'Most chaotic initial scene': Responders testify about kennel fire that killed 29 dogs in 2019
On a routine early morning patrol in January 2019, DuPage County sheriff's deputy Chris Obrochta spotted an orange glow in the predawn sky and realized it was a fire.
When he arrived at a dog kennel near West Chicago, flames were visible on the second floor of the brick structure at the northeast corner of North Avenue and County Farm Road. Obrochta found the operator of D&D Kennels, Garrett Mercado, outside the building. Mercado told Obrochta that dogs were trapped inside.
Obrochta could hear the panicked animals howling and barking.
Twenty-nine dogs died that chaotic morning, including nine belonging to Mercado. Now prosecutors are trying to convince a DuPage County judge that Mercado was responsible for the tragedy.
Mercado's bench trial began Monday afternoon in Wheaton before Judge Robert Miller. Mercado, who now lives in Woodridge, faces 25 misdemeanor counts of animal cruelty and violation of owner's duties.
Fourteen of the charges stem from the blaze, which was reported around 5:30 a.m. Jan. 14, 2019.
Obrochta, the first emergency responder at the scene, was the first to testify on Monday.
In his testimony, Obrochta said a glance showed flames blocking the stairs to the second floor. Mercado and Obrochta then tried to save dogs from double-stacked cages in a large first-floor grooming room.
Obrochta testified the room was filled with smoke, that he could hear breaking glass and saw signs the upper floor might be about to collapse. He managed to grab the cage closest to the door before being forced to leave.
Lt. Dom Shurba of the Carol Stream Fire Protection District testified that as he arrived, he saw dogs running loose, including a large dog attacking a small dog and another dog standing on the roof of the kennel.
"In my 19-plus years with Carol Stream, it was certainly the most chaotic initial scene I have ever seen," Shurba said.
He later learned that while fighting the fire inside, "There were a lot of dogs we were actually walking on that we did not know were there," Shurba said. Another firefighter testified to seeing a dog chained to the grab bar of a bathtub on the second floor and estimated he helped carry out eight to 10 dead dogs after the fire was out.
A former DuPage County Animal Control officer also testified one dog died of injuries from a dogfight, not the fire itself. She said she saw dogs eating dog food floating in the puddles of dirty water that ran out of the building as firefighters hosed the fire.
She also testified about kennel conditions on several visits she made to it in May and June 2018, shortly after Mercado took over kennel operations. She said she wrote an email to the state Department of Agriculture in May 2018 expressing concerns about accumulations of dog feces, a dog being kept in a cage too small for it to fully stand or sit up, and other issues. The state is the agency charged with licensing kennels and enforcing regulations, not DuPage County, she said.
The other charges Mercado faces concern allegations of neglect and cruelty of dogs in January 2018, May 2018 and July 2018. In one case, it is alleged a 40-pound dog was starved while in Mercado's care for five weeks, losing 11 pounds and suffering muscle wasting.
The trial resumes Tuesday afternoon. Prosecutors expect to present testimony on Wednesday and Thursday afternoons, and the defense expects to begin Friday afternoon.
The owners of the dogs that died in the fire formed a Facebook group called the DuPage 29. Some have attended court hearings, carrying photos and other memorials of their dogs, although they are not allowed to display them in the courtroom.