Garrett Mercado, the owner of a kennel outside Chicago, was convicted on October 1, 2021, for the 2019 fire that broke out in his kennel killing 29 dogs.
Mercado, 32, was handed the guilty charge by DuPage County Judge for 3 counts of animal cruelty and 6 counts of violation of owner’s duties. The charges were all misdemeanor charges, and the sentencing will be held in three weeks on October 22, 2021.
The 2019 Fire
The fire at the Bully Life Services Kennel in DuPage County on the outskirts of West Chicago was first spotted by patrolling deputy sheriff in the early morning of January 14, 2019. By the time the firefighters arrived, the two-storey building had already overrun with fire with the second floor windows shooting out flames.
The kennel houses around 50 Pitbull rescues at the time, and 29 other dogs in the main building died as they were trapped in cages. Around 20 dogs were rescued.
Mercado said at the time, “I was just opening as many doors as I could, hoping they would follow me out.” He also told reporters he suffered some burns on his hands on the hot metal cages as he was trying to free the dogs.
Kimberly Jenny, who had a Brindle Pitbull in the kennel, was thankful her dog was rescued, saying, “seeing him hurt breaks my heart and I am trying to be strong for him.” Her dog suffered burns and injuries from other dogs trying to escape.
Before the fire broke out, there were already several complaints filed against Mercado since 2017 ranging from mistreatment of animals to overcrowding. DuPage County Animal Control Officers found the kennel dark, foul-smelling, and filled with cages stacked on top of each other with dogs barking uncontrollably.
The kennel remained actively licensed by the state and passed an inspection before the fire. A former client commented, “if all the complaints and all the red flags were listened to, maybe we wouldn’t have the fire.”
The 2021 Verdict
Mercado was initially charged with 2 dozen charges but 3 counts were dropped and were acquitted on 16 other counts. Prosecutors argued that Mercado left the premises unattended for 5 hours and during his absence, the fire broke out. He lived in the building where the kennel was located.
The owner was also charged for operating without fire prevention measures in place and running a kennel with dangerous and unhygienic conditions. A number of dogs were also found to be mistreated with lacerations, abrasions, weight loss, puncture wounds, dehydration, and muscle wasting.
DuPage County State’s Attorney Robert Berlin issued a statement after the verdict, saying, “the Judge’s ruling verifies what we have said all along, that Garrett Mercado completely disregarded the health and safety of numerous dogs in his care.”
The tragic fire prompted Illinois legislators to approve a new law that requires kennels in the state to have staff present at all times, and for premises to have fire alarm measures and sprinkler systems installed.
Governor Pritzker signed the law on August 17, 2019, and hopes the tragedy will never happen again. He stated, “this common sense law will protect pets from senseless tragedies and further deepen our state’s commitment to animal welfare.”