CHICAGO — A tangle of rusting animal cages and the piled wreckage of a burned-down barn sit behind an old house, left to gray as paint peels and wood siding rots in tiny Thawville, Illinois.
This was once a sanctuary for abandoned animals, many placed there by Chicago-area rescue groups. Small sheds and barns housed pigs and goats, ducks and doves, turtles, lizards, chinchillas, peacocks, and cats and dogs.
Now the sanctuary has itself been abandoned. The woman who ran it, Corinne Dilorenzo, has been indicted on a felony charge of aggravated animal cruelty, and the Illinois attorney general’s division that oversees charitable groups is also investigating. And two former board members of the now-defunct nonprofit sanctuary say they found the remains of at least 200 animals there.
The remains were discovered last summer, in various states of decomposition, after the board members of EARTH Animal Sanctuary -- located at the edge of Thawville, a town of about 240 people 100 miles south of Chicago -- said they went to check out the property after losing contact with Dilorenzo.
“There are so many people … who told us about animals they surrendered to her in good faith that she promised to care for and protect and allow them to live out their life in peace," said Jodie Wiederkehr, executive director for Chicago Alliance for Animals.
Authorities declined to discuss the specifics of their case against Dilorenzo, and there is no indication in the court records of how the animals died. But in November, a grand jury indicted Dilorenzo under seal, and a warrant was issued for her arrest. She was taken into custody on Christmas Eve in Will County, where she posted $1,000 bail. Her first court appearance in Iroquois County is scheduled for Thursday. She could not be reached for comment.
A pig named Oswald
Dilorenzo was the type of person who would never refuse an animal a home if it needed one, according to people who knew or had worked with her.
Acquaintances would later tell Iroquois County authorities that she “was very well-known in the ‘animal rescue community’ and started helping animals when she was a student in Bloomington, IL, or before," a police report states. She would eventually take in hundreds of animals, placed there by private citizens, rescues and public animal control agencies, including DuPage County’s.
That passion led her to start the nonprofit sanctuary in 2014, purchasing property for the operation in the nonprofit’s name next to her home in Thawville. Dilorenzo fostered ties with Chicago-area animal rights advocates and rescue groups, who would come to place rescued animals with her.
But problems in Thawville appear to have started the same year, with local resident Bob Lange and a pig named Oswald.
“I’m the animal catcher in town,” Lange told the Tribune. “Some neighbors called and said there’s a pig running loose, a block away, maybe further. I put it in the back of my truck."
Lange is a town board member and a hog farmer. He mows the grass road adjacent to the sanctuary.
Dilorenzo accused Lange of stealing Oswald. Posts on the sanctuary’s Facebook page at the time referred to Oswald as a family pet and said a search party had been organized.
Lange would later tell authorities that he brought the pig to Dilorenzo’s property but, finding no one home, “unloaded it inside of the front gate," according to a police report.
But Lange said the animal was among many that escaped from the sanctuary. Moreover, as a local official, he said he was troubled that she was “openly" advertising her animal sanctuary, despite local ordinances that prohibit most farm animals, including pigs, from being kept within the village limits.
Tensions between the neighbors continued to escalate. Lange said that, at one point, Dilorenzo and another person showed up on his farm and starting digging a hole, looking for the pig they believed was missing. He said they left after he told them he was going to call the police.
Dilorenzo, in turn, complained that Lange was “harassing” her by taking photos of her property, was “attempting to spy and snoop on my family," and had “loitered in front of my home on at least five occasion,” according to a court petition she filed in 2015 seeking an order of protection against Lange.
A judge granted an emergency protective order against Lange, but quashed it soon after when Lange responded that his actions were an attempt to document that she “maintaining illegally” the animal sanctuary, court records show.
Years later, in May 2019, the village of Thawville would cite Dilorenzo for keeping prohibited animals, keeping animals in an unsanitary condition and creating a public nuisance affecting health, according to court documents. That was months after a fire broke out on the property in which dozens of animals were killed.
A ‘suspicious’ fire
By the time of the fire in September 2018, there were other indications of problems, according to public records and people familiar with the operation.
The state of Illinois had dissolved EARTH Animal Sanctuary’s nonprofit corporation in 2016 for “failure to submit the proper yearly documentation,” according to a Iroquois County sheriff’s report. And Dilorenzo had started cutting contact with Chicago-area animal rights activists, Brian Duda, a former sanctuary board member, said in an interview.
Duda said he was in a romantic relationship with Dilorenzo during much of the time she was taking in animals in Thawville. He would commute to see her and her son from his home in suburban Lisle, helping take care of the animals.
The couple got engaged in September 2017, but Duda said the relationship was rocky and the pair broke up months later. Around the same time, he would later tell sheriff’s investigators, “'the animals just started dying off’ for unknown reasons,” according to a police report.
“In mid-2018, several people advised that Corinne would not return calls, texts or e mails to donors or other people in the animal rescue community,” a sheriff’s department report states.
You have free articles remaining.
