[Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared on Greenwich Free Press.]
Outside state Superior Court in Bridgeport Wednesday morning, protesters waved signs honoring “the Fairfield Five,” a reference to five dogs who died in the care of New Canaan resident Heidi Lueders while she was living in Fairfield last year.
The protesters, many of them affiliated with dog advocacy groups, asked for animal cruelty charges lodged against the 31-year-old to be upgraded to felonies.
Lueders had been charged by Fairfield Police with five misdemeanor counts of animal cruelty as well as one count of criminal damage to a landlord’s property by a tenant, a felony.
During an arraignment in which Lueders pleaded not guilty (see more below), prosecutors upgraded the charges as many in attendance wished. Under state law, first-time offenders found guilty of animal cruelty in cases such as Lueders’s can face a fine of up to $1,000 and up to one year in prison for each offense.
For Annette Mathews of Southbury, who rescued dogs in Bridgeport for many years, following cases such as Lueders’s requires stamina, as they slowly work their way through the criminal justice system with multiple continuations.
“This is one of the most horrendous cases of animal cruelty,” Mathews said on a frigid morning. “Knowing that she disguised herself as an animal rescuer for her own gain, and for her own party makes her the worst kind of monster.”
Lueders had been president of a well-known New Canaan-based rescue group called ‘Bully Breed Rescue,’ which focused on pit bulls.
“You dirty a house and it is a felony?” Mathews said. “But you torture and kill five dogs and it is a misdemeanor? Where’s the justice?”
Fairfield Police completed an arrest warrant application Nov. 29 and it was signed by a judge from state Superior Court in Bridgeport, with bond set at $50,000. The warrant was not immediately served, as detectives in the Fairfield Police Department coordinated the terms of Lueders’s surrender, officials said.
She turned herself in Jan. 15, he said, and was released on bond. Lueders received death threats at home, an attorney later said during her arraignment on separate domestic violence-related charges brought by New Canaan Police following an incident at her home last month.
As news spread on social media of the initial police investigation, a message appeared on Bully Breed Rescue’s website under Vice President Chris Antolini’s name saying that the organization “immediately began cooperating with local police and detectives” on learning of the police investigation.
“It is with great sadness that we confirm all five dogs on Prince Street were dogs of Bully Breed Rescue, Inc. under the care of President Heidi Lueders,” the statement said. “Over the last 7 months, Ms. Lueders had previously communicated to members and volunteers that she had sent four of these dogs to a sanctuary and the fifth dog was in a foster which she was monitoring. None of these dogs were known to be within the residence of Prince Street.”
The news shocked and saddened many.
Elizabeth Saint John, who made the trip from Shelton, said if Lueders had asked for help it would have been readily available.
“The rescue community is very strong in Connecticut and we all work to help each other. Heidi Lueders could have called any of us and we’d have stepped up to help her. Instead she did this,” St. John said. “We want justice for this heinous unthinkable crime.”
Debbie Ridabock of Redding said she had more questions than answers.
“I have five rescue dogs, including two rescue bully breeds and I just cannot imagine the the torment those dogs endured,” Ridabock said.
“There are a lot holes in this story. How did so much time go by and this horrendous act not get noticed? Where did the money go? How did they [colleagues at Bully Breed Rescue] think she was an upstanding citizen if she was a strung out heroin addict? Why there are no drug charges for Lueders?”
Nicola Improta of Redding joined her mother outside the court house with homemade posters demanding that Lueders’ charges be upgraded to felonies.
“I’m here for justice and to show support. This woman needs to be taken down with the fullest extent of the law,” Improta said. “Anyone who says it was not intentional is lying. Drug abuse is no excuse.”
Linda Pleva, part of Desmond’s Army, explained why she traveled to Bridgeport from Plainville Wednesday morning.
“Justice, justice, justice,” she said. “Hopefully this case will set a standard. We need regulations for rescues.”
Pleva said members of Desmond’s Army is group of animal law advocates, recognizable in their purple t-shirts and sweatshirts. The non profit group is named after Desmond, a pit bull who was tortured to death by his owner.
Desmond was a shelter dog owned by a couple. The woman became a victim of domestic abuse and decided to leave, but she couldn’t bring the dog with her. She brought Desmond back to the shelter in New Haven, and he was later transferred to another shelter. Her ex, 22-year-old Alex Wullaert, went to that shelter and adopted Desmond and beat and strangled him.
Wullaert was never incarcerated. Instead he enrolled in a program for people with mental illness. “He’s a free man today. He’s walking among us,” Pleva said.
Pleva said members of Desmond’s Army go to court for animal abuse prosecutions as a Voice for the Voiceless. They say there is a well-documented link between animal abuse, child abuse, domestic violence, and elder abuse.
Pleva said Desmond’s Army believes how a person treats an animal is closely associated with the treatment of humans.
Several protesters echoed that sentiment, saying that had regulations been in place, Lueders past arrest for Assault would have made her ineligible to lead a rescue organization.
“The whole system failed those five dogs,” Ridabock said.
“What’s so terrible is we have to fight so hard for justice,” said Ms. Pleva from Desmond’s Army, who waited patiently in the cold before filing past the court’s metal detector.
In the court room, Pleva and other members of Desmond’s Army formed a sea of purple.
Around 10:15 a.m., Leuders stood beside her attorney before Judge Tracy Lee Dayton in court room A.
Dressed in a white and black v-neck sweater, choker necklace, black jeans and high boots, Leuders entered a not guilty plea.
The prosecutor upgraded her misdemeanor animal cruelty charge to felonies.
Dayton said Lueders must have no contact with dogs, with the exception of “incidental contact” with her parents’ dogs, and that she must enroll in a drug treatment program.
Lueders is due back in court March 15.