Verdict is vindication for animal welfare advocates

Animal welfare advocates waited on tenterhooks for 4 1/2 hours Monday afternoon while a Lehigh County jury deliberated on a dozen animal cruelty charges against former kennel operator Derbe Eckhart - at one point telling the judge they were deadlocked over several of the charges.

How could an individual with a 22-year-long rap sheet of animal abuse and a history of failing to comply with orders - from the attorney general's office (for not providing valid veterinary health certificates with the dogs he sold), from the American Kennel Club (for fraudulently selling dogs as registered while he was under a 30-year suspension) from the Department of Revenue (he was on the state's Top 10 worst tax scofflaws with more than $80k in liens) and from the Department of Agriculture (for continuing to accumulate dogs despite a kennel license revocation) - go free?

At the end of the six-day trial, the jury convicted Eckhart - operator of Almost Heaven kennel in Emmaus - on two charges, acquitted him on four charges and deadlocked on another two counts. Lehigh County Court Judge Michael Steinberg found him guilty of more than a dozen charges, including two for animal cruelty and others relating to kennel maintenance. Eckhart could face one year in jail for each of the the five misdemeanor charges and 90 days for the summary offenses. Sentencing is May 18. (More from the Morning Call and columnist Bill White.)

The jury considered only the dueling depictions of the conditions of the kennel at the time the Pennsylvania SPCA raided it Oct. 1. None of Eckhart's prior troubles were mentioned in the courtroom, opening the door for his attorney to portray the conditions found during the raid as an isolated incident.

Defense attorney Jeff Conrad lined up solid witnesses: Eckhart's veterinarian Carol Miller, who testified that she saw nothing wrong with the kennel and that the dogs were "happy and healthy" and ex-PSPCA humane agent Chris Martin, who said he toured the facility and saw no problems.

The Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement unwittingly aided the defense by giving Eckhart clean inspections in May and August of 2008. In its October revocation order, the bureau noted conditions that likely did not crop up in two months, including rusted piping and kennel doors, dilapidated ceilings, flooring and insulation and drainage troughs filled with feces and debris,

In fact, between 2003 and August 2007, Eckhart received all passing inspections. He was not cited for any violations until the day of the PSPCA raid. Rick Martrich, the warden and later regional supervisor responsible for Eckhart's clean kennel inspections, was removed from the bureau and then fired in 2009 following an investigation by the state Inspector General.

Eckhart first appeared on the animal abuse radar in 1988, when he was convicted of cruelty and jailed for starving 45 dogs and 3 cats at his property in Carbon County. In 1993 he was convicted again for starving a female dog and her 14 puppies - only four of which survived. He would later be fined for running an unlicensed kennel and then awarded a kennel license. (All of the cases are documented at

About six years ago, Bill Smith, founder of Main Line Animal Rescue, first encountered dogs rescued from Eckhart's kennel at Puppy Mill Awareness Day in Lancaster County. He couldn't believe the conditions of the dogs there and those that came later: some were missing jaws, some were burned, some had broken legs and backs, coat matting so severe that the dogs couldn't defecate properly. Some were emaciated, others had bad wounds from fighting - Smith says - over rotten chicken parts thrown in pens. All were emotionally traumatized.

It was then that Smith said he decided to make ending the suffering at Eckhart's kennel his "crusade." He complained to the Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement and received polite replies acknowledging it was a "problem kennel." He called the Pennsylvania Game Commission about Eckhart's exotic monkeys. He called the township zoning board asking how Eckart could house hundreds of animals on just a few acres. He called Lehigh County Humane Society, the Inspector General, the Attorney General, the Internal Revenue Service, reporters - anyone who would listen.

It was the work of Smith and the relentless reporting of the Morning Call of Allentown - especially columnist Bill White - that kept the story alive and the pressure on state agencies. It was the arrival of PSPCA chief executive Howard Nelson that set in motion a chain of events that would ultimately shut the doors at Almost Heaven. An undercover investigation led to the Oct. 1 raid where humane officers found some 800 animals - dogs, cats, horses, birds, guinea pigs - living in squalor. They found live animals crammed in crates in every nook and cranny of his house and 66 puppies wrapped - as one agent put it - "like hoagies" - in freezers. 

The Department of Agriculture - under pressure from lawmakers and the public - moved swiftly to revoke Eckhart's license and issued a cease and desist order during the appeal process to prevent him from accumulating more dogs. But, in June 2009, after the bureau learned Eckhart was violating that order, it dispatched agents aided by the Humane Society of the United States, to seize 216 dogs, leaving him with fewer than 25 dogs - the number required for a license.

Smith said he was pleased by the verdict, but couldn't help but think of the thousands of dogs who suffered needlessly - and those he rescued who didn't make it, like the brindle Boxer who weighed just 26 pounds and whose broken back was beyond repair. Or Peter, the 11-year-old miniature poodle, taken in by Smith in 2005 with 50 puncture wounds, the result of fighting other dogs for chicken carcasses. Peter lived a spoiled life at Smith's house until his death last year.

Smith hopes the remaining animals at Eckhart's will be removed - including reportedly many purebred cats and horses - and that Steinberg's sentence will include both a lifetime ban on pet ownership and regular inspections to ensure Eckhart's property is pet-free.