A simple-misdemeanor charge of animal neglect in Iowa carries a fine of $65 — less than the cost of a speeding ticket for driving 10 mph over the limit. (Photo by Margarita Kosior via Unsplash)
In October 2019, Chris Swigart, a special agent with the Iowa Division Criminal Investigation, drove down Timber Road in the rural Wayne County town of Russell and slowed his vehicle.
Swigart was there to check out a reported unlicensed dog-breeding operation called Elite Basset Hounds, run by Michael Johnson and his husband, Juan Johnson.
Although there are 299 licensed breeders in Iowa, criminal investigations such as Swigart’s were — and still are — rare. Even civil fines and license suspensions are relatively uncommon.
In fact, in the two years since Swigart’s visit to Elite Basset Hounds, only three Iowa breeders and one dealer have been fined by the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship. The most recent case involves Daniel Gingerich, a Wayne County breeder accused of more than 100 violations of the federal Animal Welfare Act.
As for criminal prosecutions, a simple-misdemeanor charge of animal neglect in Iowa carries a fine of $65 — less than the cost of a speeding ticket for driving 10 mph over the limit. Even when breeders are convicted of stealing tens of thousands of dollars from dozens of buyers, a prison sentence isn’t assured — as the case of Elite Basset Hounds would eventually show.
From where he was parked on Timber Road, Swigart saw nothing that would indicate a dog breeder was operating out of the dilapidated farmhouse and outbuildings. In fact, as he later told the court, there was nothing to suggest any sort of business was being run on the site.
He was there because he and Wayne County deputies had fielded complaints from several individuals who claimed to have paid for basset hounds from Elite over the past two years and received nothing in return.
One man, Michael Budd of New Jersey, told authorities he bought a basset hound from Elite in 2017 and arranged to meet the Johnsons in Missouri to pick up the dog. He and his wife flew 1,000 miles from New Jersey to St. Louis and were on their way to collect their new puppy when the Johnsons allegedly cut off all communication with them. The Budds were out $3,150.
Ryan Slater of Texas had purchased a dog from the Johnsons in March 2019, paying $825 for a puppy. After two and a half years of waiting, Slater was told by the Johnsons they were canceling their contract with him. Slater then drove from Texas to Iowa and went to the Timber Road property accompanied by a Wayne County deputy.
The Johnsons came to the door, but allegedly said their contract with Slater had been voided by Slater coming onto their property. The Johnsons ordered Slater and the deputy to leave.
There were other complaints, as well: an Idaho woman who said she was scammed out of $1,100 for a puppy she never received; a Connecticut man who said he lost $883 after the Johnsons canceled his contract when he asked for photos of the puppy he was to receive; and an Iowa woman who said the Johnsons directed “vague and threatening” comments toward her after she complained of paying $400 for a dog she never received.
Ultimately, 33 people would allege they were cheated out of more than $41,000 by the Johnsons.
Swigart drove away from farmhouse, obtained a search warrant, and then returned to cart away boxes of paperwork, computers and phones. The Johnsons were then charged with theft and ongoing criminal conduct.
With the charges still pending, Juan Johnson fled to Georgia, violating the terms of his pre-trial release agreement. He was eventually located, brought back to Iowa, and convicted of theft and failure to appear, with prosecutors dropping the charge of ongoing criminal conduct. Johnson was convicted of theft.
Both men were given suspended prison sentences, placed on probation and ordered to pay more than $50,000 in restitution and penalties.
Back in November 2019, shortly after Swigart served the Johnsons with a search warrant, animal-welfare inspectors from IDALS visited the site. They found more than 50 dogs on the property and reported a “strong smell of urine and fecal material” in the kennels.
The inspectors said most of the animals were standing or lying in feces, and most “had no space to move around.” Elite Bassett Hounds was “in poor condition with generalized dirt and manure on most surfaces,” IDALs officials alleged.
IDALS fined the Johnsons $10,000, but the couple was never criminally charged with violating Iowa’s animal welfare laws.
State officials say the $10,000 regulatory fine was never paid. Court records indicate nothing has been paid toward the $50,000 in court-ordered restitution.
Criminal penalty for neglect: $65
The battered front door of the house on Des Moines’ Ascension Street, just south of University Avenue, is still festooned with dog-related decals.
