Sacred Vision Animal Sanctuary collected donations while suspended

The cats were removed from the Sacred Vision Animal Sanctuary last month by Horry County.

A charge of Ill Treatment of Animals has kept the owner of the Sacred Vision Animal Sanctuary in the news since last year, but a failure to report the shelter's finances from 2006-2008 has kept the non-profit organization suspended with the South Carolina Secretary of State.

Horry County police charged Liz Owen, owner of the Sacred Vision Animal Sanctuary on Forestbrook Road, with Ill Treatment in September 2010.

On March 1, 2011, the county took more than 237 cats and one dog from the sanctuary. The county later gave Owen back 29 cats and the one dog she claimed as her personal pets.

By law, a non-profit organization must file reports with the South Carolina Secretary of State every year to keep non-profit status. Liz Owen failed to do so from 2006-2008. The Secretary of State's office suspended the charity and fined her $6,000, $2,000 for each year.

According to the Secretary of State's office, the sanctuary's suspension went into effect on March 14, 2008. That means the Sacred Vision Animal Sanctuary was ineligible to solicit charitable contributions in the state of South Carolina until the outstanding fines were paid. So, Owen was not allowed to accept any donations of any kind of value, money, credit, assistance, grants, furniture, or property.

Owen filed her late financial reports for 2006-2008 on May 21, 2010. On that day she also filed her 2009 report. In 2008-2009 Owen reported to the IRS she received more than $94,000 in contributions, gifts and grants. The majority of that time, from March 14, 2008- December 31, 2009, Sacred Vision was a suspended non-profit.

Renee Daggerhart, with the South Carolina Secretary of State Media Relations Department, says Owen agreed to make payments in January 2010. After three payments of $500, the suspension was lifted in April 2010. However, Owen failed to pay the following month "at which time they were suspended again for the same violations," says Daggerhart.

If a payment is missed, the charity is automatically suspended again until the fine is paid in full. Owen still owes $4,500 in fines to the state. She was not supposed to solicit contributions when her suspension started again in May 2010, something the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) says she was doing during its entire investigation.

PETA's vice president of cruelty investigations, Daphna Nachminovitch, says during their six-month investigation that ended on February 23, 2011, Owen solicited donations constantly. "Not only did our investigator observe Owen soliciting monetary donations, but also picked up furniture per Owen's request for the thrift store, which is also considered a donation."

Soliciting is the key word, according to attorney Greg McCollum, who represents Owen. He says she never solicited donations. He says she just accepted them. "If she is prohibited from soliciting donations, she is prohibited from going out publicly and asking for them," McCollum says.

But Nachminovitch disagrees. "I know there were several donation jars at different locations," says Nachminovitch. "One particular at the Murrells Inlet Veterinary Clinic until recently. I would suspect that counts as soliciting."

The sanctuary's website, where Owen specifically asked for monetary donations, was up and running on Wednesday afternoon. When we checked Thursday morning, the site had been taken down.

"I don't think she knowingly did anything wrong," says McCollum. "I think when you have someone like that who is running a charity on their own and trying to do something who is not a lawyer, you're not familiar with that type of stuff. People make mistakes with that all the time."

McCollum called the fines "outrageous" and said they would have been thrown out if Owen had sought legal help. He feels Owen was in too deep and is getting an unwarranted amount of bad publicity. "Anybody who tried to solve our problem with stray cats would be in over their head. The county animal shelter is in over its head. The county government is not able to control the problem. It's an issue she tried to address, and it really just backfired or blew up in her face."

According to McCollum, Owen plans to shut down the thrift store and move the 29 cats and one dog she got back from the county on March 1, 2011, but he doesn't know where Owen will take them.

The building's owner confirmed Owen is not renewing her lease for the building.