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Emily Welker, Published January 06 2014

Wheatland puppy mill owner gets 2 years probation, ordered to have no more dogs

FARGO – A Cass County judge has sentenced a former Wheatland puppy mill owner to two years of supervised probation, during which he cannot have dogs, in exchange for his guilty plea to animal neglect.

Darcy Darrell Smith, 51, didn’t attend his sentencing hearing in Cass County District Court on Monday because of furnace problems due to cold weather, according to his public defender.

Defense attorney Gordon Dexheimer said Smith, the former owner of about 170 dogs seized last July by sheriff’s deputies after they were found matted, living in their own filth and stuffed sometimes five to a kennel, “actually loves animals very much.”

Some of the animals confiscated by deputies had not been groomed for so long they were immobilized by their own matted fur, authorities said.

Dexheimer said many of Smith’s dogs got sick during a cold, wet spring. While caring for them, Smith missed the 6- to 8-week window of opportunity during which local businesses usually take the puppies for sale, he said.

“It simply got out of hand. … It began to snowball on him with the animals,” Dexheimer said.

Cass County prosecutor Leah Viste told Judge Douglas Herman that if people who owned Wheatland-bred dogs knew what kind of conditions the animals had been kept in, they would be horrified.

Viste said the cost of restoring the animals to good health and housing them would have been more than $100,000 if not for the donations of time and money from Casselton Veterinary Service and animal rescue volunteers.

Money donated to a benefit fund for the rescued dogs helped offset the cost of their care, which ultimately cost taxpayers about $30,000. Restitution was not sought, Viste said.

Viste also said she was not seeking jail time for Smith because he has no history of animal abuse, he has cooperated with authorities since the seizure, and his behavior did not appear to be a deliberately-inflicted form of cruelty.

She asked Herman to sentence Smith to 100 hours of community service.

Smith entered an Alford plea last month to a single Class A misdemeanor count of animal neglect.

Under the Alford plea, Smith agreed the facts of the case might lead a jury to convict him, but he did not agree with all of the charges, Viste said.

Five counts of animal neglect were dropped as part of his plea deal.

Viste said the community service was meant to underline the seriousness of the case to Smith.

Herman denied the request for community service but granted a request that he pay a $2,000 legislative fee.

He also required Smith to undergo diagnostic testing for mental health and other conditions as part of his sentence.

Viste said she thought it was possible Smith suffered from a hoarding disorder.

“His need to keep them, in spite of their health and his dwindling care for them, is indicative of his need to hold on to them,” she said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Emily Welker at (701) 241-5541