A Sky Valley woman facing more than two dozen animal cruelty charges for allegedly operating an illegal kennel where dogs expired in triple-digit heat was directed Tuesday by the Riverside County Board of Supervisors to clean up the garbage on her property within 90 days or face penalties.
Mary Bernadette Schwenn, 65, appeared before the board during a hearing on whether the county should move forward with public nuisance abatement proceedings connected with rubbish piles and abandoned vehicles on her lot off of Thousand Palms Canyon Road
Schwenn was adamant, and at times combative, as she answered the Department of Code Enforcement's allegations.
"I want my vehicles back," she told the board, insisting that code enforcement officers had removed the five vehicles cited for being "abandoned, wrecked, dismantled or otherwise inoperative."
"The County of Riverside was observed by witnesses removing vehicles from my property without authorization," Schwenn said. "Code enforcement personnel took property out of my vehicles and ran it over. They totally trashed my books. They had no authorization to take the vehicles. I'm very, very annoyed. I want to be reimbursed for the vehicles that were taken and costs for property damage."
Deputy County Counsel Patricia Munroe replied that the county had not yet impounded any of the vehicles, and Code Enforcement Officer Hector Herrera told the board that he had never set foot on Schwenn's property, opting instead to take photos from a distance.
But Schwenn argued otherwise, then cited specific provisions in state law indicating what constitutes a vehicle that can be declared a public nuisance.
"In my vehicles, there's an engine and transmission, and you can see the wheels on all of them," she said.
According to Herrera, only two vehicles remain on the property. Photos displayed during the hearing showed a van and a Honda sedan at the remote desert site. Both appeared damaged.
The board directed that the vehicles be brought into compliance as functional, be removed or be stored in some type of enclosure within 15 days, affirming a Department of Code Enforcement order issued in November.
During the second half of the hearing, Schwenn accused county officials of leaving household waste, discarded furniture and mattresses for which she was also cited under the county's public nuisance ordinance.
"My property did not look like this before code enforcement came. Someone came and dumped trash all over the place," she told the board. "There is a report to the sheriff and witnesses who saw them doing it."
Schwenn again argued that her citations were "invalid" because the alleged violations did not meet criteria established under state law.
"It cannot be a public nuisance if it does not affect a large number of people," she said. "You don't even listen. You're just up there nodding your head, blowing me off."
Board Chairman Jeff Stone calmly suggested that Schwenn spend less time on legal research and more time "cleaning up your property," prompting her to exclaim, "I'm not getting any respect from this board."
She vowed to carry her fight to the courts, despite the board vote directing her to clean up the rubbish within three months, or face fines that if unpaid could lead to a lien on her property.
Supervisor John Benoit noted that the county has had "longstanding disagreements" with Schwenn.
"Code enforcement has been in a difficult position trying to enforce the law. They've done a good job trying to bring this situation to a resolution," he said.
Schwenn, who is free on a $50,000 bond, was arrested last July and charged with 30 misdemeanor and felony counts.
According to sheriff's and Department of Animal Services investigators, Schwenn operated what amounted to an unlicensed kennel, where as many as 30 dogs were kept unsheltered, often without food or water.
Witnesses at the defendant's January preliminary hearing testified that puppies and adult canines were dying in the extreme heat last spring and summer. Schwenn was living under a tarp stretched between two vehicles at the time, according to testimony.
Her next court hearing is scheduled for April 1 at the Larson Justice Center in Indio.
– City News Service.