By Lisa Redmond
LOWELL -- After watching Margot Nickerson-Malpher drag the "corpse'' of a dog from her sweltering van to her room at the Motel 6 in Tewksbury two years ago, motel employee Heriberto Vasquez went to check on what else was in the van.
Vasquez testified in Lowell District Court on Wednesday that initially he couldn't see inside the van because the doors were closed and the tinted windows appeared to be up. When he opened the van's back doors, Vasquez testified he was "overwhelmed" by the smell of animal feces and urine inside the sweltering van.
"It was really bad,'' Vasquez testified at Nickerson-Malpher's animal-cruelty trial.
Then he saw the dogs. Some were in crates and others were free in the van, all were covered in feces and urine, with no food or water. The dogs all appeared lethargic, suffering from different degrees of heat stroke. He rescued six dogs.
In Lowell District Court, Nickerson-Malpher, 76, of Littleton, is on trial charged with 18 counts of animal cruelty. In her opening statement to the jury, prosecutor Kate Hartigan alleges that Nickerson-Malpher failed to provide water, and a ventilated and clean environment for her animals.
Nickerson-Malpher was transporting 18 animals -- 15 dogs and three cats -- from her summer home in Topsfield, Maine, to South Dakota.
Of the 15 dogs, all suffered from heat stroke. A 2-year-old spaniel named "Cheesy" died. Three dogs had to receive special treatment at Angell Memorial Animal Hospital. The rest received treatment at the MSPCA's Nevin's Farm in Methuen.
Hartigan said Nickerson-Malpher arrived at the Motel 6 around 8 a.m. on June 7, 2011, but the dogs weren't discovered in the van until five hours later. As outside temperatures had climbed to about 85 degrees that day, officials speculate the temperature inside the van was anywhere from 105 to 110 degrees.
In an earlier interview, Nickerson-Malpher said, "I hate any kind of animal cruelty ... I had no intention of hurting any of those animals."
She describes herself as "the person who rescues animals."
Defense attorney Thomas Mixon told the jury that Nickerson-Malpher had made the drive from Maine to her home in the south nearly a dozen times over the years. Mixon said when his client left Maine the previous morning, it was cold. She stopped at least three times to walk and water the animals before stopping at the Motel 6.
As the day progressed, Mixon said it became "unusually hot," what he called an "act of God.''
Mixon told the jury his client began taking the dogs out of her van and moving them into her air-conditioned room, but she was also suffering signs of heat stroke. It was while she was moving some of the dogs that the first Tewksbury police officer arrived.
Mixon said his client's first words to Tewksbury police Officer Marcus McMahon were, "Please help me with my dogs.'' Mixon said the care of her animals was the only concern his client had.
But McMahon testified he was first directed to Nickerson-Malpher's motel room, where he said he could see a dead dog on the floor and three to four other dogs appearing listless. Then his attention was drawn to the van.
"It was horrible,'' McMahon testified. "There was feces and urine. It was a very hot day. It was awful. You could tell they (the dogs in the van) were hurting. Quite a few were very lethargic and they all had trouble standing,'' he testified.
McMahon asked for backup and the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals arrived.
Nickerson-Malpher signed over ownership of the animals to the MSPCA so the animals could be adopted.
As part of her release pending her trial, she was ordered to not have any animals.
The Bangor Daily News reported Nickerson-Malpher was sentenced to five years in jail, with all but 10 days suspended, and ordered to pay $13,000 in restitution to the state of Maine after 20 dogs (poodles) and a cat were seized from her home in 2006.
The Maine Supreme Judicial Court determined in February 2008 that the state had the right to seize the animals. The animals have all been adopted.
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