Members of ‘callous’ puppy farming gang jailed

Two members of a “callous” puppy farming gang have been jailed for selling dogs they fraudulently claimed were bred in a family environment, when they were actually “sickly and diseased”, with some dying within days of being sold.

Norwich Crown Court heard that the puppies were advertised for sale as being healthy, socialised and treated for worms and fleas.

The court heard the dogs had an average price of £675
The court heard the dogs had an average price of £675 (RSPCA/PA)

But when police raided one of their premises in 2017 they found dogs in cages, some in “pitch-dark sheds with no access to light” and others “in a caravan at temperatures of up to 30C”, prosecutor Hazel Stevens said.

“They were being bred in a commercial environment, not in a family home as advertised,” she added.

Michael Rushmer, 27, of Low Road, Thurlton, Norfolk, his sister Zoe Rushmer, 26, of no fixed address, and her partner Jacob Murphy, 27, of The Street, Norton Subcourse, all admitted conspiracy to commit fraud by false representation between June 1, 2016 and June 18, 2018.

Michael Rushmer admitted continuing the offending while on bail for the offence, pleading guilty to a further count of conspiracy to commit fraud by false representation between July 15 2018 and March 16 2019.

Michael Rushmer and Murphy were both jailed for three years and six months.

Some dogs had no access to light
Some dogs had no access to light (RSPCA/PA)

Zoe Rushmer was given a two-year prison sentence suspended for two years and ordered to complete 250 hours of unpaid work.

Judge Andrew Shaw told the mother-of-four: “It’s your children and only your children that have spared you from going to prison.”

He said the fraud, which began “at least as early as 2015”, “strikes at the very heart of this nation’s love for its pets, dogs in particular”.

“A family’s decision to buy a puppy is not one that is ever taken lightly,” he said, adding that “to sell (people) sickly and diseased dogs, so poorly that many do not survive, is about as callous and meanspirited a fraud as I have come across for some time”.

He described Murphy as the “ringleader”, Michael Rushmer as “his deputy if not his equal” and Zoe Rushmer as “the legitimate face of your brother’s and partner’s criminal enterprise” who “even lent (her) own children to the affair as part of (her) efforts to lend a veneer of respectability” to what they were doing.

Ms Stevens said that the dogs had an average price of £675 and the gang made £300,000 from the fraud, though they claimed it was nearer £150,000.

Some of the dogs were kept in tiny cages
Some of the dogs were kept in tiny cages (RSPCA/PA)

She said: “When visiting, buyers were often met by a female and there were often children present, giving the impression of a family they (the puppies) were supposed to be part of.”

Statements were taken from 31 purchasers who described how their puppies “looked lifeless and ill”, and some died within days of getting home after they were diagnosed with parvovirus, a highly contagious disease.

One buyer was told by the sellers that their puppy died “due to their negligence” and were refused help with their £2,000 vet bill, Ms Stevens said.

“These defendants exploited the emotional vulnerability of potential purchasers, especially those who attended with children to see the potential new member of their family,” she said.

She added: “This fraudulent activity succeeds as the people who want to buy these small-type breeds, or cross-breeds, want to do something for their family, and because once they see the dog they want to rescue it or buy it.

“Once they’ve fallen in love with the puppy, regardless of the circumstances nine times out of 10 they buy the puppy, even if they think something is going on.”

Some of the dogs died within days of being taken home
Some of the dogs died within days of being taken home (RSPCA/PA)

She described it as a “sophisticated offence” which required “significant planning”, with defendants using false names and addresses and multiple SIM cards so different phone numbers could be used in adverts.

Barrister Andrew Oliver said in mitigation that Michael Rushmer took over the business from his late father, started to use cocaine and made the “foolish decision” to buy dogs from travellers, which introduced parvovirus to the farm.

Zoe Rushmer was remorseful and Jacob Murphy was trying to fund his drug habit, the court heard.

Michael Rushmer also admitted 10 animal welfare offences, and operating a pet shop and breeding establishment without a licence.

Zoe Rushmer admitted four animal welfare offences and Murphy admitted three.

Jean Boyes, 67, also admitted conspiracy to commit fraud by false representation between June 1, 2016 and June 18, 2018, but the court heard her role was limited to taking a litter of seven puppies to be inoculated on a single occasion.

Boyes, whose given address is The Street, Bramerton, but the court heard was now living in a car, was given a two-year conditional discharge.

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