CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE — A defense attorney for one of three Middle Township residents charged in an animal cruelty case said Thursday that the New Jersey SPCA was "an out of control state agency."

Attorney Robert Pinizotto, representing Leroy Thomas Jr., challenged the professionalism of the state Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which was behind the investigation into animal abuse at the Cape May Court House home of Thomas, Dawn Scheld and their daughter, Leann Thomas.

The three are charged in a December 2010 investigation and search that led to the seizure of 61 dogs that the prosecution says were living in deplorable conditions.

During her opening arguments earlier in the week, Assistant Prosecutor Christine Smith said those conditions included "living in piles of feces, puddles of urine and infested with fleas."

On Thursday, during his cross-examination of SPCA Officer Theresa Cooper, Pinizotto questioned Cooper's investigation, saying that she allowed her personal feelings to interfere in the investigation, which spanned July to December 2010.

Pinizotto said Cooper lacked a "professional detachment" as he asked her why she cried on the witness stand Wednesday.

"Mr. Pinizotto, no matter what, I'm still a human being," Cooper said of her reaction to the investigation and photographs introduced as evidence this week that showed the animals and conditions at the Middle Township property where they were found.

He also said other members of the agency were unprofessional when they went to the property in 2010, and he questioned the SPCA's methods.

"The NJSPCA … believes they can do whatever they want," Pinizotto said.

The comments came during Cooper's third day on the witness stand. She was the lead investigator in the case when it began in July 2010.

Leroy Thomas Jr. and Scheld, both 48, are each charged with several counts of animal cruelty or conspiracy to commit animal cruelty. Leann Thomas, 20, is charged with conspiracy.

Smith has said the motivation for the three was money and that they sold dogs from their Middle Township property. The state's first witness was an Egg harbor Township resident who said she purchased a dog from the property and that the dog had a contagious disease.

The case is being heard by Superior Court Judge Raymond Batten because each of the defendants asked for a bench trial, meaning no jury is present.

The trial will resume on Monday.

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