“Eat-Sleep Bullys,” one says. “Adopt a dog, save a life,” says another. “Pit bull rescue team,” says a third.
In the front yard, a pet crate sits in the grass under a stack of trash. More trash, including veterinary records for a pit bull, litters the street in front of the house.
This is the former home of Unbreakabull Bullies, once a state-licensed dealer in pit bulls. In social-media postings, owner Tina Petraline called her operation a charity and a rescue organization that was working “all over the Midwest” to place pit bulls with families for a fee of $100 to $200 each.
The problem was that this state-licensed dealership was being run out of a house in a residentially zoned neighborhood of Des Moines, where homeowners are limited to harboring no more than three dogs.
For six years, police were repeatedly called to the house. In December 2015, Des Moines police cited Petraline for having 12 dogs, some without rabies vaccinations, in her home. She was fined $65 for each of the three citations she was issued.
In December 2018, February 2019, November 2019 and December 2019, Petraline was again cited for harboring too many dogs. In each of those cases, she was again fined $65.
During a November 2019 visit, the police and the city’s animal-welfare workers removed at least 16 dogs from Petraline’s home. They also cited her for animal neglect pertaining to a dog with heartworm and cancer, though prosecutors later dismissed that charge.
Several weeks later, in February 2020, Petraline was criminally charged with two additional counts of animal neglect. Police said she had transferred dogs to another individual for him to foster, warning the man that the animals might have a contagious, sometimes fatal, disease known as parvovirus. The dogs were coughing and covered in fleas. One of the three died.
At the time, Petraline also was accused of neglecting an injured pit bull puppy that had a broken leg. The Animal Rescue League later reported that several of the dogs in Petraline’s care “required dental surgeries and spay/neuter surgeries, and one required surgery to repair a hernia.”
Eventually, one of the two counts of neglect was dismissed pursuant to a plea deal, and Petraline was fined $65 for the remaining charge.
Around the same time, Petraline was charged with felony theft after a veterinarian claimed she failed to pay $2,179 for services he provided to her animals. The vet told police Petraline’s animals were always covered in urine and feces, apparently after sitting in kennels filled with their own waste.
The criminal charge was dismissed after Petraline agreed to pay restitution to the vet.
In addition to the criminal cases, Petraline was sanctioned by IDALS in early 2020. The agency suspended her dealer’s license for 30 days and imposed a civil penalty of $600, accusing her of failing to maintain the required records, failing to comply with dog-importing regulations and failing to comply with regulations related to vaccinations.
That action was taken only after six separate visits by IDALS inspectors had ended with findings of uncorrected regulatory violations. State records indicate at least three of those visits were announced in advance, and during their fifth inspection, the inspectors “left at Petraline’s request.”
The sixth inspection took place in November 2019. At the time, inspectors reported Petraline had incomplete records for at least half the 80 dogs deemed to be in her care. The whereabouts of at least a dozen dogs, many imported from Oklahoma, couldn’t be determined. Petraline said some of the Oklahoma dogs had died, but she allegedly had no records to support that claim.
During the inspection, Des Moines police arrived on the scene, at which point Petraline simply left the house, inspectors reported.
IDALS records indicate Unbreakabull Bullies is no longer an Iowa-licensed dealer. Petraline did not respond to calls or emails, but in recent social media postings she has said her organization saved hundreds of dogs from being euthanized and indicated she was forced out of business by overzealous police and regulators.
Advocate: Iowa’s animal protection laws fall short
Mindi Callison of the Iowa-based, national animal advocacy group Bailing Out Benji, says it shouldn’t have taken so many years for Unbreakabull Bullies to be shut down.
She notes that animal neglect still carries a penalty of $65 in Iowa, although neglect that results in death can be charged as an aggravated misdemeanor that carries a maximum penalty of two years in jail and a fine of up to $625.
Last year, Gov. Kim Reynolds signed into law a bill that strengthens Iowa’s animal cruelty and neglect laws. But the bill, Callison says, “stopped short of making animal torture a first-offense felony.” Iowa, she says, is the only state in the nation that doesn’t prosecute first-offense animal torture as a felony.
“The dollar amount and jail time attached to these violent crimes is often so minimal that those charged are let off with a slap on the wrist — free to commit similar crimes again,” Callison says. “Iowa legislators must act to increase these fines and penalties if they want to dissuade abusers from inflicting harm and torture on our companion animals.”
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