A gang of puppy farmers and smugglers has been sentenced yesterday (22 May), following a three-year investigation by the RSPCA into puppy dealing in London and Berkshire. The investigation, called ‘Operation Adder’, was launched after members of the public reported buying puppies who then fell ill and, in some cases, died.
The gang, which was aided by a vet who falsified the puppies’ paperwork to make them easier to sell on to unsuspecting families, made at least £2.5m over a five-year period, selling over five thousand puppies for an average of £500 each – although investigators suspect there were many more.
RSPCA inspector Kirsty Withnall, who led the investigation, said, “Four of the gang members are siblings and, together with their partners, launched this network of puppy sellers and dealers in west London, with Edward and Mary Teresa Stokes later continuing to sell dogs from their new address in Reading, Berkshire, while Thomas Stokes went on to sell again from another property in Feltham.
“This was an complex and sophisticated network of organised fraud and cruelty to dogs. This was a complicated and multi-faceted, high volume conspiracy whereby the gang has misrepresented commercial, puppy-farmed dogs imported from abroad as family-bred pets to con members of the public out of money.
“Puppies were illegally imported from southern Ireland before being transported to the defendants’ homes where they were kept in plastic sheds, outbuildings and garages. They were advertised online and sold for between £350 and £650 each.
“The gang were generally dealing with fashionable breeds and designer crossbreeds such as Yorkies, cavapoos and Labradoodles.”
Officers took statements from 83 victims in total, all of whom had bought puppies from the gang at different addresses, having responded to online adverts. Of those puppies, 25 puppies died or had to be put to sleep due to severe health issues.
“Buyers have had to cover expensive veterinary bills or, tragically, lost their pet as a result of poor breeding, inappropriate transport and inadequate care,” inspector Withnall said. “We also discovered that the sellers were using lots of different names and aliases as well as changing phone numbers.
“Prospective buyers were led to believe that the puppy they wished to purchase had been born and raised in a loving family home, the mother dog being a family pet. They were provided with paperwork relating to pedigree parentage, health documentation and vaccination certificates, much of which was falsified and did not or could not be shown to relate to the puppy in question.
“When visiting, buyers were usually met by a man, often there were children and a woman present, giving the impression of the ‘family home’ that the puppies were claimed to have been part of. They were also shown bitches claimed to be the mothers but we now know these were stooge dogs bought in to lull buyers into a false sense of security.”
Two of the fraudsters – Simon O’Donnell, 30, and Thomas Stokes, 26 – were jailed for three years, and disqualified from keeping dogs for life. Thomas O’Donnell, 29, was handed a two-year suspended jail term and ordered to complete 100 hours of unpaid work and a rehabilitation activity.
Two more members of the gang – Margaret and Mary McDonagh – were given community orders, and given an order which prohibits them from keeping dogs until an application to the court to lift it. Yet another member was previously sentenced to a 12-month conditional discharge, disqualified from keeping dogs for five years, and ordered to pay £250 in costs. Edward Stokes, the final member of the gang, will appear back at court on 14 June for sentencing after his case was adjourned.
The false paperwork was provided by vet Daniel Doherty, who operated two My Vets surgeries in Uxbridge, west London. He was found guilty of conspiracy to commit fraud after a four-week trial at Isleworth Crown Court in April.
Inspector Withnall said, “Doherty was knowingly signing off vaccination cards and veterinary paperwork for thousands of puppies in the gang members’ real names as well as approving the paperwork that was written out in their fake aliases.
“He was complicit and, if anything, aided their fraud because any buyers who purchased puppies from the gang may well have been comforted and reassured by the fact that the dog they were buying had paperwork to say it had already been to a vet for vaccinations and health checks.
“The problem is that the puppies had not been adequately checked so some were already harbouring illnesses by the time they were sold.”
The RSPCA gathered evidence that 4,689 puppies were taken to MyVet 24/7 by the gang between 23 March 2011 and 10 May 2017 for their first vaccinations.
Inspector Withnall added, “Doherty offered the gang discounted vaccinations at just £16 per vaccine and flea/worming treatment, so that works out at more than £75,000 in his pocket.”
Doherty was sentenced to 12 months in prison, suspended for 12 months, and was ordered to complete 80 hours of unpaid work and pay £140 victim surcharge.
After sentencing, Judge McDowall is reported to have described Doherty as “a very good vet in terms of your work”.
“I am not sure if what I say has an impact on your professional body, but I hope very much they may take as lenient a view as they can, rather than destroying your purpose in life altogether,” he said. “For what it is worth I hope they will be as lenient as they can.”
At the time of the conviction in April, the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS) told Dogs Today that are “aware of the recent conviction of a vet at Isleworth Crown Court”, and are investigating the circumstances.
With some of these sentences being little more than a slap on the wrist despite the amount of puppies involved and the heartbreak caused to so many families, it’s no wonder that animal welfare campaigners feel that new sentencing guidelines for animal cruelty are needed – as well as a ban on third party puppy sales.
Lucy’s Law, which would ban third-party puppy sales and thus take away the front puppy farmers hide behind, was debated in Parliament on Monday 21 May, following a petition that quickly smashed its target of 100,000 signature. The response was overall positive. SNP MP Martyn Day said at the end of the debate, “It was a privilege to open today’s e-petition debate. I am grateful to all the Back-Bench and Front-Bench Members who have taken part in what has been a consensual debate.
“I was happy with many of the Minister’s comments, particularly that there was merit in exploring the issue further. I look forward to the consultation in due course. I genuinely feel that Lucy’s law would be the single biggest step towards ending unnecessary animal cruelty and reforming dog breeding welfare.”
You can find the petition, watch the debate and read the transcript here.
Images by RSPCA.