Puppies were "found dead in a freezer" during an investigation into an £850,000 dog-selling fraud, a court was told.
RSPCA investigators who searched two addresses linked to the gang found other young dogs infected with viruses, and discovered animals advertised as "home bred" had been bought in with doctored vaccination details.
Their inquiries revealed that the unlicensed gang in Essex had advertised more than 500 high-value puppies for sale during a 16-month period, with many buyers reporting that the animals died a short time after purchase from infections.
At Basildon Crown Court, four members of the gang pleaded guilty to offences related to the fraudulent sale of puppies, and will be sentenced later this summer.
Stacey Hayward, 41, of Colliford Road, West Thurrock, pleaded guilty to fraud;
Steven Foster, 42, of Colliford Road, West Thurrock, admitted acquiring criminal property;
Kelly Bennett, 43, of Weymouth Drive, Chafford Hundred, pleaded guilty to fraud;
Ricky Bennett, 41, of Weymouth Drive, Chafford Hundred, admitted acquiring criminal property.
Kelly Bennett also indicated guilty pleas for two offences under the Animal Welfare Act while Ricky Bennett indicated a guilty plea to one animal welfare offence.
Complaints over sick puppies
An investigation was launched by the RSPCA and the local authority after members of the public complained about puppies they had bought from addresses in Billericay, Grays and Thurrock.
The charity's special operations unit (SOU), which investigates serious, organised and commercial animal cruelty - such as the high-value trade in puppies - started looking at premises in Crays Hill in Billericay, in 2019, after complaints from members of the public.
Hazel Stevens, prosecuting for the RSPCA, said: “Members of the public had made complaints to the local authority and the RSPCA about puppies being purchased from said premises – which soon became ill after sale.
"Twelve witness statements were taken in relation to puppies with health problems which were sold from the Billericay address between June and September 2019, and one in March 2019.”
Some of those accounts from families who lost their puppies to illness were read to the courts.
One family said they had bought a puppy named Mabel from Hayward in Billericay in July 2019, only to see her succumb with parvovirus days later.The family said in a statement read to the court: "When I saw her she was lifeless. It will be an image I will never get out of my head. I said to the vets that it was best to put her to sleep."
Breeding and sales licence revoked
The court was also told that Basildon Council had licensed Stacey Hayward to sell puppies but the licence was revoked in July 2018 due to complaints about sick puppies, while her breeding licence had run out in December 2018.
Hayward and her partner Steven Foster moved to a new home and, in October 2019, complaints began coming into the RSPCA related to an address in Weymouth Drive, where Kelly and Ricky Bennett lived. An RSPCA officer visited in August 2019 to speak to them about licensing but no licence was ever issued for the address, the court was told.
Weymouth Drive was linked to an address in Colliford Road via a witness and was confirmed as Hayward and Foster's new home.
Both sellers were advertising puppies who were described as being "bred at home" but several puppies appeared to have been sourced from Wales, with Welsh vaccination cards containing details cut out or erased.
Prosecutor Ms Stevens added: “In addition, adverts were placed on the selling sites with various names and numbers. Visitors to the Hayward address were still shown her licence documents despite its revocation.“Search warrants were executed at both properties and puppies were found to be present at both with some adult dogs. Dead puppies were also found at both properties in the freezer (two at Weymouth and one at Colliford)."
She said seizures of paperwork and phones showed the link between the two addresses.
Sales operation 'worth £850,000'
Nine puppies were found living in a shed at the rear of the garden at Colliford Road, and were taken into care.
One later died of parvovirus but the others, who were suffering from Giardia - a small parasite that attacks the intestines - and other health problems, made full recoveries and were rehomed.
At Weymouth Drive, officers found three adult spaniels, five cocker spaniel puppies with Giardia and and two dead spaniel puppies which "appeared to have been dead for days", the prosecutor said.
RSPCA officers worked closely with the Eastern Region Special Operations Unit’s financial investigator who analysed financial records linked to the sellers and attributed about £850,000 of income linked to the sale of puppies.
Seized phones were analysed and showed many messages responding to adverts for puppies, using different names.Bank statements showed payments with the reference "puppy".
Messages showed that both Hayward and Kelly Bennett were sourcing puppies on a regular basis and placing adverts online using fake names and details, and claiming the puppies had been bred and reared in a family home.
Messages on the phones also showed that Ricky Bennett had taken payments for the puppies, while witnesses had paid money into Foster’s bank account for puppies too.RSPCA officers analysed the adverts and estimated that at least 100 adverts had been placed, advertising around 500 puppies, between December 2018 and March 2020, across Gumtree, Preloved and Pets4homes.
The court heard that the selling of puppies continued throughout lockdown, until May 2021.
All four will be sentenced at Basildon Crown Court on August 12.