Dog rescue community says there were many red flags before deadly kennel fire

CAROL STREAM, Ill. — A deadly kennel fire in a western suburb rocked the dog rescue community. The cause of that fire is undetermined, but WGN Investigates found the fire is just part of the story.

There were two camps when it came to Bully Life Animal Services’ operator Garrett Mercado. Some saw him as a talented and caring trainer and a dog whisperer. But others had raised concerns about his facility for months. A number of people with inside information contacted WGN Investigate demanding answers and change.

Animal Control Officers from DuPage recorded a video in May 2018 at Bully Life Animal Services, located in Carol Stream,  that showed dogs crammed together in cages in a tiny kennel. The only light was from a string of Christmas lights.

Eight months later, the kennel went up in flames and 29 dogs burned to death.

At first, Mercado was hailed a hero.

“I couldn’t see who was responsive or not,” he said at the time. “I was literally grabbing latches and opening crates.”

Rescue organization set up a GoFundMe page and raised more than $90,000 for him.

But then details started to emerge Mercado wasn’t there when the fire broke out in the middle of the night. No one was. Some 60 dogs were trapped inside. Far more than anyone knew.

DuPage County State’s Attorney charged him with 28 misdemeanor counts including 14 for animal cruelty. All the counts relate to the conditions the dogs were living in before the fire.

Where were the warning signs? A WGN Investigation found numerous red flags long before the tragedy. The signs were overlooked or missed by the authorities and at least one rescue group that left dogs in Mercado’s care.

One of those dogs was 3-year-old Aiden. Kristina Minwegen had been fostering Aiden as part of a tight knit community that takes difficult dogs into their homes and, using Mercardo’s kennel, has hope of training and rehabilitating them for adoption.

Minwegen had been a volunteer for the rescue group called Players for Pits. She was on vacation the week before the fire. Although she wanted to leave Aiden with a different trainer, the rescue controls the dog, and she was told to leave Aiden at Mercado’s facility.

When Minwegen returned home, she tried several times to contact Mercado but he kept delaying her an did not answer her calls.

Five days later, the kennel caught fire.

By the time Minwegen got there, it was too late. Aiden was dead.

“All I could do, all I could do, you know, was hold him. I just kept saying, ‘I’m sorry,’” she said.

Minwegen had seen the red flags and passed them along to the rescue. She said she had been sounding the alarm for months.

Minwegen spoke to WGN Investigates exclusively.

“There was a sense of duty for Aiden that I can’t let him die for no reason and if I don’t say anything, then he did,” she said. “If we don’t learn anything, then all of those dogs died for no reason.”

The fire exposed a major rift in the rescue community. The whispers about Mercado’s operation have turned into a full-scale roar.

Stephanie Paluch is the president of Players for Pits.

“We trusted someone we shouldn’t have trusted, unfortunately,” she said.

In addition to Aiden, her rescue had another dog in the kennel at the time of the fire. Both of them died. Paluch admits she didn’t go inside to check on the dogs.

“I only went there when I had to pay him. Or pick up a dog from outside,” she said.

Mercado’s small apartment was connected to the facility. None of the volunteers had been inside. They said he always brought the dogs outside for pick up and they were troubled by that.

“Without being inside, it’s hard to even know, but there were people who should have known that just didn’t take the time to go check,” Minwegen said.

That’s a persistent complaint in group messages. One message read:

“I don’t want to just leave a dog with him (Mercado) but getting something set up to talk/see how things are going has been a struggle.”

Paluch responds:

“Literally everyone is complaining about this and I don’t have a solution other than finding a new trainer. I cannot make him respond unfortunately and nothing I say or do works.”

A month after that message, it’s still an issue and Paluch responds:

“I don’t know what you guys expect me to do but I can’t solve this one.”

“You know, whether it’s me or someone else and you say, ‘Here are issues and red flags,’” Minwegen said. “And there are excuses made or they say they can’t do anything, well there’s always something you could do. You just chose not to.”

When asked if Paluch has any culpability, she responded, “Of course I do. I’m the president of the rescue. We’re trying to do a good thing in this world. We’re trying to help dogs We’re trying our best doing everything and we can learn from our mistakes and move forward or stop. Of course, I take responsibility for what happened. I take responsibility for everyone who is traumatized through anything negative through the rescue.”

Terri Crotty runs her own shelter and is herself a foster pet parent to Magoo. She went public with her concerns about Mercado’s facility a year before the fire. She took Magoo to Bully Life for training, based on recommendations she received from others in the rescue community.

Five weeks later, Crotty was stunned.

”When I laid eyes on Magoo, it took my breath away because it wasn't the same dog that we sent in,” she said. “We received a dog back in worse condition from a professional trainer, than we did rescuing him from the street. He did better on his own than he did in the care of Garrett Mercado.”

She reported Mercado to the Illinois Department of Agriculture which licenses kennels. Documents show the inspector ordered Mercado to pay a $500 fine for not keeping proper records. The kennel was cleared to continue operating and Crotty says she was shunned by many in the rescue community for going public.

“If an animal is being abused, you’re not supposed to go public? What are you supposed to do? What did we sign up for? We signed up to be their voice,” Crotty said.

Four months after Crotty’s complaint, in May of 2018, another complaint about Mercado’s facility came in to DuPage County Animal Services.

An animal control officer wrote: “When I arrived at the business, I immediately met with a horrible odor that could only be described as a rotting/decomposing smell and it was nauseating. I even looked inside a dumpster, fully expecting to find something deceased. In that email, the officer asked the Illinois Department of Agriculture to follow-up with its own inspection.”

It did. Documents show a state inspector was at the kennel on May 22, 2018. Again, in July, August and September. Mercado never had more than 35 dogs. There were notes about cleanliness, a need for larger cages but the kennel got its license.

WGN Investigates asked the state how this could happen. They declined an on-camera interview. A spokeswoman said the kennel met the requirements in their inspections. She points to new legislation that will tighten building and fire codes.

“These animals are being abused,” Crotty said. “They’re being neglected and these inspections are just getting passed when they shouldn’t be.”

WGN Investigates attempted to talk to Mercado at a recent court hearing. He was asked if he had anything to say to the people whose dogs died in the fire and why he had so many dogs in his kennel. Mercado had nothing to say.

But as the dust settles, it’s clear, even to those in the rescue community, that there is plenty of blame to go around. And a lot that needs to change. Their mission to save dogs will continue, but in the shadow of a fire that will haunt them all

“There were so many warning signs that nobody paid attention to and unfortunately cost these dogs lives,” Crotty said.  “It was totally preventable, I believe that in my heart.”

Paluch had some regrets.

“I feel like I regret a lot of things and I have to learn from them, so I can do better moving forward,” she said.

As for Minwegan, who lost her Aiden in the fire, the pain is still there.

“To know that they needed you so bad. And I was there for everything except when he needed me the most. There’s no amount of anything that's ever going to make that feeling go away,” she said.

Mercado appeared in court Wednesday. He has pleaded not guilty. If convicted, he could face a maximum sentence of just under one year in jail. The court ordered him to surrender any dogs he has and ruled he cannot have contact with animals while the case is pending.

Governor Pritzker signed a new law last week that requires kennels to have someone present, 24/7 and also to have fire alarms connected directly to the nearest fire station.

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