One year after fire, future of kennel near Carol Stream remains in question
A devastating fire that killed 29 dogs in a kennel near Carol Stream a year ago Tuesday spurred a new state law and led to animal cruelty charges against its operator, but the decrepit building still looks much as it did after erupting in flames.
The Jan. 14 fire exposed what DuPage County prosecutors called "cruel and inhumane conditions" inside the kennel that housed 58 dogs near North Avenue and County Farm Road.
The operator, Garrett Mercado, has pleaded not guilty to 28 misdemeanors -- 14 counts of animal cruelty and 14 counts of violation of owner's duties.
He is set to appear in court for a status hearing Jan. 23, when his attorney, Harry Smith, is expected to give prosecutors a list of expert witnesses who could be called should the case go to trial.
Smith, a Wheaton lawyer, did not respond to phone and email messages seeking comment on his client's case. If convicted, Mercado could face up to almost a year in jail.
After a six-month investigation into the blaze, prosecutors laid out in disturbing detail the conditions inside the kennel. Some of the counts against Mercado involve a dog named Koko, who was found beneath a pile of debris, tethered to a bar in a second-floor bathtub, DuPage State's Attorney Robert Berlin said.
"During the fire, that tethering was so tight that it was unlikely Koko would have been able to lay down, and if so, would not have been able to move, and Koko died during the fire," Berlin said last July.
The smoke had barely cleared when critics questioned the cleanliness of the kennel, its staffing and the number of dogs housed there.
Some of those critics formed DuPage 29, a Facebook group tracking the court case and calling for accountability from rescue groups that placed dogs with Mercado after pulling the animals from shelters. DuPage 29 also has rebuked rescue groups for largely staying silent on the operations of the kennel, though some defended Mercado in the immediate aftermath of the fire.
"We want to see that they're just being more responsible with the dogs they place in general," said John Elias, a Chicago attorney representing DuPage 29, which he described as a forum for "people that want to make sure that theses dogs are not forgotten."
Rescues typically set up pledge campaigns to pluck dogs from high-kill shelters. Before contributing, donors should ask rescue volunteers if they're placing the dogs in training facilities and for how long and what they're doing to find pets permanent homes, Elias said.
"Putting the dogs somewhere is not the same thing as caring for the dogs," he said.
As the licensed operator of the kennel, Mercado worked as a trainer of rescue dogs with histories of behavioral issues.
Eight months before the fire, a county animal control officer following up on a complaint reported finding a "horrible odor" and piles of feces in the kennel runs. But the kennel passed its last routine inspection with the state department of agriculture in September 2018.
The facility had just 13 operational runs and lacked fire prevention safety measures, and no one was on site to supervise the animals for about five hours before the fire broke out, according to Berlin. The charges against Mercado are unrelated to the cause of the fire, which previously was classified as undetermined.
Under the new state law that took effect at the start of the year, kennels must either be staffed at all times or have fire sprinkler systems or alarm systems that notify fire departments, as a requirement of a license application or renewal with the department of agriculture.
"It goes beyond saving animals," said State Rep. Diane Pappas, an Itasca Democrat who introduced the legislation. "It's also a bill to help protect our firefighters because responding to a kennel fire where there are animals that may potentially injure those firefighters because they don't realize what's happening and they may acting on instinct, that's a really dangerous fire for firefighters to go into, and the sooner we can get them there, the better off everybody will be."
Several firefighters suffered dog bites battling the kennel fire. About two dozen dogs were saved.
But the kennel remains a stark reminder of the dogs that died, even if the makeshift memorials are gone. The windows are still boarded, and a dumpster filled with debris sits in the driveway, opposite a "for sale by owner sign." No one returned a message left with the phone number listed on the sign. Some portions of the structure have been torn down, but according to DuPage County building department records, no demolition permit has been applied for or issued.
Property tax bills on the kennel site are addressed to Joanne Grossman, who could not be reached. The village of Carol Stream owns a house to the north.
"It is true that the property is contiguous to Carol Stream's corporate boundaries, so the village would be in a position to annex the property and control future development and use if the property owner wished to do that but we have not had any conversation with anybody about doing that," Community Development Director Don Bastian said.
The village originally purchased the residential property in 2013 for strategic value to annex properties to the west, Bastian said. He said there's a "good possibility" the village will put it back up for sale in the near future.