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Pierce County dog breeder sentenced to jail, probation

Town of El Paso resident Stuart West speaks with attorneys Nov. 30 after being sentenced in Pierce County Circuit Court. Mike Longaecker / RiverTown Multimedia

ELLSWORTH — The Elmwood-area man who converted his home into a dog kennel deemed to be the worst a state inspector said he ever saw was sentenced Thursday, Nov. 30 to jail time and probation.

Pierce County Circuit Court Judge Joe Boles sentenced Stuart E. West to 40 days in jail and three years on probation after the town of El Paso resident was convicted by a jury in October of 62 misdemeanor offenses. The 40 days will be reduced to 26 when accounting for time served and good time.

The sentence also bars West from possessing, owning or training any animals for five years. If West doesn't abide probationary terms, he will be sentenced to seven months in jail.

PREVIOUSLY: West found guilty on 62 counts in puppy mill case

Defense attorney Keith Belzer said West will be appealing the case.

The sentence represents a far cry from the nearly four years behind bars recommended by Pierce County District Attorney Sean Froelich — a proposition Boles said violent offenders seldom face for their crimes.

"Is he an evil man? Is he a bad man?" Boles said of West. "I don't think so."

The judge acknowledged the emotions raised in the case, which came to light in April 2016 when authorities, aided by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, raided West's property after receiving a complaint from a would-be dog buyer.

Dozens of West's yellow Labrador dogs were found in squalor-like conditions that were documented by Pierce County sheriff's investigators who reported a nauseating smell throughout the house. Investigators also learned the dogs' lone food source was dead livestock West fed them as part of a raw-meat philosophy he implemented at his Alma Bottom Pointing Labradors facility.

The 69-year-old faced a maximum penalty of more than 46 years behind bars on all 62 guilty verdicts, but Boles scoffed at the notion. He pointed out that in spite of West's unorthodox practices, there was no indication of malice in his treatment of the animals.

West, the judge said, was "a difficult guy to figure out." "You believe things that reasonable people would be really skeptical about," Boles told him.

During his time to speak at the hearing, West apologized to those he'd let down as part of his legal entanglements but did not apologize for his handling of the dogs.

Rather, he addressed perceptions others have formed in going "astray" in his "zeal" to achieve success. He was "clearly doing things outside the common understanding," West acknowledged.

"I never intentionally abused or neglected any animal in my care," he said, describing the dogs he raised as achieving "near-family status."

"I miss the dogs daily," West continued, in reference to the confiscation of the 48 yellow labs removed from the residence. "There is a vacuum in my home. The verdicts struck me to my core."

In arguing for consecutive jail terms, Froelich painted West as a neglectful dog breeder. He described in detail how the contents of one dog's stomach were found to contain dog hair, a corncob and a penis.

"These dogs were treated extremely poorly," Froelich said.

He called Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection companion animal inspector Colin Benell to the stand at the hearing. Benell was asked to describe the condition of West's home, where dogs were kept in stacked crates.

Some were two to a container, with one containing three dogs. Another crate held a mother dog and her litter of puppies, Benell testified.

"This was the worst I've seen" in more than six years on the job, he said of the conditions he experienced, describing the smell in West's house as "excrement and decomposition."

The dogs' food source was also new territory, according to the inspector.

"I've never been to a property where dogs were being fed carcassess or decomposing meat," Benell said.

Yet others at the hearing spoke of West's devotion to his dogs and how his obsession with success in his breeding "projects" eventually undermined the quality of his operation.

West's friend Gary Knutson testified that the man he knows "was trying to get it done right" and nearly accomplished a turnaround before being raided by authorities.

"He never abused any of his dogs," Knutson said, describing how West used positive reinforcement with the animals and a fly swatter to separate them when they'd fight. "It just wasn't in his nature."

West's ex-wife, Dawn Slater, described how her former husband had performed lifesaving mouth-to-snout resuscitation on a pup and would light candles in memory of other dogs that had died. A dog served as ringbearer at their wedding, she recalled, saying the labs "were his family."

But at some point "things took a downward turn," Slater said, reading from a letter she wrote to the court. She said he believed his fortunes would have turned if just one of his projects had materialized.

"That wasn't meant to be," Slater said.

Mike Longaecker

Mike Longaecker is the regional public safety reporter for RiverTown Multimedia. His coverage area spans St. Croix and Pierce counties. Longaecker served from 2011-2015 as editor of the Woodbury Bulletin. A University of Wisconsin-River Falls graduate, Longaecker previously reported for the Red Wing Republican Eagle and for the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau. You can follow him on Twitter at @Longaecker

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