Leah Jimenez always dreamed of working with animals.
“I’ve grown up with dogs, cats, horses — I have always been an animal lover,” she said in a recent phone interview. A decade ago, Jimenez endeavored to make her dream come true, opening a pet store in McKinleyville with her younger sister, Jennifer Wrask, and two others: Jimenez’s then-husband and Wrask’s then-boyfriend.
Tucked behind a CVS Pharmacy, Northern California Pet Supply and Grooming, or NorCal Pet for short, occupies two storefronts in a nondescript commercial development that sits a block and a half off the main drag of Central Avenue.
“We kind of felt like there was a big need out in McKinleyville,” Jimenez said. “There was nothing like it out there.”
The new proprietors catered to smaller animals in particular and stocked high-quality food. They also founded an animal rescue operation, saving dogs from high-kill shelters in Southern California and working with other rescuers to transport them up to Humboldt County. Local shelters tend to see a lot of larger dogs — pitbulls, shepherds, lanky mutts — so NorCal Pet focused on the smaller breeds.
“We had a lot of success rescuing the littles,” Jimenez said. “And then a few years later [the adopters] come back to visit you in the store. It’s a great experience.”
But after a few years, things started going sideways. Jimenez said her sister’s boyfriend was a bad business partner who eventually skipped town, but not before allegedly taking “what he felt he deserved,” including computers, supplies and about 75 percent of the store’s inventory. In 2016, Jimenez’s husband, former College of the Redwoods football star and Green Bay Packer James Lee, died of complications from diabetes. Jimenez and Wrask formed a business partnership the following November, becoming the sole owners of NorCal Pet.
The partnership didn’t last. Last year, Jimenez filed a lawsuit against Wrask in Humboldt County Superior Court, accusing her sister of embezzling hundreds of thousands of dollars from the pet store and of forging Jimenez’s signature in order to dissolve their partnership and cut her out of the business entirely. She’s seeking $950,000 in damages, plus interest and attorney fees. She’s also seeking to have Wrask removed from any role in the operation or management of NorCal Pet.
Jimenez also filed a criminal complaint, and the Humboldt County District Attorney’s Office has charged Wrask with two felonies: filing a forged document and grand theft embezzlement.
She wishes the partnership hadn’t come to this. “It’s a really crappy thing to have to take your sister to court,” Jimenez said. “It’s definitely not where I thought things would be, but at the same time I worked really hard for that store. I need to get back what’s mine or get back what I deserve out of it.”
Each of the two storefronts has its own sign affixed to the roof out front, one reading “Nor Cal Pet” and the other “Northern California Pet Supply & Grooming.” The storefront windows display advertisements for various brands of pet food — Nulo, PureVita, Acana.
During a recent visit, a pair of dry-erase boards were propped up outside one of the two entrance doors. On one, photos of adoptable cats and kittens had been taped above nametags with day-glow ink on black construction paper. The other advertised feeder mice, crickets and cockroaches (42 cents apiece for small ones, 52 cents for big ones).
Inside the shelves were well stocked with chew toys, bags of food, supplements and more. There were three young women working behind the counter. When asked if Jennifer Wrask was around one said that she “barely comes in.”
“It’s kind of random,” she explained. “She’ll pop in for like half an hour or an hour.”
Reached later by phone, Wrask said she can’t tell her side of the story. “I’ve been advised by my attorney not to,” she told the Outpost.
The sisters were close growing up, according to Jimenez. Both attended Arcata High School, and Wrask was the maid of honor at Jimenez’s wedding. Shortly before her husband’s unexpected death, Jimenez was hired at North Coast Mercantile, a local beer distributor, though she continued to work at the pet store on weekends.
According to the lawsuit, NorCal Pet was left in a dire position after Wrask’s ex absconded with money and merchandise, leaving the business with unpaid bills including $14,000 in tax liability. But Jimenez loaned the store enough money to get out of debt.
