Operator of kennel where 29 dogs died in fire faces animal cruelty charges
There's "no question" the conditions of a Carol Stream-area kennel contributed to the deaths of 29 dogs in a Jan. 14 fire, DuPage County State's Attorney Robert Berlin said Thursday.
Woodridge resident Garrett Mercado, operator of The Bully Life Animal Services, formerly known as D & D Kennels, now faces 28 misdemeanor charges -- 14 counts of animal cruelty and 14 counts of violation of owner's duties -- stemming from the early morning blaze.
An investigation determined the kennel was housing at least 58 dogs, many of which were mistreated, inappropriately tethered, placed in cages that were too small, or kept in crates stacked on top of one another, Berlin said during a news conference.
The facility lacked fire prevention safety measures, he said, and no one was on site to supervise the animals when the fire broke out.
"All of those factors contributed to the loss of so many dogs in this fire," Berlin said. "These dogs lived in cruel and inhumane conditions, and they died a horrible death."
A warrant was issued Wednesday afternoon for Mercado's arrest. Mercado, 29, of the 2300 block of Cambridge Lane, was taken into custody later that evening at the Roselle Animal Hospital, Berlin said. Mercado went there to spend time with eight dogs rescued from the fire that were taken in by the hospital until they could be placed in foster homes or adopted, owner Todd Zink said.
The charges against Mercado are unrelated to the cause of the fire, which remains undetermined. There is no evidence to suggest arson.
The first emergency responder at the scene was sheriff's Deputy Chris Obrochta, who spotted the fire on a routine patrol, alerted dispatchers around 5:20 a.m. and, along with Mercado, helped free dogs from cages.
Carol Stream firefighters battled the blaze to rescue dogs and corral them in the front yard. Because of the intensity of the fire, crews couldn't reach those on the top floor of the two-story building on County Farm Road near North Avenue, where Mercado had been living in an apartment.
About 22 dogs were saved, Berlin said, and several more are considered missing.
Critics immediately questioned the cleanliness of the facility, its staffing and the number of animals housed there.
In an interview with the Daily Herald in January, Mercado said he knew "the building needed a lot of work ... It wasn't the prettiest building, but the work we were doing in it was something special, and in the time we were there we were able to get a lot of dogs rehabbed and adopted or into foster care."
The DuPage County Fire Investigative Task Force, along with the sheriff's and state's attorney's offices, launched an investigation that lasted more than six months. Officials found "numerous" dogs were being mistreated, Berlin said, with some suffering puncture wounds, lacerations, abrasions, weight loss and dehydration.
One dog staying at the kennel was returned to its owner with ribs showing, muscle wasting and hook worm disease, he said. Another dog, which died in the fire, was tethered so tightly to a second-floor bathtub that it likely was unable to lie down.
Berlin said the kennel also was determined to be unsanitary, with urine stains, fresh and old feces, empty water bowls and a foul odor throughout the facility.
The kennel passed a July 2018 inspection, he said, but only 35 dogs were being housed there at the time.
"On Jan. 14, with 58 dogs in that kennel in those conditions, there's no way that kennel should've been operating," Berlin said.
The charges filed against Mercado stem from four different dates in 2018, as well as the day of the fire, when he is accused of violating laws requiring anyone caring for animals to provide humane care and treatment, Berlin said. The "horrific" allegations show that Mercado "failed miserably in carrying out these duties," he said.
The situation also created a dangerous environment for sheriff's Deputy Obrochta, who risked his life to run into the burning building and save as many dogs as he could, Sheriff James Mendrick said.
"This never should have happened," he said. "We depend on our various pets and animals to give us comfort every day, and with that being said, we owe them proper care and treatment in return."
Mercado was the licensed operator of the kennel. He worked as a trainer of rescue dogs with histories of behavioral issues since 2014.
Property tax bills for the kennel were sent in 2018 to Joanne Grossman, who lives in Florida.
Mercado posted 10 percent of his $50,000 bail and was released from the DuPage County jail Thursday morning. His next court appearance is scheduled for Aug. 12 in courtroom 4003.