The temperature was definitely below freezing on Wednesday morning as a group of protesters gathered outside Litchfield Superior Court in anticipation of the arrival of Fred Acker. But that might have been the only fact for certain.
Acker, a resident of Monroe, owns the not-for-profit "SPCA of Connecticut" which he described as transitioning during October from a facility in Monroe to a larger, leased space in Bethlehem when he was arrested in November on 62 counts of felony animal cruelty.
And while there was much debate in the courtroom Wednesday over allegations of an under-heated and under-lit garage, and whether it is possible to determine a room's temperature through a window with a laser temperature gun, Acker insisted it was much ado about nothing.
"I am not profiting from this. I live in a small little room and have not had a day off in 13 years," he said to Patch during a break in the proceedings.
A detractor of Acker, retired 25-plus-year Stratford Animal Control officer Michael Griffin, disagreed. "I ran you out of town once already," Griffin called out from the sidewalk as Acker arrived for court.
"No, they ran you out of town," Acker shouted back, later explaining that he had no idea what Griffin had against him, and claiming "Griffin was the laziest ACO ever. Didn't respond to complaints. Didn't advertise dogs for adoption. He was forced to retire early."
Acker "has been making big business of these animals for 20 years," Griffin countered. "Starting with the name SPCA Connecticut, which sounds like ASPCA, Acker misleads people. His Monroe shelter was grandfathered and didn't have to be up to code with the town. In the backyard there were stacks of caged dogs under tarps 365 days a year. He got citation after citation and just paid them as a cost of doing business. At one point he got ticketed for operating an illegal pet store," said Griffin. "On top of all that, he has a no-return policy."
"He used to pull dogs from the Stratford Animal Control when I was ACO," said Griffin." He'd buy them for $5 and resell them for hundreds. Until I told him to get lost."
"It's an us-versus-them mentality," Acker told Patch just before court proceedings commenced. "In general there is a deep hatred of animal rescue groups on the part of municipal animal controls. I have a target on my back," said Acker. "Not the guys at Bridgeport Animal Control, who are great, but, in general, they have it out for me."
Indeed, Jimmy Gonzalez head ACO at Bridgeport Animal Control who testified under subpeona about his knowledge of Acker, said Acker had pulled hundreds of dogs from Bridgeport Animal Control over the years.
"Fred has shown me vet bills, letters and photos of success stories," said Gonzalez. "He takes the dogs who we would otherwise have to euthanize. The ones with mange problems or the possibility of Parvo. He takes the ones that would be a challenge and spends a lot of money on the animals that because of our limited budget we wouldn't have money to care for."
Yet, on Nov. 8, Animal Control Officer Judy Umstead of Bethlehem and a state animal control officer raided Acker's Bethlehem facility and seized 60-plus dogs.
SPCA of Connecticut charges a $20 non-refundable application fee online. On Wednesday, the judge wondered aloud what would happen if 50 people wanted the same dog?
Was a photo, Exhibit 5, just stains on an unsealed floor, as Acker's kennel manager of seven years Susan Fernandez insisted, or dog feces as suggested by ACO Umstead?
Was a photo taken by ACO Umstead bloody diarrhea or just dogfood that turned red when water was added and then spilled by an excited dog as Fernandez described?
Was there a reason there was no food in sight the day Umstead visited simply that it was stored in garbage cans with lids to keep away from rats and rodents, as Fernandez explained?
Many questions remain unanswered, but Acker just wonders when he'll get his dogs back. In fact, both Acker and Fernandez broke into tears during a break in proceedings, insisting that while there are 62 charges of animal cruelty, a total of 65 dogs were seized. Acker insists three are missing. "They're either stolen, lost, or dead."
And, while it was established that Acker's Bethlehem facility did not yet have its certificate of occupancy in October — and Acker had been issued a written warning stating what was required in order to comply — Fernandez admitted she nevertheless traveled to South Carolina and returned with 36 more dogs.
On the stand, Fernandez explained SPCA of Connecticut's move from Monroe to Bethlehem, mentioning needing more space and "because of court." The judge interrupted, saying that if there were any other cases pending in Monroe, he wanted to know about them.
In response, Fernandez explained that there had been complaints from Monroe neighbors and new zoning regulations required the downsizing of SPCA of Connecticut's capacity to a maximum to 29 dogs. "We just wanted to rescue more dogs."
During a break Patch asked Acker about his return policy. In response, he described SPCA of Connecticut as a sanctuary. "I took one dog back after seven years. And another after five years. Our contract says you can't adopt a dog and give it away. You can bring it back no questions asked. I might ask for a donation, but even if the donation is 10 cents, I'll take it back."
Asked about Griffin's suggestions of profiteering, Acker replied, "I have an annual $100,000 vet bill. I have costs for transportation, food, staff, and rent. So we charge a $395 fee, which is a donation. And sometimes less if it is an older dog. And we have creative ways of fundraising. We take donations of cars. We belong to a barter company so we can get $2,000 to $3,000 for a car."
Shrugging, Acker said he didn't understand why so many people had it out for him.
Describing a variety of breeds the SPCA of Connecticut rescues, Fernandez said the dogs come from South Carolina, New York, Bridgeport and, recently, California. Fernandez described bringing dogs to Petco or Petsmart for adoption events, including dogs that had been seized from puppy mills.
At that point the Judge interrupted Fernandez, asking her to familiarize him with the term 'puppy mill.'
"That's where they breed them over and over to sell and when they're done with them they throw them away," said Fernandez. "If we get a puppy mill dog, it's because it's been seized already."
Fernandez said prior to the 60-plus dogs being seized the SPCA of Connecticut housed up to 100 dogs and employeed seven or eight staff, plus volunteers. She explained that she worked her way up to her current $13/hour wage from $8/hour, and puts in between 40 to 90 hours a week.
Asked by the judge how many dogs are typically adopted out in a week, Fernandez offered that at one adoption event 365 dogs were placed in three days.
At one point in her testimony, Fernandez described how a dog had escaped from its cage while an employee was tending to it. She recalled how staff had not been able to catch the dog and that the following morning the dog was struck and killed by a car. The employee, said Fernandez, had since been fired.
Later, during a break in proceedings, Fernandez elaborated to Patch about any possible bias against SPCA of Connecticut. "Why should anyone care where the dogs come from?" she asked with a confounded look. "You're saving a life."