ALLENTOWN, Pa. - The defense attorney for a Lehigh County man repeatedly accused of animal neglect argued Thursday that authorities failed to prove he owned the scores of dogs found on properties in Upper Milford and Heidelberg townships.
But the argument failed to sway the judge presiding over Derbe Eckhart’s preliminary hearing.
District Judge Daniel Trexler ordered that all charges in six separate cases against Eckhart be held for court during the 50-year-old’s preliminary hearing Thursday in Lehigh County Central Court. The judge also denied a request to lower Eckhart’s bail, which had been set at a combined $140,000 following his July arraignments.
The latest wave of charges against Eckhart comes after the Pennsylvania SPCA served search warrants on a Heidelberg Township property on Jan. 25 and June 5 and a search warrant on an Upper Milford Township property on June 19. The SPCA also served cease and desist orders for his dog kennels in Heidelberg Township on Jan. 25 and June 5 and a cease and desist order at the Upper Milford property on June 19.
The most serious list of charges stems from the June 5 search by the SPCA at 6582 Central Road in the New Tripoli area of Heidelberg Township, which resulted in three felony counts of aggravated animal cruelty torture.
In all, Eckhart faces 71 new charges that includes dozens of summary offenses for animal neglect and operating a kennel without a license and misdemeanor counts of taking on additional dogs at the kennel.
SPCA officer Gregory Jordan testified that he was present during the Jan. 25 search of the Central Road property, where authorities said they found 27 dogs. Among them were a severely underweight Great Dane and German Shepherd. Jordan testified that Eckhart told him he owned all but one of the dogs on the property and admitted that he failed to provide veterinary care to any of the animals.
State law requires that a kennel license is required for anyone owning 26 or more dogs during a calendar year.
Ellen Howarth, a regional supervisor with the state Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement, testified that Eckhart in May 2017 was issued a cease and desist order from operating a kennel. A search of Heidelberg Township property at the time revealed 43 dogs.
When she and other authorities returned to the Central Road property on Jan. 23, they found 27 dogs, including the Great Dane which was so emaciated that its ribs, hip and back bones were visible, Howarth said. A June 5 search of the property turned up several puppies. Breeding dogs is forbidden under the search and desist, according to Howarth.
She also searched the Upper Milford Township property on June 19, where Howarth said she found 31 dogs, including five puppies. Howarth testified that she issued a second cease and desist order.
Under questioning from defense attorney Al Stirba, Howarth said Eckhart was not at the property, when she issued the cease and desist. Another resident on the property declined to call Eckhart, she said.
Howarth told the court that she left a copy of the search warrant, an inventory of the property and the cease and desist order at the property. But Stirba argued that the cease and desist order wasn’t valid as it was neither physically delivered to Eckhart, nor sent via certified mail and signed for by his client.
Stirba asked the judge to dismiss three of the cases against Eckhart for the prosecution’s failure to make a prima facie case. In the Upper Milford Township cases, authorities issued an improperly executed cease and desist order for Eckhart on a property that he doesn’t own and was occupied by several other people, Stirba said.
The prosecution offered no testimony that Eckhart actually owned all the dogs investigators found, the defense argued. It appears that authorities simply have tried to issue a blanket cease and desist order that applies to “anywhere on the planet” Eckhart may be associated with a dog, Stirba said.
Eckhart’s ownership of the animals is key to the case, and authorities absolutely need to prove he owned the animals they found, Stirba said.
Assistant District Attorney Jay Jenkins countered that previous convictions prevent Eckhart from breeding dogs and that the defendant rented the properties where all the animals were found.
As for bail, Stirba pointed specifically to the amounts set by District Judge Tom Creighton for the four cases in Heidelberg Township. Bail in the aggravated animal cruelty case is set at $80,000, which Stirba called “absurdly high” for the nature of the case. Eckhart is not a flight risk and has cooperated with authorities, he said.
County pre-trial services recommended bail remain, citing a pending witness intimidation charge and the fact that more charges were filed against Eckhart after he was released. The judge said he was concerned that more charges were filed against Eckhart since his release on bail. Trexler also noted that Eckhart kept acquiring more animals despite being told by a county judge to stop.
Eckhart is tentatively scheduled for formal arraignments on Sept. 25 and Oct. 4.
Volunteers said it was one of the worst cases of animal abuse they've seen.Read More »
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