Guilty verdict for NJ couple in animal abuse case

Dawn Scheld, of Middle Township, was convicted Thursday of five of six counts of animal cruelty.

A New Jersey judge has found a Cape May County couple guilty on multiple counts of animal cruelty following court fight that dragged on for two years as 37 dogs languished in shelters throughout the state.

Dawn Scheld, of Middle Township, was convicted Thursday of five of six counts of animal cruelty after humane officers in 2010 linked to the sale of sick puppies to Scheld's property where they found 61 dogs living in flea-infested, feces and urine filled cages.

The bodies of six dogs were exhumed on the site, including one with evidence of a bludgeon wound that ripped open his stomach.

Superior Court Judge Raymond Batten found Scheld, 48, guilty of two counts of animal cruelty in connection with the deaths of two puppies in 2010, one count of hindering apprehension for attempting to hide four other puppies while officers searched her home, conspiracy to commit animal cruelty and selling a contagious or diseased animal, according to the Press of Atlantic City.

Scheld operated SOS Canine Rescue and Rehabilitation which transported dogs from a high-kill shelter in North Carolina, ostensibly to be placed in homes in New Jersey. But Scheld was in fact hoarding dogs and keeping them in terrible conditions while selling sick puppies, humane officers said.

Her live-in companion Leroy Thomas Jr. was found guilty of conspiracy to commit animal cruelty.  The couple's daughter, Leann Thomas, was found not guilty of the single count against her of conspiracy to commit animal cruelty.

“Justice was definitely done and the most culpable people were held accountable for their crimes,” assistant prosecutor Christine Smith said after the verdicts were read.

Scheld eventually surrendered some of the dogs but refused to give up 37 others who have been living in shelters for two years at a cost of $180,000, shelter officials say. 

The case that began with the sale of a dog named Dakota to an Egg Harbor Township woman. Three other puppies were found to have the fatal parvo virus that was never treated and later died.

Smith said the dogs at the property were in such bad shape they were  "waiting at death's door."

Batten, in reviewing the evidence that he said "defied description" contained images of dogs walking or laying in feces, water bowls containing feces and evidence of diarrhea on the floors, the newspaper reported.

“The act of doing nothing … was an act purposefully undertaken,” Batten said.

The surviving dogs caught in this case won't be leaving their shelters to find permanent homes anytime soon because Scheld's attorney objected to a request that the animals be freed for placement.

Scheld and Leroy Thomas will be sentenced on Nov. 9 in Cape May County Superior Court. A restitution hearing will determine whether the couple pays the $180,000 bill for the care of the animals.

Smith asked that 37 remaining dogs be released so they can find new homes, but because of the defense opposition Batten said he could not release the dogs at this time.

The NJSPCA said it tried many times to help Scheld and her family correct violations and show her that the conditions in which the dogs were livng were cruel and inhumane.

"In every single animal hoarding case we have ever dealt with we find a person who starts out with good intentions but suddenly things spin way out of control. Defense Attorney Robert Pinizotto attempted to portray his clients as saving these animals and keeping them out of “kill” shelters," the NJSPCA said in a statement.

"The reality is Ms. Sheld and her family most likely did start out with good intentions, but failed to recognize the fact that animals were suffering, required immediate medical care and that animals were in fact dying. It is sad to see and sad to watch. Unfortunately we see this fact pattern a great deal throughout the State of New Jersey."