The owner of the Avenel pet store pleaded guilty to two counts of fraud in Woodbridge Municipal Court yesterday.
The Middlesex County Dept. of Consumer Affairs had charged Rocco Garruto, the proprietor of , with violating the state's 'Puppy Lemon Law" when he , and then refused to reimburse the owners for the pets and veterinary bills when the dogs got ill, and in some cases, died.
Appearing before Judge Kevin Morse, Garruto will pay a $1,000 fine plus $1,900 restitution in one case, and a $2,000 fine in another.
The fines have 'significantly escalated' from four previous cases in which Garruto pleaded guilty, said attorney Edward Harrington Heyburn.
Six Cases of Fraud
"This was Garruto's sixth case in which he pleaded guilty," said Heyburn, who represents several Fancy Pups customers including Doreen Longo, the woman whose 8-week-old German Shepherd puppy died in December days after she brought the pooch home.
"[Garruto] could've faced fines up to $10,000 per conviction," Heyburn said.
In the four previous cases in which he admitted guilt, Garruto paid $250 each in fines.
When it comes to the pet business, Garruto believes he has a good track record. "These were all arbitrary cases. We've been in business for 9 years at the same location, and we had just 8 complaints in two years," Garruto said.
He said that Woodbridge policemen and even Mayor John McCormac are satisfied clients.
"The mayor bought his cairn terrier here," he said, observing that it was the same breed of dog that Dorothy in the 'Wizard of Oz' had.
As for the cases brought in municipal court, Garruto said that "we settled all of them except for two."
30 Pages of Complaints
According to Heyburn, though, that isn't quite true. The attorney pulled out a sheaf of 30 pages of complaints filed in Woodbridge Municipal Court in the last two years against Fancy Pups.
"There are multiple allegations with multiple charges," Heyburn said. Most of the complaints charged Garruto with failing to provide paperwork for the pets, or not reimbursing customers within the 14 day window provided by the Puppy Lemon Law. The majority of complaints had either been settled or dismissed, except for the six cases in which Garruto pleaded guilty to fraud.
The Fancy Pups owner had also been brought back into court because he had failed to keep up with a payment schedule he had agreed to on Dec. 8 for reimbursing owners for dead pets and vet bills.
"He missed making the first payment," Heyburn said.
Not an American Citizen
Thursday's court session held several other surprises beyond the fraud charges.
It has now become a routine procedure in municipal courtrooms for judges to ask defendants if they are American citizens. That is because if defendants not in the United States legally are found guilty of more serious charges, "they can be deported," Heyburn said.
When Judge Morse asked Garruto if he was an American citizen, spectators in the courtroom audibly gasped when Garruto said he wasn't.
"Even Garruto's attorney looked shocked," said Longo, who had accompanied her attorney to watch the proceedings.
"Everyone was so surprised. I didn't think it was such a big deal," Garruto said.
Garruto, who is of Italian descent, said his parents and siblings had come to the United States more than 50 years ago. While they all became American citizens, Garruto said he "just never got around to it."
"I've been here since I'm six years old, that's 53 years. I've got a permanent visa," he said.
Judge Morse asked Garruto if he wanted to consult with an immigration attorney before pleading guilty to the fraud charges, but Garruto declined.
According to Heyburn, Garruto can be opening himself up to being deported because he admitted his complicity in fraud cases. "This is six cases where he's admitted he's engaged in fraudulent behavior. It shows a pattern," Heyburn said.
Serving a Summons
Another incident just outside the courtroom was Heyburn serving Garruto with a civil court summons. "He refused to accept delivery" at his home, Heyburn said, when the papers had been sent to him.
While waiting for court to resume, Heyburn decided to put the time to good use by serving Garruto himself. Longo, Heyburn's client, videotaped the service to a surprised Garruto. The video is now on Youtube.
For his part, Garruto believes he is being unfairly hounded.
"I love the puppy business. I love the puppies. It's just my thing."
He pointed to a case in which a customer from New York state had tried to get $4,000 from him for a hip operation she said her dog had gotten. "I asked her for proof that the operation was performed. I never got it, because the operation never happened," he said.
Days after that complaint had been dropped by the county Dept. of Consumer Affairs ,the same woman was back, asking for almost $2,000 for 'pain management' for the dog, Garruto said.
"I talked to lawyers who said that was extortion. How come nothing happens to her for trying to get $4,000 from me for an operation that never happened?" he said. "We're a puppy store. We sell puppies. We don't sell dope.
"Four thousand dollars is a lot of money."
Because of the publicity the puppy deaths have generated, including local New York television news features, Garruto said he has gotten phone threats from animal activists, and at least with one call, his daughter had picked up the phone.
"Someone's gonna get hurt with all this," Garruto said, fearing that some of the animal activist threats might be genuine. He lays the blame for the escalation in his woes at the feet of Doreen Longo.
"She's a professional plaintiff. She's sued [companies] in court seven times," Garruto said. "Why do people want to dwell just on the bad things?
"That's what's bothering me. I don't think it's fair."