Operator of kennel where 29 dogs died in fire found guilty of neglect, cruelty
The operator of a West Chicago-area kennel where 29 dogs died during a 2019 fire has been convicted of animal cruelty and failing to take proper care of the dogs.
Garrett Mercado, 32, of Woodridge was found guilty Friday of three counts of animal cruelty after a five-day bench trial before Judge Robert Miller. Mercado also was found guilty of six counts of violation of owner's duties for how he treated three dogs -- Koko, Magoo and Molly.
All the charges he was convicted of are misdemeanors. He will be sentenced on Oct. 22.
"Judge Miller's ruling verifies what we have said all along, that Garrett Mercado completely disregarded the health and safety of numerous dogs in his care," DuPage County State's Attorney Robert Berlin said in a statement after the verdict.
After a six-month investigation into the blaze, prosecutors laid out in disturbing detail the conditions inside the kennel near County Farm Road and North Avenue. Some of the counts against Mercado involved a dog named Koko, who was found dead beneath a pile of debris, tethered to a grab bar in a second-floor bathtub, prosecutors said.
Mercado left the kennel for about five hours, at which time a fire broke out on the morning of Jan. 14, 2019, according to prosecutors. When he returned around 5:30 a.m., flames were visible on the second floor of the building.
Mercado originally faced more than two dozen charges. But prosecutors dropped three counts Monday, and he was acquitted of six counts on Thursday and 10 counts on Friday.
In his testimony Friday, Mercado denied tethering Koko to the tub the night before the early-morning fire. But firefighters testified the tether was so tight the dog could not have moved.
Ultimately, the judge didn't believe Mercado.
Two other dogs, Magoo and Molly, were housed at the former D&D Kennels in 2017 and 2018.
Prosecutors said Molly was kept in a crate that was too small and Magoo was not given proper veterinary care.
Mercado testified that Molly was put in the too-small crate only temporarily when inspectors visited. But a prosecutor said there was evidence that Molly was kept there on a routine basis.
As for Magoo, whom Mercado was accused of starving, Miller said that regardless of what caused Magoo's illness and weight loss, "he was clearly in need of veterinary care."
Mercado testified Magoo would become agitated by the sound of kibble being poured into his metal bowl, knock the food out and start chewing on the bowl. Mercado said he had to hand-feed Magoo and that Magoo bit him seven times. The 40-pound dog lost 11 pounds in a five-week stay.
Miller did not, however, find that the general conditions of the kennel constituted neglect or cruelty.
"Just because someone (a kennel) doesn't have a AAA rating doesn't mean it is not acceptable," he said.
Before the ruling, Miller criticized DuPage County Animal Control and, to a lesser extent, the state agriculture department.
A former animal control officer had testified about a visit where she became concerned about the animals, but instead of seeking to bring charges, she emailed the agriculture inspector. The animal control officer testified county officers investigated animal complaints only on residential properties and said the state was responsible for monitoring animal businesses. Mercado had a state license.
Miller noted that Mercado had, before the fire, surrendered an injured dog to animal control, giving two different accounts of how the animal was hurt. The agency nursed the dog back to health, and when Mercado asked for the dog back, gave it to him. That dog died in the fire.
"Clearly animal control dropped the ball, and that is something I have to take into account when I consider (the weight of) their testimony," Miller said.
A DuPage County sheriff's deputy discovered the fire around 5:30 a.m. at the kennel. Mercado was outside. The deputy and Mercado went into the building to try to save the dogs. The deputy testified that fire in a stairwell prevented them from reaching dogs living on the second floor, so he and Mercado instead went into a first-floor room.
They were in there briefly, because the deputy heard windows breaking and feared the ceiling was about to collapse due to the fire.
The charred remains of the kennel have since been torn down, and the property has changed hands several times. The current owner is now operating firewood sales there. The site, previously unincorporated, has been annexed into the village of Carol Stream.