July 21, 2003 12:00 PM

When Christy and Kim Hughes saw friends to the door of their Aurora, Colo., home on June 16, the couple’s beloved 15-year-old feline Bugsy scurried out as well. Five hours later Kim, 51, an NBA assistant coach, went to collect the newspaper and discovered Bugsy dead on the lawn. The cat had been cut open, and its organs lay nearby. Devastated, the Hugheses assumed Bugsy had been killed by a fox—until they learned that in the past year at least 35 cats have been killed in the Denver area, with the mutilated pets often left in front of their owners’ homes. “Killing the cat itself is so awful, but by bringing it back, this person is obviously trying to inflict more pain,” says Christy, 37, whose daughters Maddison, 15, and Caitie, 13, remain upset. “You can’t erase it from your head.”

Police from area departments are now coordinating their efforts to find who—or what—is behind the killings. So far, police have no suspects. Some experts caution that the deaths may be the work of such predators as coyotes and dogs. Police are also aware that some people who kill and torture animals progress to even more gruesome crimes. Meanwhile, pets who used to roam are becoming involuntary house cats. “Our other cat, Sylvester, stays inside now,” says electrician Brian Eads, whose 18-month-old silver tabby Harry was butchered June 27. So do the Hugheses’ remaining cats, Lucy and Ricky. Says Christy: “I don’t even feel safe with them in the backyard.”

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