Lehigh Valley kennel owner convicted of animal cruelty
ALLENTOWN, Pa. (AP) - A commercial breeder charged with neglecting scores of dogs and cats was convicted Monday of animal cruelty, capping a high-profile case that state officials have used to tout their crackdown on substandard kennels.
A Lehigh County jury convicted Derbe "Skip" Eckhart of two misdemeanor counts of cruelty - both for failing to maintain a sanitary kennel - after prosecutors alleged he permitted animals at Almost Heaven Kennel to live in their own feces and urine.
"Obviously they were persuaded that the conditions of the kennel were unacceptable," Chief Deputy District Attorney Jay Jenkins said following the verdict in Allentown.
Eckhart was also convicted of operating the kennel in violation of a state order to shut down. He faces a maximum of five years in prison when he is sentenced May 18.
Prosecutors told jurors that Eckhart ran Almost Heaven on the cheap and ignored the horrible conditions that developed.
"The motive here is greed, even if the defendant doesn't want to admit it," Jenkins said in his closing argument.
Eckhart was charged with cruelty after a 2008 raid by the Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and state Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement. Prosecution witnesses testified that dogs and cats pulled from Almost Heaven suffered from severe, painful matting and a variety of skin, eye and upper respiratory ailments.
Eckhart, who declined comment after the verdict, maintained he was unfairly targeted by headline-seeking animal-welfare activists.
His attorney, Jeff Conrad, accused animal welfare officials of twisting the truth about Almost Heaven's conditions to generate publicity, raise money and help shut down a huge commercial kennel that it considered to be a puppy mill.
The SPCA also wanted to lend momentum to Gov. Ed Rendell's push to pass tough new kennel regulations, he said.
"This case is terribly, terribly overblown," Conrad said in his closing argument, reminding jurors the kennel had passed state inspection less than two months before the raid.
He insisted there was no evidence whatsoever of "wanton cruelty." At worst, he said, some of the animals needed to be bathed and groomed.
But Jenkins said Eckhart didn't hire enough workers to properly care for the 800 animals that lived on his Upper Milford Township compound, allowing a disgusting buildup of feces and urine and putting dogs and cats at risk.
Eckhart could have reduced the animal population, but more dogs meant higher profits, Jenkins said. "What costs money? Having a sufficient number of employees, having a vet come to treat animals that need it. ... And if some dogs remain in pain, the kind of pain that comes from (severe matting), well, he's got a business to run."
State kennel regulators have called Almost Heaven one of Pennsylvania's "most notorious" kennels. Eckhart has two prior convictions for animal cruelty in Carbon County, in 1988 and 1993.
Jurors deadlocked on two of the charges - both alleging he failed to provide dogs with veterinary care - but agreed on nine others. Eckhart was cleared of cruelty counts that alleged he failed to provide food and water.
Conrad cast the verdict as partial victory for his client, noting he beat six of the 11 misdemeanor counts.
He told reporters he still believes the SPCA abused its police powers and that Eckhart "became a pawn" in the successful effort to pass a strict kennel law. The new regulations - which Rendell signed into law in October 2008, only a few days after the raid at Almost Heaven - have driven more than 40 percent of commercial kennels out of business.