SAFETY HARBOR — It all started on a Sunday afternoon 19 months ago when a couple of moms brought their kids to look at puppies at a pet store.
The front door was open at PuppyLuv, 2471 McMullen-Booth Road, but no one was tending the sales floor. Inside, the would-be customers found dozens of dogs crowded in pens without food or water. Some were covered in their own filth.
What they found led investigators to confiscate 38 puppies from two locations, and to arrest the shop's owner on 38 counts of animal cruelty.
Now, a year and a half later, he's finally facing jail time. Earlier this week, Bernard E. Nowakowski, 60, of Port Richey, pleaded guilty to 38 misdemeanor counts of animal neglect, a lesser charge.
He must report soon to the Pinellas County Jail, where he'll serve a 30-day sentence. He also was sentenced to 10 years probation, and is not allowed to work with or sell animals during that time.
"Puppies are like babies," Assistant State Attorney Frank Piazza said, because they can't survive unless someone "feeds them and provides for them — and that's what he wasn't doing."
Nowakowski didn't return calls for comment this week.
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The PuppyLuv pet store had been selling puppies for a decade in that spot on McMullen-Booth just south of Enterprise Road. But Nowakowski had only owned it for a few months when he first came to the attention of law enforcement.
In July 2010, Pinellas deputies were called to the store after building management contacted the Suncoast Animal League about the odor coming from it. Although deputies found dozens of dogs in dirty conditions, Pinellas County Animal Services took no action and decided not to confiscate the 56 puppies.
Animal Services officials said the dogs' cages simply hadn't been cleaned since the end of the previous business day, and the smell of the puppy shop was consistent with any kennel first thing in the morning.
"Is there some poop in the dogs' cages? Well, yes, because we haven't had a chance to clean it up yet," Nowakowski said at the time.
However, things escalated in October 2010. That's when a couple of mothers brought their kids to the shop, but they found no one inside except for 26 dogs living in filthy conditions. They called 911.
"The inside of the business was, in my opinion, deplorable," Deputy Frank Felicetta wrote in a report.
"The dogs were stored inside containers, without any water or food, and in their own feces and urine."
Deputies contacted Nowakowski and asked him to come to the pet store. He arrived and was arrested. Nowakowski, who was 58, complained of chest pains and shortness of breath and was taken to Mease Countryside Hospital for treatment.
The next day, Tarpon Springs police found another 12 hungry and thirsty puppies locked in pens without food or water in a storefront that Nowakowski had rented in Olympic Plaza, a strip mall at 40176 U.S. 19 N.
SPCA Tampa Bay confiscated all of the dogs, which included dachshunds, Yorkshire terriers, Shih Tzus, various mixed breeds and one pit bull.
Nowakowski refused to surrender the puppies, which he had been selling at PuppyLuv for $500 to $1,400 each, the SPCA said. The agency had to get legal custody through the courts before it could put the dogs up for adoption.
Months later, in early 2011, eight SPCA volunteers wrote letters to a circuit judge, asking him to speed the process along.
"I saw these dogs when they came in, and they were in deplorable shape," wrote volunteer dog trainer Margaret Stambaugh. "They were obviously neglected and had been that way for some time."
The puppies were put up for adoption a short time later. "We were able to place all the animals," said SPCA spokeswoman Nora Hawkins. "We had tons of people applying to adopt them."
Mike Brassfield can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4151. Write a letter to the editor at tampabay.com/letters.