Former rescue president found not guilty of killing 5 dogs

A Superior Court judge stressed he relied on facts, not emotions, to find the former owner of an animal rescue not guilty of killing five dogs in her care. But Judge Peter McShane did convict Heidi Lueders of criminal damage to property for destroying the Fairfield home she was living in at the time.
"I know there will be many that say, 'Judge, you missed the point here. Five dogs died," explained McShane. "And whether I suspect whatever happened in that house, whatever happened with those dogs, is not of concern. It's what the state proved or failed to prove."
Lueders had no visible reaction as she was acquitted of allegations that she deprived the dogs of food and water. But there were tears and looks of disbelief from the roughly 30 animal advocates who packed the back of the courtroom.
"We were devastated, but I don't think anybody can say the judge didn't do his job," said Zilla Cannamela, president of Desmond's Army Animal Law Advocates, following the verdict. "We have been to every court date--every single court date--over three years."
Fairfield police discovered the dogs' remains in the home Lueders was renting on Prince Street in November 2018. She was the president of Bully Breed Rescue at the time. Pictures from police showed the animals were locked in crates and decomposed to just bones.
"As emotionally jarring as the facts and photos are, the verdict must not be based on emotion," McShane told the court. "The tryer of fact or fact-finder must put emotion aside and decide the guilt or non-guilt based on the evidence or lack of evidence."
Lueders opted for a trial by judge rather than jury after turning down a deal that included 2 ½ years in prison. In rendering his verdict, McShane pointed to the testimony of a veterinary pathologist who said he couldn't determine cause of death from the autopsies because only bones remained. But Dr. Herbert Van Kruiningen told the court he believed the dogs were starved and dehydrated to death after looking at vet records and the case history.
"The history says, 'dogs possibly died from lack of food and water,'" McShane said. "Proof beyond a reasonable doubt does not deal with possibilities."
Defense attorney Rob Serafinowicz told News 12 he's obviously very happy with the outcome.
"This was an unfortunate situation all around, and I think everybody involved would rather this had never happened," Serafinowicz said.
As Lueders got into her car after the verdict, one animal advocate yelled to her that they will not let this go.
Lueders returns to court April 6 for sentencing. She faces up to five years in prison for the criminal damage to property charge, a felony. The home was found filled with dog feces, urine, garbage and drug paraphernalia. Landlord Celly Roberts testified the damage topped $160,000 and included bringing a hazmat team in.
"As I said at the beginning of the case, this underlying fact pattern was the result of some difficult things she's had to go through in life," Serafinowicz said. Lueders was in rehab right before her arrest. "I think we all will agree that she's going to have to deal with those, and she's going to be committed to dealing with those and hopefully put this awful situation in the rear-view mirror."