TEXAS -- Brenda Luellen (aka Brenda Kenney) is not adjusting well to life in jail.
A month into her one-year sentence, Luellen, 57, spent a week in isolation in a medical cell. Inmates have picked on her, she says, and the cold in the jail makes her arthritic joints ache.
"I've never been so cruelly treated in my whole life," Luellen said during a jailhouse interview July 8.
Luellen came to reluctant prominence in San Angelo last year as city authorities went to her home in The Bluffs and took away dogs by the dozen.
This year saw a virtual replay, with more than 50 of the tiny shih tzu dogs for which Luellen has a seemingly irresistible predilection removed in May after neighbors complained of rank smells coming from her property and expressed concern about unhealthy conditions.
On June 19, after a brief trial in Tom Green County Court-at-Law at which she represented herself rather than hiring a lawyer, Luellen was sentenced by Judge Penny Roberts to a year in jail, the maximum jail term for the misdemeanor charge, regarding the 2008 case.
Luellen pleaded not guilty Thursday to a health code violation and a violation of the city's new pet ordinance in connection with other complaints filed this May.
Lt. Bill Fiveash, the county sheriff's spokesman, said jail workers did check into Luellen's complaints but couldn't find any evidence to support them.
"They didn't physically hurt her," Fiveash said, "but maybe they shunned her. They probably did."
For years, Luellen and Arthur Kenney, the man she has lived with for more than 30 years, have been a mystery to neighbors and an enigma to her family.
Luellen believes that all she is guilty of is wanting to raise dogs and be left alone.
Her older sister, Sandra Harkey of Tuscola, says she remembers growing up with Luellen in Paint Rock. The two grew apart as they grew older, and Luellen eventually seemed to want little to do with her sister or her parents.
"I love her, but I don't like her," Harkey said. "I don't understand her."
Before Luellen moved to San Angelo, she traveled the country working as a nurse's aide. In the 1970s, she met Arthur Kenney, a Korean War veteran who drove trucks for a living in Washington state. The two began living together.
Luellen said she owned a few dogs at the end of their time in Washington.
Harkey and her cousin Loyd Joiner of Paint Rock said they remember Luellen having pets as a child. Years later, they visited the house on Kingsbridge Drive in San Angelo. As the neighborhood grew, Luellen and Kenney installed surveillance cameras around their porch and covered the windows with dark curtains. Visitors are rare.
Family members said they don't have much contact with Luellen, but do remember dogs overrunning the house on Kingsbridge. Loyd Joiner recalled a recent visit. "I was in there for a little bit, but I had to get out" because of the odor, he said.
Luellen said she and Kenney made the move to The Bluffs because it was quiet. Before then, the family lived near in a house near Sunset Mall, where Luellen bred and sold dachshunds and cocker spaniels.
"I didn't have a whole lot (of dogs) at first," Luellen said, estimating the number at less than a dozen. After she retired from being a nurse's aid, her household became home for an increasing number of dogs, some she says that people brought her to rehabilitate.
"I just love taking care of them," she said. "They have so much to give: so much love, and so much compassion." When she raised her first shih tzu, Luellen said, she fell in love.
Jenie Wilson, a Shih Tzu & Furbabies Rescue volunteer, said she does not discount Luellen's passion for the dogs but said just being passionate isn't enough.
"I can't say whether or not she loved her animals, but they were not cared for in a manner that was conducive to good health," Wilson said.
Of the dogs removed from Luellen's house in the 2008 raid, one had a broken jaw, several had broken bones in their paws, and three had to have eyes surgically removed, Wilson said. On some, the nails had ingrown into the foot pads. Urine stains showed on their skin even after the animals were shaved.
"There was some abuse and some obvious neglect in the home," Wilson said. "It can become too much for one person to handle." Based on the length of the nails and hair, she said, it appeared the dogs had not been properly groomed in years.
