Dead puppies found in freezer as investigators bust £850,000 dog-selling fraud
Four people have pleaded guilty after puppies were "found dead in a freezer" during an investigation into an £850,000 dog-selling fraud.
Stacey Hayward, 41, Steven Foster, 42, Kelly Bennett, 43, and Ricky Bennett, 41, pled guilty to either fraud or acquiring criminal property at Basildon Crown Court last week.
Kelly Bennett also indicated guilty pleas for two offences under the Animal Welfare Act while Ricky Bennett indicated a guilty plea to one animal welfare offence.
The RSPCA's Special Operations Unit (SOU) - a specialist task force that investigates serious, organised and commercial animal cruelty, such as the high-value trade-in puppies - started looking into premises in Billericay in 2019.
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It followed complaints from members of the public who bought puppies that quickly became ill after purchasing them from the individuals.
Investigators found adult dogs and puppies at two properties connected to the defendants.
Dead puppies were also found at both properties in the freezer.
One family shared how they claimed to have bought a puppy name Mabel from Hayward in July 2019, only to tragically lose her to parvovirus days later.
The family said in a statement read to the court: "When I saw her she was lifeless. It will be an image I will never get out of my head. I said to the vets that it was best to put her to sleep."
The court was also told that Basildon Council had licensed Stacey Hayward to sell puppies but the licence was revoked in July 2018 due to complaints about sick puppies.
Both Hayward and Bennett were advertising puppies who were described as being ‘bred at home’ but it appears a number of puppies were sourced from Wales, with Welsh vaccination cards containing details cut out or erased.
Nine puppies were found living in a shed at the rear of a garden - they were all seized and taken into care.
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One tested positive for parvovirus and sadly died but the others, who were suffering from Giardia and other health problems, made full recoveries and were rehomed.
Officers found three adult spaniels at another address as well as five cocker spaniel puppies and two dead spaniel puppies which "appeared to have been dead for days," Prosecutor Hazel Stevens said.
The court heard that the litter of spaniel puppies tested positive for Giardia, a small parasite that attacks the intestines.
Investigators estimated the four sellers earned around £850,000 of income linked to the sale of puppies.
Messages showed that both Hayward and Kelly Bennett were sourcing puppies on a regular basis and placing adverts online using fake names and details, and claiming the puppies had been bred and reared in a family home.
RSPCA officers analysed the adverts and estimated that at least 100 adverts had been placed, advertising around 500 puppies, between December 2018 and March 2020, across Gumtree, Preloved and Pets4homes.
All four will be sentenced at Basildon Crown Court on 12 August.
The UK has experienced a puppy boom in recent years mostly driven by people spending more time at home due to the pandemic and switching to working from home.
This has led to a rise in dog fraud and dog crime with police tackling illegal puppy farms all over the country.
There has also been an increase in direct dog theft by criminals.