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Reptile breeder ordered to pay $190,000 in animal cruelty case

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals

A man who owned an exotic reptile business in Lake Elsinore, where thousands of rats and reptiles were found in appalling conditions, has been ordered to pay more than $190,000 in restitution, prosecutors said Friday.

Mitchell Steven Behm, 55, of Coto de Caza, pleaded guilty this month to a dozen misdemeanor counts of animal cruelty while he owned Global Captive Breeders. There, in December 2012, investigators discovered more than 18,000 rats, bred as food, and several hundred emaciated and decomposing snakes.

Behm was sentenced this week to five years' probation and 200 hours of community service. During that time, he will not be allowed to own animals or be involved with any animal-related businesses, said John Hall, a spokesman for the Riverside County district attorney’s office.

The judge also ordered Behm to pay more than $102,000 to the city of Lake Elsinore and nearly $88,000 to the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which conducted an undercover sting revealing the mistreatment and helped the city clean up the mess.

“No punishment could compare to the daily horror that thousands of rodents and reptiles endured,” said Dan Paden, a spokesman for the organization, “but this sentence is an important step.”

Paden added that the parole requirement “accomplishes PETA’s most important goal – to keep him away from animals as long as legally possible.”

The former manager of the store, 30-year-old David Delgado of Rialto, also struck a plea deal with prosecutors on12 felony counts of animal cruelty.

Both had been charged with 117 counts each of felony animal cruelty and had faced decades in prison. Delgado faces up to five years and four months in prison when he is sentenced May 22.

Authorities raided the facility in December 2012 after a PETA member posing as an employee brought video recordings and other evidence they had been gathering for months.

Video of the facility on PETA’s website showed snake carcasses consumed by maggots, rats nearly drowning in containers flooded with water and an employee slamming rats against hard surfaces and shooting them with a pellet gun to kill them.

Many of the animals were found rotting in their own waste and those that were still alive had to be euthanized, according to court documents.

In one court document, an animal control officer responding to the scene called the stench “horrendous” and blamed Delgado and Behm for the “unconscionable” conditions.

Delgado "was the person in charge of caring for the animals … and should have been aware of the horrendous physical conditions many of the reptiles and rats were in,” wrote Sheila Risinger, an employee of Animal Friends of the Valleys.

Risinger added that Delgado repeatedly chose to kill the animals with violent methods, despite access to a carbon dioxide chamber that could have euthanized them more humanely.

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christine.maiduc@latimes.com

Twitter: @cmaiduc

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