Caring for dogs became her life and all she had to look forward to in her retirement, Luellen said. She had dogs on rotation and would bathe several animals a day, and says that although she could not get to all of them, she simply wanted to have that many. She sold animals from her home at one time, she said, but has not been in business for more than a year.
Scott Blanton, a veterinarian with Green Meadows Veterinary Hospital, said Luellen treats her animals more like pets than a typical dog breeder does.
Over the years, Luellen would occasionally bring dogs to his clinic with ear or eye problems, ailments to which shih tzu dogs are naturally prone, Blanton said. Never in his examinations did an animal appear mistreated.
"She tried the best she could," Blanton said.
Blanton said he remembers Luellen weeping when one of her puppies died, and her grief seemed genuine to him.
Blanton said he has not seen Luellen since about a month before the 2008 raid. Employees at the his clinic were shocked when they heard about at the conditions at Luellen's home after the raid. "I've never seen her abuse any of those animals," he said, but "they were in an abusive situation."
Luellen and Kenney came to public prominence through the legal system. Last year in San Angelo Municipal Court, the two pleaded no contest to a charge of "waste in pens or yard" and a residential zoning violation, according to court records. They paid a total of $555 in fines and court fees for those offenses.
Luellen is in jail now because she was also convicted of animal cruelty for the 2008 case - which took a year to come to court - sentenced to a year in jail and ordered to pay $18,625 in restitution to the city and a dog rescue group.
Arthur Kenney's appearance in court July 17 to face animal cruelty charges was canceled - prosecutors dismissed the charges, saying they concluded that Luellen was the main culprit in the case and adding that they didn't believe Kenney fully understands what is going on around him.
Even though she sold dogs out of her home, Luellen insists it was not a puppy mill.
Income from the animals, which sold for $150 to $700, was just enough to care for the dogs, she said.
Their $353,000 home was purchased with Kenney's money, she said.
She, Kenney and their two adult sons all receive monthly disability income. THE ENTIRE FAMILY IS ON PUBLIC ASSISTANCE WHILE SHE BREEDS AND SELLS DOGS FOR UNDECLARED INCOME.
According to the Tom Green County Appraisal District, the house was built in 2004. The 3,519-square-foot house and the land it sits on are valued at $353,800.
Andrew Siefker, a professor at Angelo State University who lives behind Luellen's house, said that while he wishes the situation had ended better, he enjoys sleeping through the night. He said his neighbors' dogs habitually were let out of the house into the fenced yard late at night, and their barking would set off a volley of barking throughout the neighborhood. Runoff from the backyard that borders his is still a concern for him, Siefker said.
Although he and his neighbor had strained relations, Siefker took no pleasure in seeing her go to jail for a year. He said he was surprised and thinks the punishment is "disproportionate to the crime."
Prosecutors have said they are pleased with that case's outcome.
In the one conversation he had with Luellen, he said he found her uncooperative, but that didn't stop him and other neighbors from trying to handle their problems civilly.
"I find it unfortunate we couldn't communicate with them. ... We couldn't resolve this as neighbors," Siefker said. "It wasn't for a lack of trying."
Luellen says she tried hard, too, when it came to her dogs.
A court official told her after the 2008 seizure that she could have dogs again, "as long as I took care of them," she said. That's what led Luellen to again own the dozens of shih tzus seized this year.
If Luellen believes she has done nothing wrong, she might continue to breed animals, said Dr. William Montgomery, a psychology professor at Angelo State University who has never met her.
A rough analogy would be the Mormon fundamentalists who, after encountering resistance in one state, move to another, Montgomery said.
"It sounds like they wanted to be left alone, to do their own thing," he said. "Unfortunately, their thing was disturbing other people."
Getting out is what Luellen now has in mind. After this is behind her family, she said, they intend to leave Texas so she can raise dogs and horses and not be bothered.
"I've always loved animals," she said, "and they can't take that away from me."
(Go San Angelo - July 25, 2009