CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE — A judge will decide today if three Middle Township residents are guilty of a number of animal cruelty charges related to the dozens of dogs they housed at their Goshen Road home in December 2010.
Dawn Scheld, 48, Leroy Thomas Jr., 48, and their 20-year-old daughter, Leann Thomas, cq for the family names are charged with crimes including animal cruelty and/or conspiracy to commit animal cruelty.
In closing arguments Wednesday, Assistant Prosecutor Christine Smith cq said Superior Court Judge Raymond Batten cq should have no doubt that the family members purposefully committed acts of animal cruelty, keeping dogs, many with serious, life-threatening medical conditions such as parvo virus, inside and outside their home.
Leann Thomas was the only one of the three to testify in her own defense, and Smith pointed to Leann Thomas’s statement that she loved dogs.
“She says she loves dogs. Well, I submit she loves them to death,” Smith said as she went over the testimony and evidence submitted at trial.
Smith recounted the cases of several of the animals seized from the home on Dec. 18, 2010. On that day state SPCA investigators removed 61 dogs, including one with a prolapsed rectum, another with its eyes completely crusted over and shut, and another suffering from congestive heart failure due to heartworm.
Smith pointed to the case of five puppies found behind a closed bathroom door. Three were roaming “in their own feces” and two others, including the dog with the prolapsed rectum, were locked in a cage, she said.
“These are inventory for the family business,” Smith said, noting that the family accepted payment for dogs.
The dog with the crusted eyes, Smith said, was found inside the bedroom of Scheld and Leroy Thomas, a room she said was full of feces.
Their intent, she said, “was to cause extreme physical suffering.”
Scheld and Leroy Thomas are charged with animal cruelty in the deaths of two puppies who died from parvo virus. All three family members are charged with conspiracy to commit animal cruelty, and Scheld is also charged with selling a diseased dog and hindering her own apprehension by trying to hide four other puppies at a family member’s home.
Attorney Robert Pinizotto, cq representing Leroy Thomas, took the lead during much of the trial, and in his closing arguments he said the case was about shame.
Pinizotto admitted that “even I would like to get (Leroy Thomas) on something,” but he said Thomas had broken no laws in New Jersey.
“If there was a statute for shame, he’s guilty,“ Pinizotto said.
But while the conditions the animals were living in may not have been pleasant, Pinizotto said the family was trying to help the animals.
“These defendants were saving dogs from certain death. That’s what they were doing,” he said, adding that an SPCA investigator noted in a report dated 2011 that “their resources exceeded their intent.”
In her testimony, Leann Thomas said the family was rescuing the dogs from what she called a high-kill shelter in North Carolina.
Pinizotto said he hoped that all involved learned from the case, including the SPCA, which he said should act as either an animal advocate or an enforcement agency, but not both.
Defense attorney Mark Rinkus, cq representing Leann Thomas, gave a brief closing in which he said his client was a minor, under age 18, for all but 19 days covered by the state’s investigation, which began in July 2010.
Rinkus said the family was trying to save the dogs from being euthanized and planned to have them adopted.
“We now know that their intent was to procure these animals to save them,” Rinkus said.
Nathan Perry, cq representing Scheld, said there was no evidence his client purposefully harmed the animals named in the indictment. They include two puppies, Bubbles and Nash, that Scheld said died from parvo virus.
“No one believes the purpose was to torment and torture these animals,” he said, adding there was no evidence Scheld deliberately sold a sick animal to an Egg Harbor Township woman. The dog she bought for $175 was diagnosed with a contagious skin disease, the woman testified.
But Smith said the SPCA attempted to work with the family, warning them to improve the conditions at the home. Witnesses said the animals were often flea-infested living among feces and puddles of urine.
Smith said once one puppy died of parvo virus, for instance, the family should have sought treatment for the other two that lived with that puppy.
Instead, Smith said, “these dogs were liabilities. So what do you do? You let them die.”
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