CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE — Middle Township resident Dawn Scheld was found guilty Thursday of two counts of animal cruelty and several other charges connected to the dozens of dogs she and her family kept on their Goshen Road property in 2010.
Scheld, 48, was also convicted of selling a diseased or contagious animal, a dog named Dakota, in July 2010; conspiracy to commit animal cruelty along with Leroy Thomas Jr.; and hindering her own apprehension by trying to hide four puppies while the New Jersey Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals executed a search warrant at her home on Dec. 18, 2010.
Thomas was also found not guilty of a second conspiracy charge and not guilty on two counts of animal cruelty.
Leann Thomas, their daughter, who was the only one of the three to testify on her own behalf during the animal cruelty trial, was found not guilty of the single count against her of conspiracy to commit animal cruelty.
“The photographic evidence really defies description,” said Superior Court Judge Raymond Batten, who delivered the verdicts because the defendants had requested a bench trial, meaning no jury was present.
The courtroom did have a large number of audience members, however, many of whom were involved in animal rescue, fostering animals or even adopting animals taken from the Scheld/Thomas home.
Prior to issuing his verdicts, Batten carefully reviewed the evidence presented by both sides during the trial, describing just some of the hundreds of photographs that documented the condition of the Scheld/Thomas property and the 61 dogs seized from that location.
He described pictures of dogs walking or laying in feces, water bowls containing feces and evidence of diarrhea on the floors.
“There is dog feces strewn about the living room/kitchen area,” he said.
Assistant Prosecutor Christine Smith termed the property “death’s waiting room.” Batten didn’t quite borrow the phrase, but said the property, at which dogs were kept both indoors and outdoors, was “a place of extensive and rampant disease.”
Batten found that after a puppy named Mason died of parvo virus, Scheld took no steps to protect other dogs from the deadly disease. The deaths of two other puppies, Bubbles and Nash, also from parvo virus, led to the two counts of animal cruelty.
“The act of doing nothing … was an act purposefully undertaken,” Batten said.
He recounted expert testimony about the many diseases and conditions on the property, which included fleas, piles of feces, puddles of urine, ear mites, heartworm, and a host of other serious diseases.
They were, one witness testified, “preventable known risks, a slow beating.”
Batten said 13 different diseases were found among the 61 dogs, with 52 of the dogs having at least two diseases, 27 dogs having at least three, 10 dogs having at least four and four dogs having at least five diseases.
A dog named Bubba, Batten said, “suffered from seven conditions simultaneously.”
The defense argued that Scheld, Leroy Thomas Jr.and Leann Thomas were attempting to rescue the dogs from a high-kill shelter in North Carolina.
Leann Thomas, who testified in her own defense, said the family was trying to save the dogs.
Scheld’s other conviction stems from an effort she made to hide four puppies by placing them in the care of a family member while the SPCA was at her home.
After Batten delivered his guilty verdicts, Smith asked that the 37 dogs still being held in shelters after being taken from the Scheld/Thomas property be released so they can be adopted.
But the defense opposed the move. Attorney Nathan Perry, representing Scheld, said the dogs were still evidence in the case, and he added Scheld planned to file an appeal.
Attorney Nicole E. Wise, representing Leroy Thomas Jr., said he would also appeal.
Smith said that “justice was done and that the most culpable were held accountable for the crimes.”
Smith said she hoped to win the release of the 37 dogs that remain in shelters at the time of sentencing for Scheld and Leroy Thomas Jr. on Nov. 9.
A restitution hearing will also be held regarding about $180,000 owed for the care of the dogs, Smith said.
Lt. Tom Yanisko of the state SPCA said after the hearing that there was no cause for celebration.
“With animal cruelty, nobody wins,” he said, noting that 37 dogs from the family remain in shelters. “Today’s not a day of emancipation.”
“All we want is for the animals released so we can get them a better life,” he said.
After the verdicts, Perry said that there were a lot of constitutional issues that would be part of an appeal. He added that the dogs were being brought to New Jersey from Robeson County, N.C., and a shelter he said was “notorious.” He also said no determination was made as to when the dogs arrived at the Scheld /Thomas home.
Wise added “they (the dogs) were facing a certain brutal death” in North Carolina.
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