This bailout “also gave Jennifer [Wrask] the opportunity to gain some experience since her only real experience had been in dog grooming, not in running an actual pet supply store,” says the civil complaint, filed by Eureka attorney William Bertain.
“I was letting her basically have a job and work there and run it,” Jimenez said. The sisters agreed as partners that they would each draw $1,000 per month from the business and that Wrask would get an additional $4,000 per month as compensation, a salary for her full-time supervision duties.
In 2020, Jimenez began to suspect that her sister was taking more than they’d agreed to, using the business bank account like her personal piggy bank and pulling money out for such things as home-improvement projects and a down payment on a truck. Wrask was showing up to work less and less, according to Jimenez. How much was she taking?
“It wouldn’t be a strange month for her to take eight or nine thousand dollars,” Jimenez said.
She confronted her sister multiple times, culminating with a serious talk in March of 2021.
“We had about a two-hour discussion, but it didn’t go anywhere because she didn’t want to hear it,” Jimenez recounted. “She said, ‘I don’t want to have a partner’ and I said, ‘You do. I’m the managing partner.’”
The sisters didn’t talk much over the next few months, but Jimenez was still doing online banking for the business. On September 13 of 2021 she went to log into the account only to discover that it had disappeared.
“It was gone,” she said.
Suspecting fraud — though not necessarily by her sister — Jimenez went into the bank the following day and talked to the manager, who informed her that Wrask had closed the business’s checking and savings accounts, which had been listed in both of their names, and opened new ones under only her own name.
“At that point I realized there was an issue,” Jimenez remarked.
The savings account had a balance of just over $17,000 while the checking account had nearly $11,000 more, according to the lawsuit. Wrask had also taken control of a Small Business Administration loan with proceeds of more than $150,000, the suit alleges.
In June of 2021 Wrask had filed a document at the county clerk/recorder’s office: a Statement of Withdrawal from Partnership, upon which she had allegedly forged her sister’s signature.
She had also filed a Fictitious Business Name Statement — a legal requirement for establishing a new business — though instead of having it published in the Times-Standard or the North Coast Journal, where Jimenez might have come across it, Wrask published it in the Two Rivers Tribune, a tribe-owned newspaper whose distribution is mostly limited to the Hoopa Valley and surrounding communities. On the accompanying paperwork Wrask had listed an incorrect address for her sister, according to the suit.
The suit also alleges that Wrask sent letters to other area business owners informing them that she was now the sole proprietor of NorCal Pet. She sent one of these letters to the store’s landlord, Linda Sundberg, but Sundberg compared Jimenez’s signature to the one on the original lease agreement, saw that they didn’t match and declined to make any changes to the lease, the complaint says. Wrask also allegedly changed the locks and alarm code for the business office.
The sisters had arranged to pay their father’s monthly mortgage bill from the business’s account, with their dad, Tom Wrask, giving them $2,000 in cash each month to even things out.
“Contrary to the agreement between Plaintiff [Jimenez] and Defendant [Wrask], Defendant took the cash from their father and deposited it to her personal account and then paid Mr. Wrask’s house payment from the business account,” the suit alleges.
“It’s been a long process getting it all figured out,” Jimenez said.
Wrask has pleaded “not guilty” to the two felony charges against her. The next court hearing, regarding setting, is scheduled for March 8. Both sisters have hired their own forensic accountant, Jimenez said.
The civil suit is effectively on hold pending the outcome of the criminal case.
“She’s taking the 5th Amendment on the civil side,” Jimenez said.
After dissolving the sisters’ business partnership, Wrask established a 501(c)(3) noprofit dedicated to the animal rescue portion of NorCal Pet’s operations, and Jimenez said her sister is now doing “remarkably more rescuing.” For all the distress caused by the dissolution of their business partnership and the damage to their personal relationship, Jimenez said that’s one bright spot.
“At the end of the day I’m glad to see the animals are doing well,” she said.