To the very end, the Cat Lady couldn't kick her feline fetish.
Marilyn Barletta's proclivity catapulted her to unlikely celebrity status in 2001 when she was arrested for keeping 196 stray cats in a filthy, feces-ridden Petaluma home that authorities say she had bought specifically for the animals. She also became an Internet cult figure, after news reports in Poland, Spain and Australia.
Facing charges of cruelty to animals, the Cat Lady went on the lam during the summer. She skipped out on $50,000 bail, changed her hairstyle and led police on a four-month cross-country game of cat and mouse that stretched from the Bay Area to south Florida.
When the 64-year-old fugitive was finally collared late Monday, she was traveling with the objects of her desire -- cats.
"They found a few cats in her Mercedes-Benz station wagon," said private investigator Steve Heffelfinger. "One was sitting on the front seat. There was a cat box in the back with something moving inside. This woman truly couldn't help herself."
Barletta is being held in the San Francisco County Jail, pending her arraignment on the animal-related charges that prosecutors say they had been willing to drop to misdemeanors.
Attorneys said they had been baffled by Barletta's disappearance. She took out a $250,000 second mortgage on her Petaluma home to finance her flight, authorities say, and also walked away from a San Francisco apartment and all her possessions rather than give up her contact with cats.
"We had a plea agreement on the table calling for a psychiatric evaluation and a limit to the cats she could keep," said Sonoma County Assistant Dist. Atty. Marianna Lebedeff. "She obviously couldn't deal with that."
Stephen Turer, Barletta's attorney, had been in contact with his client during her months on the run, trying to persuade her to surrender.
"This woman isn't some bag lady who happens to collect cats," he said. "She's worked as a microbiologist and real estate agent. She's been a socialite who's traveled in some fairly notable circles. Talk to her about anything but cats and she's fine. It's that one part of her being where the problem lies."
Following Barletta's arrest in May 2001, officers wearing masks and hazardous-material suits spent days herding cats from drawers, boxes, cupboards and cages. For years, Barletta traveled from her apartment in the swanky Russian Hill neighborhood of San Francisco to feed her brood and introduce new members, investigators said.
"Neighbors would watch her drive up every day to feed her cats," said Marie Miller, a bail bondswoman who got involved in the Cat Lady case after Barletta failed to show up in court in August. "She'd bring new cats, open the door to let them in and drive away. People could hear the cats screaming and fighting."
Officials eventually found that one cat had been eaten by the others and came upon two caged cats sitting atop a mummified animal.
A year after her Petaluma arrest, Barletta was evicted after her landlord found that she was keeping 40 cats in a 12-by-20-foot office in nearby Sausalito.
Turer said Barletta has been diagnosed with an obsessive-compulsive disorder that causes her to hoard cats that she believes she is saving from euthanasia. "This disease affects older women, who are generally single," he said. "They believe they are saving the cats from death. That's their motive and goal."
Nancee Tavares, Petaluma animal services manager, said most of the feral cats found at Barletta's home were healthy but the animals had been hard to place because they were wild. About 20 kittens born at the shelter were adopted, along with a dozen or so tamer cats. But about 140 were euthanized.
Tavares said the Cat Lady was largely viewed as a sympathetic victim.
"I got death threats," she said. "People called in to support the Cat Lady. People sent in $17,000 in donations to save the cats. They said if I hurt any of her brood, I'd be killed. I had to put an alarm system in my home."
Barletta became an immediate cyber celebrity, the focus of such Web sites as Cat Snatch Fever, the Gaping Maw and the Crazy Cat Ladies Society. One site placed Barletta in third place in the cat hoarder "Hall of Fame," behind an Omaha woman who kept 270 cats.
She went underground this summer, staying in her mother's house in south Florida and visiting relatives. She was almost caught in a Palm Beach-area bank but police arrived seconds after Barletta had left the scene, Heffelfinger said.
On Monday, Barletta wasn't so lucky. Acting on a tip, police arrested her not long after she had checked into a hotel in Foster City, a suburb of San Francisco.
Lebedeff said she was not interested in tacking on any charges in connection with Barletta's flight.