Four members of a puppy-selling gang in south Essex have admitted to offences in connection with the fraudulent sale of puppies, some of which were found dead in freezers.
Kelly Bennett, 43, and Ricky Bennett, 41 both of Weymouth Drive, Chafford Hundred, as well as Steven Foster, 42, and Stacey Hayward, 41, both of Colliford Road, West Thurrock, all stood trial at Basildon Crown Court.
All four entered guilty pleas on Friday (May 13), two to fraud and two to acquiring criminal property.
Kelly Bennett also indicated guilty pleas to two offences under the Animal Welfare Act while Ricky Bennett indicated a guilty plea to one animal welfare offence.
The RSPCA and local authority launched an investigation into puppy selling in the Essex area after being contacted by members of the public who had bought puppies from addresses in Billericay, Grays and Thurrock.
The charity’s Special Operations Unit (SOU) - a specialist taskforce which investigates serious, organised and commercial animal cruelty, such as the high value trade in puppies - started looking into a premises at Crays Hill in 2019.
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In the case summary, Hazel Stevens, prosecuting on behalf of the animal welfare charity, said: “Members of the public had made complaints to the local authority and the RSPCA about puppies being purchased from said premises – which soon became ill after sale.
“Twelve witness statements were taken in relation to puppies with health problems which were sold from the Billericay address between June and September 2019, and one in March 2019.”
The court was told that Basildon Council had licensed Stacey Hayward to sell puppies but the licence was revoked in July 2018 due to complaints about sick puppies. Her breeding licence ran out in December 2018.
Hayward and her partner, Steven Foster, moved to a new home and, in October 2019, complaints began coming into the RSPCA related to an address in Weymouth Drive, occupied by Kelly and Ricky Bennett.
An RSPCA officer visited in August 2019 and gave advice about licensing but no licence was ever issued for this address, the court was told.
Weymouth Drive was linked to an address in Colliford Road via a witness and this was confirmed as the new residence of Hayward and Foster.
Both sellers 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.
Prosecutor Hazel added: “In addition, adverts were placed on the selling sites with various names and numbers. Visitors to the Hayward address were still shown her licence documents despite its revocation.
“Search warrants were executed at both properties and puppies were found to be present at both with some adult dogs. Dead puppies were also found at both properties in the freezer (two at Weymouth and one at Colliford).
“Seizure of paperwork and phones further demonstrates the links between the two addresses and there is evidence of Hayward delivering to Bennett’s address.”
Nine puppies were found living in a shed at the rear of the garden at Colliford Road, they were all seized and taken into care.
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.
At Weymouth Drive, officers found three adult spaniels, five cocker spaniel puppies and two dead spaniel puppies which "appeared to have been dead for days", Hazel said.
The court heard that the litter of spaniel puppies tested positive for Giardia, a small parasite that attacks the intestines.
RSPCA officers worked closely with the Eastern Region Special Operations Unit’s financial investigator who analysed financial records linked to the sellers, and attributed approximately £850,000 of income linked to the sale of puppies.
Seized phones were analysed and showed many messages responding to adverts for puppies, using different names.
Bank statements showed payments with the reference: "Puppy".
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.
Messages on the phones also showed that Ricky Bennett had taken payments for the puppies, while witnesses had paid money into Foster’s bank account for puppies too.
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.
The court heard that the selling of puppies continued throughout lockdown, until May 2021.
All four will be sentenced at Basildon Crown Court on August 12.