The Josephine County Sheriff's Department is on the trail of suspects who broke into the county's animal shelter in Merlin Friday night, stole dogs, then killed four of the pups taken.

The Josephine County Sheriff's Department is on the trail of suspects who broke into the county's animal shelter in Merlin Friday night, stole dogs, then killed four of the pups taken.

Three dogs snatched from the kennels were found wandering near the shelter at 1420 Brookside Blvd., near the Grants Pass Airport, and four others are still missing, shelter workers reported.

"It's unfathomable to me that someone would do this," animal control supervisor Brad Tally said.

Sheriff Gil Gilbertson said four dead dogs were found laid out on Pleasant Valley Road at about 11:30 p.m. Friday. A shelter worker discovered the break-in Saturday morning when he came to tend the animals at the shelter, Tally said.

Tally said the shelter has been broken into six times this year. The perpetrators typically are pet owners who want to reclaim their animals without paying fees or fines. The Sheriff's Department had a report Friday of an owner who had taken a dog from the shelter without proper processing.

The severity of this burglary and theft and the cruelty of the killings were a shocking departure from the type of break-in that usually hits the shelter, Tally said.

Evidence indicated that someone sneaked in through the back of the shelter after it closed Friday evening and cut triangular holes in the chain-link fencing of the dog kennels.

Tally said 15 dogs were held at the shelter Friday, including some strays hoping owners would reclaim them and some adoptable dogs awaiting new homes. The 11 dogs taken appeared to be a random selection of some adoptable dogs and some waiting strays, Tally said.

The dogs found dead were all younger than 6 months, he said. Three were border collie-lab mixes, all from the same litter, and one was a merle heeler-collie mix from another abandoned litter of pups.

Authorities said all four appeared to have been killed with a blow to the head. They were then placed on Pleasant Valley Road, carefully spaced out down the center of the road, which starts more than two miles from the shelter.

"I thought it could be the message of a demented mind," Gilbertson said.

At the shelter Saturday morning, workers also found two young lab mix pups who had escaped from kennels that were cut open wandering the shelter grounds. Just outside, a golden retriever-shepherd cross from the shelter tagged along with some joggers on Brookside Boulevard and was returned safely, Tally said.

Four other dogs are still missing — a 2-year-old female chocolate Labrador, an older female red and gray dachshund, who both were picked up as strays recently, and a pair of spotted blue heeler pups awaiting adoption.

"We really want people to keep an eye out for the ones that are still missing," Josephine County Public Health Director Belle Shepherd said. "We just hope they are OK."

Employees and volunteers concerned about the safety of the dogs who remained at the shelter took the animals home with them Saturday night. An employee decided to adopt a merle heeler-collie mix pup, sibling of the one killed, Shepherd said. One more dog from that litter remains up for adoption.

"A little extra love came out of this and one of them found a home," she said.

The community has stepped in to help the shelter and investigators. Umpqua Bank, the Dollar Tree store on Northwest Sixth Street, and the Merlin Moose Lodge have set up a fund to collect money for a reward for anyone who can provide information that leads to the arrest and conviction of the suspects. Donations to that fund, the Josephine County Animal Shelter Fund, can be made at Umpqua Bank at 100 N.E. Midland Ave., Grants Pass.

The shelter is also accepting donations to cover repairs and possible security enhancements, Tally said. Monday he was still awaiting an estimate on the cost of repairs to be made by county crews and Quality Fencing. He said the county's lean budget hasn't had funds for additional security at the shelter in recent years. Donations can be made to Josephine County Public Health and mailed to the public health office at 715 N.W. Dimmick St., Grants Pass, or dropped off at the shelter.

Investigators ask anyone with information about this case to call the sheriff's office at 474-5123.

Reach reporter Anita Burke at 776-4485, or e-mail aburke@mailtribune.com.