letter sent to the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office.

When told that the vacationing family had an obligation to return Nubbins to its local owner, Wakefield wrote, “we were never going to let that cat get put back in the living condition she was in without a fight.”

James Wakefield letter to Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick.pdf

Wakefield followed with a series of accusations against the cat’s owner, Troy Farrell, who lives on Railroad Avenue. Wakefield alleges Farrell did not feed or give water to Nubbins, he purposefully left her outside in the cold.

But Farrell and his neighbors cast a very different description of Nubbins over the four years she roamed the Springs neighborhood. Videos from Farrell show him opening the door to let Nubbins inside his home at her request. And when Nubbins had her last litter of kittens, Farrell set up a cozy birthing area for her inside, and helped raise the kittens. Afterward, he took Nubbins to a veterinarian to have her chipped and spayed.

“She has so many people who take care of her,” Farrell said. “She doesn't want to be an indoor cat. She doesn't want to be stuck in a house. She just likes to be out and about doing her thing because that's how she came out.”

Wakefield said his family met Nubbins on the first day they arrived in Sonoma to celebrate the Thanksgiving weekend at the vacation rental on Railroad Avenue. The cat was missing her a piece of her lip and part of her tail, and was “obviously hungry” and “she scarfed down the food,” Wakefield wrote.

Nubbins “retreated” into the backyard of Wakefield’s Airbnb at night, and he assumed the owner of the vacation rental, Matthew Knudsen, also owned the cat. Wakefield asked Knudsen if the cat belonged to him.

“’She did not belong to anyone. It was a stray cat that showed up in the neighborhood four years ago,’” Knudsen said, according to Wakefield’s letter. “Many of the neighbors would feed her (including [Knudsen]). But none of the neighbors allowed her to come into their homes.”

Knudsen didn’t respond to multiple attempts by the Index-Tribune to discuss this story.

A cold spell set in, and Wakefield’s son “made an igloo bed out of towels” where Nubbins stayed for four days, he wrote. He claimed that the Wakefields were the only people who fed or provided water to her during their five-day stay in Sonoma. However, Railroad Avenue resident Terry Muller said he noticed Nubbins missing when he saw her food dish was still full — he was one of several neighbors who fed the cat.

Wakefield’s daughter grew concerned and contacted Knudsen again asking if the Wakefields could take the cat home. “Not only did he say there would be no problem,” Wakefield wrote, “he said (his words) ‘it would be awesome if someone adopted her and gave her a good home.’”

And so Wakefield took to the cat home with his wife to Southern California.

Nubbins looked the part of an outdoor cat, complete — or rather incomplete — with a “bobbed” tail and a missing part of her upper lip that had occurred at some point. But she was hardly unfed or homeless.

“That cat lives so large it’s not even funny,” Farrell said. “That cat has so many houses, so many people, so many little girls to play with down the block.”

Nubbins had stayed inside at various periods of time — when it was cold or she had a litter of kittens — and she had a shelter from the bleak winter weather in a neighbor’s garage, if she chose, Muller said.

“We sent photos and I have photos of the cat well taken care of in a house in a blanket, in her house on the front porch with a blanket in it, with food and water...,” Muller said. “And he (Wakefield) kept saying, ‘Oh, it's a stray cat.’”

Wakefield brought Nubbins to VCA Los Altos Animal Clinic in Long Beach, California for a wellness check, which led to the discovery that the cat was microchipped with Farrell’s family as the established owner in Sonoma. Wakefield’s intent was to return the cat, initially.

“We knew it was possible the cat was chipped. And we assumed that if it was chipped, we could locate her real owner and return it,” the letter states. “Little did we know the person who caused her to be chipped was a neighbor who got tired of her having kittens in the neighborhood and wanted to neuter her.”

It was the vet who called the number linked to the chip in Nubbins. The clinic did not provide access to the veterinarian who examined Nubbins, citing privacy laws between clients and the animal hospital.

After a police report was filed, Sonoma County Sheriff’s Deputy Justin Ritz contacted Wakefield, according to the letter, to tell the family they had an obligation to return Nubbins to the rightful owner.

The Irvine man allege that Farrell and Muller disliked the the neighboring Airbnb or its owner, Knudsen. Following the alleged cat-napping, neighbors speculated that Knudsen was trying to get back at the neighborhood for filing noise complaints against his short-term rental property.

“Knudsen isn’t part of this neighborhood and he had no right to give away my cat,” Farrell said.

Wakefield also alleged local law enforcement had an anti-Southern Californian bias as one reasons why the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office sought to return Nubbins to Farrell. Writz’s attempt to return Nubbins to Farrell, Wakefield said, would lead Nubbins to die from a lack of medical attention back in Sonoma.

“And sheriff, that says everything I need to know about your character,” Wakefield summed up after three pages of allegations.

The Sonoma County District Attorney is still reviewing the case, according to Brandon Gilbert, an administrative aide. If the DA’s Office does not choose to file felony charges, which is possible as theft is only criminal after $950, it would be Farrell’s choice whether to file a lawsuit against Wakefield in civil court. It is unclear what the market value of Nubbins would be, but California cat law states owners have a right to claim damages incurred to their pet.

“She came up in this neighborhood after the fires and she knew where to go if she wanted warmth or indoor space or food or anything she needed. She knew exactly where to go and we'd always provide it for her,” Farrell said. “You know, she adopted us.”

In the penultimate paragraph to the letter, Wakefield makes clear his intent to resist returning the cat to Sonoma.

“I am certain you will continue to do whatever you can to prevail and get the little cat back outside in the neighborhood where she belongs,” Wakefield wrote. “And you can be assured that your 70-year-old cat nappers will do everything in out ability to protect her.”

Contact Chase Hunter at chase.hunter@sonomanews.com and follow @Chase_HunterB on Twitter.

Correction: A previous version of this article said that Nubbins had lost part of her tail. Nubbins is an American Bobtail cat, according to Troy Farrell, a breed distinctive for its “bobbed” tail. A previous version of this article construed criminal charges with felony charges.

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