Two people have been sentenced for their roles in a ‘sophisticated’ operation breeding and importing sick puppies to sell to unsuspecting members of the public and conning them out of an estimated £250,000.
The RSPCA’s Special Operations Unit (SOU) – a specialist team which investigates serious and organised animal crime – launched an investigation in 2017 after reports began coming in from people who had bought sick puppies in the Greater Manchester area.
On Friday (2 July) two people were sentenced for their involvement in defrauding the public out of money, failing to meet the needs of dogs and causing unnecessary suffering.
Betty Burton and Jeff McDonagh of Arleston Brook in Telford, Shropshire, were found guilty of conspiracy to commit fraud following a jury trial at Shrewsbury Crown Court in February 2020. They also pleaded guilty to two animal welfare offences.
RSPCA SOU officer Kirsty Withnall – who led the investigation – said: “Burton and McDonagh were the brains behind this sophisticated operation which, at its height, had eight associated addresses across Manchester and Telford. They used different names and different phone numbers to falsify paperwork, create adverts which wouldn’t rouse suspicion and con potential buyers out of hundreds of pounds for puppies they were claiming were much-loved, family-bred pets.
“The reality is that these dogs and the puppies were anything but much-loved, family-bred pets. They were actually being kept in unsuitable conditions and were being shipped in from Wales and, possibly, Ireland, to keep up with the demand. They were seen as a commodity, a quick way to make easy money; and lots of it.”
Complaints about sick puppies being sold initially came into the RSPCA in 2017 from the Manchester area. The adverts had all appeared on the Pets4Homes website.
Kirsty added: “All of the adverts suggested that the puppies were the offspring of a family pet, had been born in the home and socialised with the family. We spoke to 11 people in connection with the first address – linked to Burton – that came to our attention. All of the buyers had been directed to a public phone box to call when they arrived to see the puppies. One person refused to buy the puppy when it didn’t resemble the dog she’d been sent a photo of, wasn’t with its mother and appeared scared and whimpering. Others bought cockapoos, cavapoos, dachshunds and pomeranians.”
A second Manchester address was then used and officers spoke to six members of the public who had bought puppies – including cavapoos, French bulldogs and cocker spaniels – from the property, which is linked to both Burton and McDonagh. Of these six dogs, three died.
McDonagh – who had been identified in a video identification parade by all 11 witnesses who took part – was sentenced to two years custody, suspended for 24 months. He was also disqualified from owning dogs for life and cannot appeal the ban for five years. He must also undertake a community order including a mental health treatment requirement and 30 days rehabilitation requirement activity days.
The court heard that since the trial McDonagh has been mentally unwell and remains seriously ill and in need of treatment and this treatment would unlikely be available in custody. The judge said that the sentence would be more but for the mental health issues.
Burton was sentenced to six months custody, suspended for 12 months, 30 rehabilitation activity requirements days and ordered to pay a victim surcharge. She was also banned from keeping animals for life and can not appeal her disqualification for two years.
The dogs were taken into RSPCA care and many were placed in foster homes. The dogs were signed over to the RSPCA in December 2019 and have since all been rehomed.
A third person is due to be sentenced for offences in connection with this case later this year.