MIAMI – She was a tiny tabby with white paws, purring among a half-dozen other homeless kittens in a box in front of a Publix supermarket.

Third-grader Joylene Ceballos pulled the hazel-eyed feline from the litter and named her Chloe. The rambunctious kitty would be at her side for the next 12 years, through elementary school and high school, and later, college.

Though other critters would join the Ceballos family, Chloe was the friendliest and most curious.

Sometime late Wednesday or early Thursday morning, Chloe was found butchered on a neighbor’s manicured front lawn in the Palmetto Bay community.

“I grew up with that cat. How could they do that to a little animal?” said Ceballos, 21, home on summer break from the Fashion Institute of Technology.

Chloe is among 18 cats whose deaths were apparently the work of a serial killer or killers plaguing the Palmetto Bay and Cutler Bay communities in South Florida since early May. Two other mutilated cats also were found Thursday.

Police said they have received more than 60 tips and have collected strong evidence of animal cruelty in 18 cases – and they are eyeing potential suspects. Animal cruelty is a felony punishable by up to five years in prison for each count.

“There are several persons of interest that are part of their core investigation,” said Detective Rebeca Perez, a Miami-Dade police spokeswoman. “These are cowardly acts by the same individuals.”

Like most of the other cases, Chloe was gutted, her belly sliced open and her insides pulled out. Mysteriously, as in other cases, there was no blood, leading witnesses to speculate that the cat may have been killed elsewhere and deposited on the lawn.

A day earlier, four dead cats were discovered in the same vicinity. Of those, police ruled out two cases and are waiting on necropsies to confirm whether the other two were the work of the same serial murderers.

The killer or killers continue to prey on felines almost on a daily basis, and some jittery residents are afraid to go outside.

“I have three kids and two dogs,” said a resident in the upscale Palmetto Bay neighborhood who did not want to give her name.

Said another neighbor: “It’s really creepy because you’re just waiting for him to graduate from cats.”

Ceballos’ father, Jose, was working on his computer about 1 a.m. when his beagle started barking in the garage. Ceballos said he keeps the garage door ajar for the cats to come in and out, and he briefly peeked outside, thinking it could be a prowler.

“I was afraid. I didn’t see anything because of the bushes, and I didn’t want to go outside,” he said.

Joylene Ceballos said she last saw Chloe in the garage about 8 p.m. Wednesday.

“It was such a sick and twisted thing to do – not only to my cat – but to all the other cats,” she said, admitting she was still in shock.

Authorities are warning residents to keep their cats indoors at night when the killings seem to be taking place.

On Thursday, law school student Vanessa Bravo spent 15 minutes coaxing her cat inside. The 7-year-old cat lives with Bravo’s parents in Palmetto Bay.

“Somebody who does that shows a depraved mind,” she said. “It’s not somebody I want to live next to.”

Research in psychology and criminology has shown that individuals who commit such acts of cruelty to animals can move on to harming humans.

Psychiatrist Ewald Horwath says the culprit is most likely a disturbed young man, alienated from society.

“This is someone who’s willing to be violent,” said Horwath, head of psychiatry at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. “It involves a degree of cruelty and sadism that is quite disturbing.”

Noting that one of the owners of a slain cat was a police officer who had a marked patrol car in the driveway, Horwath said the killer is brazen and showing signs of escalation.

“It has an attention-seeking quality, which is worrisome,” Horwath said.

Neighbors first took notice of the serial cat killings on May 13, when five were found dead in Palmetto Bay.

On that day, Barbara Wiesinger’s calico cat, Cami, had been missing for hours. She hadn’t seen the shy cat sleeping in the cool shade beneath Wiesingers’ husband’s white pickup truck – or sitting by the waterfall inside the tiny pond in their front yard.

Wiesinger was walking down her street when she glanced at a neighbor’s front yard and noticed a mound of brown and orange hair moving in the wind.

The top half of the cat’s face was missing, cut down to facial bone. Her eyes and snout were gone, her head crushed. Wiesinger remembered there was no blood.

“I knew it was my Cami,” she recounted.

Dr. Sara Pizano, director of Miami-Dade Animal Services, said her office has several investigators working with police on the case.

“It’s devastating and we’re gravely concerned – not just for the animals – but for our constituents.”

(c) 2009, The Miami Herald.

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Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-06-12-09 1341EDT

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