THREE people have been sent to prison for their involvement in an Essex puppy selling ring found to have made an estimated £850,000.
Kelly Jean Bennett (DoB: 08/06/1978) and Ricky Jay Bennett (DoB: 15/04/1980), both of Weymouth Drive, Chafford Hundred, Grays; and Stacey Jane Hayward (DoB: 20/10/1980), of Colliford Road, West Thurrock, all appeared at Basildon Crown Court for sentencing on Friday (14 October).
All three previously entered guilty pleas* on 13 May; two to fraud and one to acquiring criminal property. Kelly Bennett also indicated guilty pleas to two offences under the Animal Welfare Act while Ricky Bennett indicated a guilty plea to one animal welfare offence.
On Friday (October 14), Kelly Bennett was sentenced to 49 months imprisonment, and a lifetime ban on the keeping of all animals – which cannot be appealed for 10 years.
Ricky Bennett was sentenced to a total of 36 months imprisonment, and a 10-year ban on the keeping of animals.
Hayward was sentenced to 47 months in jail.
Sentencing of a fourth individual involved – Steven Gilmore Foster (DoB: 14/02/1980) – has been adjourned until 10 November.
An investigation into the selling of puppies in Essex was launched by the RSPCA and local authority after reports from members of the public who had bought dogs from addresses in Billericay, Grays and Thurrock and claimed they’d quickly fallen ill. The charity’s Special Operations Unit (SOU) – a specialist taskforce that investigates serious, organised and commercial animal cruelty, such as the high value trade in puppies – started looking into a premises at Crays Hill in 2019.
Stacey Hayward had been licensed to sell puppies but her licence was revoked in July 2018 – due to complaints about sick puppies – and her breeding licence expired in December 2018.
Speaking following the court hearing, Inspector Vikki Dawe – from the RSPCA’s SOU team – said: “The heartbreaking reality of puppy farming is that the welfare of the puppies comes second to making money.
“The sums of money involved are just eye-watering; and it’s another reminder of how unscrupulous this trade can be; and how dangerous poor breeding and trading practices are for dogs, pups and unsuspecting consumers.
“For anyone looking to buy a puppy, rather than adopt – we urge them to do their research, know the signs of an unscrupulous breeder and use tools such as the Puppy Contract to avoid becoming another victim of the puppy trade.”
Investigators spoke to a number of witnesses who had bought puppies in 2019 from a Billericay address, and complaints were also made about addresses in Weymouth Drive – occupied by Kelly and Ricky Bennett – which was linked to an address in Colliford Road – a new address of Hayward and Foster.
Adverts – using various names and numbers – for both addresses were advertising puppies described as ‘bred at home’ although it appears a number were brought in from Wales.
The Bridgeman family, from London, bought a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel puppy, called Joey, from the gang in November 2019, paying £750 in cash for him. They’d found his advert on Pets4Homes.
But, just two days after they collected him, Joey was in the veterinary hospital on a drip with suspected distemper and pneumonia.
Tracy Bridgeman said: “He was having fits and then, just a week after we collected him, he had two cardiac arrests and died. We’d only had him a short time but we’d already grown so attached. We visited him every day at the hospital and we’d hoped he would pull through. We were all utterly heartbroken.”
As well as being devastated, they were left with a £2,000 veterinary bill.
Gang made £850,000
Warrants were executed by police at both addresses where the RSPCA rescued a number of dogs, and also found dead puppies being stored in freezers. Phones were seized and showed messages responding to adverts using different names while bank statements showed payments with the reference: ‘Puppy’.
Messages showed both Hayward and Kelly Bennett were sourcing puppies and placing adverts regularly, as well as showing that Ricky Bennett had taken payment for sales and witnesses had paid money into Foster’s bank account.
Nine puppies were found living in a shed at the rear of the garden at Colliford Road; they were all seized and taken into care. One tested positive for parvovirus and sadly died but the others, who were suffering from Giardia and other health problems, made full recoveries and were rehomed.
At Weymouth Drive, officers found two adult spaniels, six cocker spaniel puppies and two dead spaniel puppies. The litter of spaniel puppies tested positive for Giardia, a small parasite that attacks the intestines.
RSPCA officers worked closely with the Eastern Region Special Operations Unit’s financial investigator who analysed financial records linked to the sellers and attributed approximately £850,000 of income linked to the sale of puppies.
Analysis of the adverts estimated that at least 100 adverts of around 500 puppies had been placed between December 2018 and March 2020, across Gumtree, Preloved and Pets4ho