Then on the night of Sept. 2, 2018, Dilorenzo’s son woke her up after noticing lights coming from outside their home, police records state. Several area fire departments responded, and by the time the fire was struck out, a barn and a smaller outbuilding were destroyed, the report states.
Dilorenzo told investigators she lost 40 animals in the fire: eight pigs, six ducks, six geese and 20 chickens, the report states.
The sheriff’s department classified the fire as suspicious, the report shows, and noted that “it appeared that an accelerant had been used to start the fire in the duck pen and identified what (an investigator) identified as a pour pattern leading from the structure to the gate in the location where the wooden matches were located.”
Dilorenzo reported to authorities the following day that she “had noticed several suspicious circumstances on and near her property," such as the discovery of wooden matches outside of her duck pen and a gas can found on an adjacent property.
A January 2019 sheriff’s report said several people who knew Dilorenzo “had commented that that they were unaware of the fire in September of 2018 and were very surprised and concerned that she had not reached out to them for help as she had done in the past.”
Former members of EARTH’s board said they found out about the fire after seeing an online fundraiser in which Dilorenzo was seeking donations to recover from it.
No one has been charged in connection with the fire, according to the state’s attorney.
Animal waste in the house, a dead pig outside
In January 2019, after someone called the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services hotline about the “deplorable conditions of the residence,” officials obtained a search warrant to check on the condition of the home and of Dilorenzo’s teenage son, according to a sheriff’s department report.
The son appeared in good health, but officials found so much filth in the home that investigators forbade him from residing there, according to the report.
“Animal feces, hair and unknown other excrements were present in several locations on the bare wood floors,” said the sheriff’s report, which also states that authorities found a dozen live animals in the house and a dead pig outside that Dilorenzo said she couldn’t bury because the ground was frozen. It appeared other animals had been feasting on the remains, the report noted.
During this visit, Dilorenzo confirmed one of the pigs had recently escaped and was found on Illinois Route 54 on the edge of town. The pigs she had “appeared to be thin and neither had food or water at the time that they were checked,” the report stated.
Iroquois County State’s Attorney James Devine said the county investigation into Dilorenzo’s sanctuary was opened after that visit to the property in January 2019. Chicago-area activists also began pushing him to pursue the case, he said.
The report also notes a previous fire that occurred before Dilorenzo moved to Thawville, while she was living in a mobile home on the property of Wedrose Acres, another animal sanctuary near Gridley, Illinois, about 45 miles west of Thawville.
She moved into that mobile home and, though the operator of the sanctuary told her she couldn’t house her own animals at the property, built a chicken coop that burned down, killing the chickens, according to the sheriff’s report. That fire, the operator told police, was caused by electric wiring run to the coop to power space heaters.
“You wouldn’t even believe it,” Tobein Tegard, operator of Wedrose Acres, told the Tribune. “It was a terrible situation. I saw this awful fire and called her to ask what was burning, and she said she wasn’t home. It’s heartbreaking. It was so much (fire) that you couldn’t get in to rescue any of them.”
A dig turns up skulls, teeth
Last June, after months of not being able to get definitive answers from Dilorenzo or authorities about the status of the animals at the sanctuary, Melissa Pena, a former EARTH Animal Sanctuary board member, said she and two others drove to Thawville to check things out themselves.
Dilorenzo was not at the property, Pena said, but they found a shallow ditch in a pasture with animals in bags and on blankets, layered on top of one another.
“There were bones everywhere. It was like a nightmare,” Pena said. “It was horrible. Skulls, teeth. Crushed skulls, pieces, it was horrible.”
Pena and the others present told the state’s attorney and sheriff what they found but said they were told by the rural county's officials that they didn’t have the resources to undertake a thorough dig.
So Pena, Duda and others went to the property to try and inventory the animals they found, later bringing in an archaeologist and students from Illinois State University to help. The archaeologist produced a report, submitted to county authorities, indicating 190 separate sets of animals remains were found. Board members said additional remains were later discovered in other parts of the property. Devine said their findings will be included in the case against Dilorenzo.
It’s not clear when Dilorenzo moved away or whether any live animals remained at the sanctuary at that time.
One of the public agencies that had associated with EARTH Animal Sanctuary was DuPage County Animal Services, which had placed more than 70 animals there since 2014, in part because the sanctuary accepted barn animals, said Laura Flamion, operations manager for the agency. But those placements had tapered off in the last few years.
“I don’t think we had been alerted to anything concerning,” she said. “We are always trying to tighten up our processes, in terms of evaluating what rescue partners we will transfer animals to. … When you see something like this, it makes you look at your own processes to see if anything need to update. This was disappointing to see that this had happened.”
Lange, the Thawville pig farmer, said the town has been watching the drama unfold on Facebook since the dig.
As shocking as the discovery of the bones was, Duda said that, in hindsight, there were red flags that things might have been amiss.
"We all feel duped and suckered and it hurts,” Duda said. “It stings the whole community. It’s affecting animal rights communities, shelters, rescues. Rescues and shelters after this, they don’t know what to do anymore. They look bad because of this. They trusted her ... and all those lives are gone.”