ESCANABA — A Maple Ridge Township woman has been sentenced to jail and paid nearly $620,000 in restitution for operating a puppy mill.
Rebecca Sue Johnson was sentenced to one year in prison and five years probation for abandoning/cruelty to 25 or more animals on Thursday. Johnson was also ordered to perform 500 hours of community service in addition to a court-ordered restitution of $619,712 to the Delta Animal Shelter.
The sentence was handed down by Judge John Economopoulos of the Delta County Circuit Court.
The sentencing was well attended, both in person and via Zoom, as Delta Animal Shelter volunteers and staff, as well as members of the public, waited for Johnson to be sentenced.
“You can tell a lot about a person by the way they treat animals,” Economopoulos said before handing down Johnson’s sentence. “It’s something you decided to do over a period of time…these animals have become commerce and a means to financial ends…it’s shameful.”
Thursday’s sentencing is the result of an investigation that began Aug. 24, 2020, when Michigan State Policewoman Lisa Kanyuh of the Gladstone Post responded to a report of a horse loose on the Maple Ridge Township causeway. After the horse was secured, further investigation by Michigan State Police, the Delta County Sheriff’s Office and the Delta County District Attorney’s Office at Johnson’s home led to the discovery of a large number of underweight dogs in poor living conditions. Many animals had matted fur and visible wounds, accompanied by an overpowering smell of excrement.
A total of 135 dogs and 23 horses were removed from the property, all of whom were immediately seized by Delta Animal Shelter, medically assessed and given necessary treatments. Of the 135 dogs, 69 were puppies and almost all of the adult females were pregnant, bringing the total number of dogs and puppies cared for by the shelter to 217.
On Nov. 17, 2020, Johnson was charged with abandonment/cruelty to 25 or more animals, a felony punishable by up to seven years in prison, and animal shelters/pounds – unregistered, a misdemeanor punishable by up to 90 days in jail. Just six days later, Johnson posted $60,000 bail or bond. This link was later changed to prohibit him from buying, owning or caring for animals.
Economopoulos’ one-year prison sentence exceeds the state of Michigan’s sentencing guideline of zero to nine months in prison for Johnson’s case. While defense counsel requested a non-custodial sentence for Johnson, Economopoulos said an excessive prison sentence was appropriate for the case.
“Your animal days are over,” says Economopoulos. “If you can’t accept this, I’ll see you again.”
Throughout the legal process, the Delta Animal Shelter cared for the seized animals. All of the dogs, puppies and horses were placed in foster homes for approximately six months ahead of Johnson’s civil forfeiture hearing on January 11, 2021, where she agreed to forfeit the animals that were seized and those that are born after seizure at animal shelter or designated veterinarian.
After the January 11 hearing, the Delta Animal Shelter began the process of adopting the dogs and horses. Approximately 95% of the animals were cared for by their foster families, with the remaining animals being adopted.
Susan Gartland, manager of the Delta Animal Shelter, had the opportunity to speak at Johnson’s sentencing. Gartland, who said she was speaking on behalf of the victims of Johnson’s crimes, recalled the day she was told about the puppy mill. The property was originally believed to house 35 dogs. To the surprise of Gartland, shelter staff and volunteers, the actual number far exceeded their expectations.
“No one can have that many animals…there’s no reason for that except greed,” said Garland. “Greed, money and public demand. Think about the cash flow of this plant…it’s pure evil.
Gartland went on to share the gruesome details of the case, telling the stories of some of the dogs who were rescued. While each dog’s name and breeds differed, their experiences were relatively the same. Most of them had worms, ear infections, open sores and itchy scabies. Of the female dogs that were female, most were pregnant and malnourished, with some even losing the ability to walk.
“Have you ever met a golden retriever who is afraid of being touched?” Gartland asked Economopoulos during his statement. “Most dogs have terrible PTSD, and it will never go away.”
In January this year, Kanyuh was told by the Delta Animal Shelter and the Negaunee Vet Clinic that Johnson had brought in a dog with the intention of breeding it. A bail breach hearing was held and she was found guilty of the breach and sentenced to one month in jail.
After her release, Johnson’s bail condition stated that she could not care for, care for, own or reside with people who have pets or animals and that she would be subject to a search at any time by law enforcement until the start of the jury trial in circuit court. May 2nd. That jury trial, however, was canceled after Johnson reached a plea deal on April 27. These bail conditions will, however, continue to apply to Johnson after she completes her prison and probation term.
Acting Delta County District Attorney Lauren Wickman has enforced all of her sentencing recommendations by Economopoulos, including the exact amount of court-ordered restitution.
“(Johnson) had nearly 250 animals, 10 times more than is allowed to be counted,” said Wickman. “It’s unfathomable that even one person thought they could handle this.”
Johnson declined to comment on the sentencing. She will serve her sentence in the Delta County Jail.