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Animals seized in puppy mill case are voluntarily forfeited

Daily Press file photo A dog taken from an alleged puppy mill is cared for at the Delta Animal Shelter last year. The rights to the animals seized was forfeited during a hearing Monday in Delta County District Court.

ESCANABA — In what would have been a packed courtroom, Rebecca Sue Johnson of Maple Ridge Township voluntarily forfeited the animals she is accused of abusing and neglecting in an alleged puppy mill during a brief hearing Monday.

Two hundred people logged into the civil forfeiture hearing, which was held over Zoom early Monday morning, including Johnson and her attorney Derek Swajanen. A handful of court staff and Delta County Chief Assistant Prosecutor Lauren Wickman filled the 94th District courtroom, wearing masks and separated by plexiglass dividers.

“I do understand that we have a number of people observing this proceeding … basically as spectators, as they would be entitled to do if the court was open for business and we could allow people in the courtroom,” said District Court Judge Steve Parks before warning spectators not to unmute themselves during the proceedings.

While it has not been the court’s policy to publicly hold hearings online, there was intense interest in the case. The hearing was heavily promoted on social media, including by the Delta Animal Shelter, which has been holding the animals since they were seized.

On Aug. 24, 2020, Michigan State Police, the Delta County Sheriff’s Office, and the Delta County Prosecutor’s Office conducted an investigation at Johnson’s home. The investigation resulted in the seizure of 134 dogs and 20 horses from the residence. Approximately 100 additional puppies were born to the dogs after they were moved to the animal shelter.

Johnson agreed Monday to forfeit the animals that were seized and any that were born after the seizure to the animal shelter or a designated veterinarian. The court order Parks drafted Monday also terminates Johnson’s right to own or possess animals.

“The court will memorialize this in a written order. Upon receipt of that order — which will be done here very quickly — those animals will be considered forfeited,” said Parks.

The forfeiture hearing will not be Johnson’s last appearance in court over the puppy mill. On Nov. 17, 2020, Johnson was charged with abandoning/cruelty to 25 or more animals, a felony punishable by up to seven years in prison, and animal-shelters/pounds — unregistered, a misdemeanor punishable by up to 90 days in jail.

On Nov. 23, 2020, Johnson posted a $60,000 cash or surety bond. The bond was supposed to prohibit her from purchasing, possessing or caring for animals, but an oversight left the stipulation off the bond.

“I will be amending the bond to reflect that,” said Parks, who briefly shifted gears from the civil case to address the issue with the criminal case.

Johnson is scheduled to appear in court for a preliminary examination for the felony charge on Friday, Jan. 22 at 7:30 a.m.

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