Deborah Beatrice Rowell of Pine River says she only pleaded guilty to an animal neglect charge because she didn’t believe she would get a fair trial, saying she was “blackmailed.”
Rowell, 60, pleaded guilty to one of nine animal neglect charges Oct. 14; the other eight charges were dismissed. Charges included eight misdemeanors and one petty misdemeanor. Rowell pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor.
The charges came after 133 dogs, including 29 puppies, were seized from her residence July 15. That number grew to 200 after some of the dogs had puppies.
The Animal Humane Society (AHS), which took over care of the dogs, feels Rowell’s sentence was nothing more than “a slap on the wrist.”
Rowell was given a $135 fine and 90 days in jail, which she does not have to serve so long as she remains law-abiding for one year.
Rowell’s plea was an Alford plea, which means she does not admit to the crime.
“They ruined my business, they ruined my life and I hadn’t even committed a crime. I pleaded guilty to one offense because I had no choice. I was being blackmailed,” Rowell said by phone.
Had she fought all nine charges and lost to any of them, she said, she could have faced fines estimated by her lawyer in excess of $250,000. The situation forced her to plead guilty, she said.
The AHS believes the court system didn’t do enough.
A statement AHS released from CEO Janelle Dixon states, “This plea agreement is a travesty. ... The dogs and puppies we cared for in the last three months were taken from brutal, inhumane conditions. We are outraged that forcing dogs to live in that kind of environment can go largely unpunished, and we are saddened that this plea agreement does virtually nothing to prevent this from happening all over again.”
Rowell said she still has her U.S. Department of Agriculture license and is still allowed to sell dogs. She said she doesn’t plan to, though.
“I think I’m going to be done raising dogs for a while because I’ve been so hurt and so many bad things have been said,” Rowell said. “I can (legally). It’s not a problem.”
Cass County Sheriff Tom Burch confirmed that he knew of no legal reasons Rowell couldn’t own animals. He acknowledged hearing rumors that Rowell was keeping dogs again.
“I’ve heard those rumors and to my knowledge she’s not prohibited from having any more animals,” he said.
Rowell, along with her lawyer, Stephen Grigsby, say Rowell wasn’t able to get a fair trial because the judge made rulings against allowing her to present evidence.
“We didn’t feel we had the ability to present any meaningful defense in the matter,” Grigsby said.
Rowell takes issue not only with the trial but with the seizure of the dogs, saying that those seizing the dogs planted trash in the dog runs to make them look worse than they were.
“They threw a plastic bag in my dog pen and took a picture so it looked like I was dirty,” Rowell said.
She also claimed that those seizing the dogs put the dogs into “filthy” crates and left them in the sun for hours with no water.
The AHS aided in the seizure at the sheriff’s department’s request. Jeff Moravec, director of communications for the AHS, was there when the dogs were being seized and denied Rowell’s claims on how the dogs were handled that day.
“They were taken from her kennels, which had no shade, and put in the shade under a big tree on her property and they had water,” Moravec said. “They were very carefully cared for.”
Rowell also claimed that 22 puppies died in AHS vehicles on the way to the Twin Cities; the AHS denies this claim as well.
Moravec said no dogs died on the way to the AHS shelters, but said seven puppies died after being seized. He didn’t have a specific reason for how the dogs died, but said that generally deaths of that sort are due to failure to thrive.
Though he was at the Rowell residence, Moravec didn’t wish to describe what he saw there.
The criminal complaint against Rowell stated that many of the dogs’ water bowls had green water, and one had a dead mouse floating on top of it. The complaint also stated that some dogs were in an outbuilding in which the temperature was 97 degrees. The complaint stated that dog runs had shade, but described situations in which the shade wasn’t adequate for the number of dogs in the run.
Rowell said that after the dogs were seized she wanted to get them back, but she couldn’t because the AHS presented her with a large bill for the dogs’ care. At the time she was ready to retrieve them, charges amounted to $86,000, Rowell’s lawyer said. She couldn’t afford the cost, so she didn’t get any of the dogs back.
Moravec said that as of Oct. 21, the cost of caring for the animals that came from Rowell’s property amounts to $225,000.
Moravec reported that at least 105 of the seized dogs had been adopted from AHS shelters in the metro area.
Sheriff Burch said that though he’d received unhappy phone calls from people on all sides of the story, he hadn’t received any further complaints of animal maltreatment at Rowell’s residence.
“The court settled it and we’re moving forward,” Burch said.