Calling her the “personification of evil,” a San Fernando Superior Court judge Wednesday sentenced a former Sun Valley kennel operator to nearly six years in prison for tricking dog and cat owners into giving away their pets, then selling the animals for medical research.
Judge David M. Schacter sentenced Barbara Ann Ruggiero, 28, to five years and eight months in state prison in what prosecutors and animal rights activists said was one of the first successful felony prosecutions in the country involving animal theft charges.
Ruggiero was also sentenced to serve six months in county jail on a related petty theft count following completion of her prison term.
Ruggiero’s two accomplices received lesser prison terms. Frederick John Spero, 46, was sentenced to five years in state prison, and Ralf Jacobsen, 28, was sentenced to three years.
All three were denied bail pending an appeal in the case.
Schacter said in court that Ruggiero received the stiffest term because she was the ringleader in the 1987 scheme in which the three answered newspaper ads seeking good homes for pets and told the owners that the animals would live on a ranch. Nearly 140 pets were obtained by the three and at least 80 of them died after being sold for medical research, according to court records.
Schacter called all three “cold, calculating and manipulative” and said none showed any remorse. Attorneys for the defendants sought lesser punishments by trying to downplay the significance of the crime, saying it was a nonviolent felony crime.
But Schacter said that for the pet owners, finding out that their animals had been sold for medical research was “as if they had been struck with a weapon.”
After the sentencing, all three defense attorneys said the prison terms were too harsh for the crime committed.
“It’s unbelievable,” said Lewis A. Watnick, Ruggiero’s attorney. “It was political pressure.”
Deputy Dist. Atty. Susan Chasworth, who had sought the maximum sentence for all three defendants but received it only for Ruggiero, said the long prison terms were appropriate.
“There were hundreds of victims,” Chasworth said. “It wasn’t just an isolated incident. This was too organized, too widespread.”
The case came to light after an animal rights group, Last Chance for Animals, acting on a tip, began interviewing people who had placed ads.
Chris DeRose, founder and president of the group, said Ruggiero’s kennels were staked out for weeks to gather evidence and his group later convinced prosecutors to file charges.
After the three were arrested and freed on bail, they moved to Bakersfield where Ruggiero and Jacobsen assumed new identities, according to prosecutors.
A kennel operated there by Ruggiero was raided in October, 1990. Both Ruggiero and Jacobsen were later arrested on suspicion of cruelty to animals. The Kern County district attorney declined to press charges in those arrests because of the sentences faced by the pair in Los Angeles County. Spero was not arrested in the Bakersfield case.
DeRose said he hopes to use the case to launch a nationwide effort to prevent the U. S. Department of Agriculture from issuing so-called Class B licenses which allow the sale of animals for medical research.
DeRose said such licenses encourage people to trick owners into giving up their pets because people do not willingly give up their pets for medical research.
Norm Flint, 32, formerly of Reseda, said he was tricked into giving up two dogs in late 1986. He said he had placed an ad in the Recycler newspaper looking for homes for his two mixed-breed dogs.
Flint, who now lives on Orcas Island in Washington state, said when he found out that his dogs had been sold for medical research, he was in “tears and really upset.”
“I’m happy about the sentencing, although I wish they could have gotten more time,” said Flint, who flew to Los Angeles just for the sentencing.