CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE — Sixty-one dogs found at a Middle Township home were “living in piles of feces, puddles of urine and infested with fleas,” Assistant Prosecutor Christine Smith said as she opened the state’s case against three township residents charged with animal cruelty.

But defense attorneys argued Monday that their clients had the best intentions when they took the animals into their home.

Defense attorney Robert Pinizotto, representing Leroy Thomas Jr., said his client traveled to North Carolina and brought back animals from a kill shelter in an effort to save their lives.

Thomas and Dawn Scheld, both 48, and their daughter, Leann Thomas, 20, are each charged in the case, which stems from a 2010 investigation by the New Jersey SPCA.

Scheld and Leroy Thomas face several third-degree charges of animal cruelty, and all three are charged with conspiracy to commit animal cruelty.

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. Instead, Batten will hear the evidence and determine whether the three are guilty.

In her opening argument, Smith said the three defendants kept the dogs inside and outside her home and sold them.

Pinizotto said his client was actually trying to save animals from a high-kill shelter in North Carolina by taking them in, rehabilitating them and putting them up for adoption.

“My client’s purpose was to save animals from certain death,” Pinizotto said.

Pinizotto said that while the state didn’t like the conditions the dogs were living in, there was no evidence his client purposefully harmed the animals, a requirement for the charge against Leroy Thomas Jr. and Scheld.

An investigation was launched in July 2010 after one buyer, Christine Guzman, of Egg Harbor Township, contacted the SPCA because a puppy she purchased for $175 had a contagious disease that required medical treatment.

“This is a case about money and the defendants’ desire to make money by selling dogs out of their home in Middle Township,” Smith said.

Defense attorney Nathan Perry, however, said that rather than selling the dogs, the animals were being put up for adoption, and he termed the $175 Guzman paid an adoption fee.

Guzman, the state’s first witness, said she answered an advertisement in The Press of Atlantic City and arranged to meet Scheld at her Middle Township home.

“As soon as you drove in, the noise,” Guzman said as she described what she encountered at the house. “The smell was terrible.”

Guzman said Scheld showed her a puppy infested with fleas, but she agreed to buy it and asked that it be washed.

Guzman returned days later and took the dog, named Dakota, home, but the fleas persisted. She told the judge that after taking the dog to a veterinarian she learned it had scabies, a contagious skin disease.

Guzman said she had two cats at home, but neither had fleas or any disease when she brought Dakota home.

Perry noted that before the dog was taken to a veterinarian it was taken to a wellness clinic at the Humane Society of Ocean City and no mention was made of any disease during that visit.

Prior to the start of the trial, Pinizotto also asked that Batten prevent the witnesses from speaking about their testimony and he said that should extend to the NJ SPCA and it’s Facebook page. Pinizotto said the agency, which has been deemed the state’s law enforcement arm, was intentionally posting reports about the case on its Facebook page “to impact this trial.”

Smith said it was no different than the trial being reported in a newspaper, but Pinizotto said that while he could not control the media, the NJ SPCA should be prevented from trying to influence the outcome of the case.

“It’s unethical and inappropriate,” he said of the postings urging people to “support the dogs.”

Batten ruled that the NJSPCA was “precluded from publishing or republishing the substantive content of any testimony given in this trial.”

Testimony in the case is expected to continue today.

Contact Trudi Gilfillian: