Ex-Lehigh kennel owner withdraws guilty plea on sentencing day

The operator of the now-defunct Almost Heaven kennel in Lehigh County - the subject of multiple raids and seizures of hundreds of dogs over the past year - withdrew his guilty plea to animal cruelty charges today.

Derbe "Skip" Eckhart - whose kennel license was revoked in June - was to be sentenced today on cruelty charges in Lehigh County Court, but instead withdrew his plea offered in Sept., saying he was pressured into the plea deal by prosecutors.

Instead, Eckhart, 42, of Emmaus, will go to trial on on Dec. 23 on 23 counts of animal cruelty and as many as 216 counts of violations to the state dog law, said Jay Jenkins, Lehigh County chief deputy district attorney.

"All the charges that were withdrawn as a result of negotiations have been reinstated," said Jenkins. Eckhart could face up to six years in prison on the six misdemeanor animal cruelty charges, Jenkins said.

As a result of prior cruelty convictions and his history of  "thumbing his nose at the courts," Judge Robert Steinberg today increased Eckhart's bail from $2,000 to $25,000. He also forbid Eckhart - who had taken a job as a dog groomer - from working around animals.

The Morning Call of Allentown has more.