EXCLUSIVE: Lawsuit claims dog care operators lied about dog's violent death

Published: Nov. 17, 2014 at 10:23 PM HST|Updated: Nov. 18, 2014 at 3:04 AM HST
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KAILUA, OAHU (HawaiiNewsNow) - A Kailua couple has sued a doggie day care operation, claiming the business owners lied to them and asked their employees to cover up the violent death of the family's beloved dog that was under their care.

Video of dogs enjoying themselves in a shallow pool is the first thing the public sees on the website of It's DogPlay. Located in Kailua, it claims to be "Hawaii's Only Doggie Resort and Water Park."

It's DogPlay charges $39 a day for doggie day care, which includes picking up customers' dogs in a Mercedes van. The facility charges anywhere from $49 to $79 a night for overnight stays, depending on the dog's size.

"I looked at one of the employees and I said, 'Take good care of Jojo. He's just a little guy.' Because I kinda noticed there were a lot of dogs there," said Laura Sherrill.

Last June, Laura and Les Sherrill took their 7-year-old chihuahua named Jojo and two other dogs to It's DogPlay to stay when they suddenly had to travel to Montana because Laura's father was having open heart surgery.

In a lawsuit filed Monday, the Sherrills said two days into their trip they received a phone call from Mirko Manfredi, owner of the doggie care facility, with bad news.

Manfredi claimed little Jojo -- who weighed just four pounds -- had died of natural causes, according to the lawsuit.

"When I heard about it, it just broke my heart. They're like one of your kids," Laura Sherrill said.

Les Sherill spoke to Hawaii News Now about the phone call they received from Manfredi: "And he said that Jojo was found unconscious at about 8 a.m. and that nobody knew what happened."

The lawsuit said Manfredi told him Jojo's body was taken to the VCA Animal Hospital in Kaneohe, where a veterinarian examined him so Les Sherrill called a vet there to get an explanation.

"She had concluded her investigation or looking at Jojo and determined that it was natural causes and the whole time none of this is settling right," Les Sherrill said.

The Sherrills' lawsuit claims the VCA Kaneohe Animal Hospital vet refused his request to take Jojo's body to the dog's regular vet but did offer VCA's cremation services, which the family turned down.

Next, the Sherrills called their vet at Feather and Fur Animal Hospital in Aikahi Shopping Center and asked employees there to pick up Jojo's body and perform a necropsy.

"The evidence is there and the story does not add up," said Dr. Kirk Ayling, a veterinarian at Feather and Fur who showed us photos from his necropsy of puncture wounds and severe bruising across Jojo's chest.

Ayling determined the little dog did not die of natural causes but suffered a traumatic death, the lawsuit said.

"I was able to see that there were fractured ribs, trauma to the lung lobes and a large amount hemorrhage and blood clots in the chest cavity, proving to me that the cause of death was a crushing wound to the animal's chest," Ayling told Hawaii News Now.

Lisa Ponter and her husband David lived in an apartment at the dog care facility and said they knew what really happened that morning back in June when Jojo died because they were first on the scene.

"I ran downstairs when I heard all the commotion," said Lisa Ponter, who worked at the doggie day care operation as well as living there.

They said another employee told them she let out all 15 to 20 of the dogs who were boarding there about 6:30 a.m. on June 25.

According to the lawsuit, both big and small dogs were put together in one area, allowing the larger dog to attack and kill Jojo, breaking with normal procedures in which big and small dogs there were kept separate.

"She had just told me that Sam, he's a black lab, he's a regular. Had just picked Jojo up and shook him a couple times and dropped him. Sam didn't know any better. He was just a goofy black lab," Lisa Ponter said.

The lawsuit quotes Ponter who alleged Mirko Manfredi, the dog business owner, called her and other employees and told them to lie and say they found Jojo unconscious and that he died of natural causes.

"It just didn't sit right with any of the employees, having to lie about it. That's not what happened," Lisa Ponter said.

Connor Wilson showed up for work at It's DogPlay a few hours after Jojo died. The lawsuit said when Wilson heard that Mirko Manfredi ordered other employees to lie and claim Jojo died of natural causes, he resigned at the end of his shift that day, and a second employee quit the next day.

"It was a moral decision," Wilson said. "Because the way my family had raised me, I had always been taught to tell the truth about things and to always do what's right and not try to hide things under the rug."

Wilson has since gone to work at Feather and Fur as an animal care assistant.

In August, the Sherrills' lawyer, Carlos Perez-Mesa, Jr., sent the Manfredis and VCA Kaneohe Animal Hospital letters demanding $50,000 from each of them in damages for emotional distress. The couple said they will donate any money they obtain from the case to animal charities.

In an email to Hawaii News Now, Mia Manfredi, the co-owner of the doggie care operation, denied the allegations and said the Sherrills' financial demands amount to "blackmail."

"It's in the hands of the attorneys, therefore we cannot respond with a statement. The real facts will come out then," Mia Manfredi said in the email.

"An accident and negligence is one thing. But this is gross negligence covered up by deceit," Les Sherrill said. "The bottom line is they shouldn't be operating a dog care facility business."

"I just don't want this to happen to anybody else. You know, it shouldn't have to happen," Laura Sherrill added.

The VCA Kaneohe vet who claimed Jojo died of natural causes declined comment.

Perez-Mesa, the Sherrills' lawyer, said VCA offered $300 to settle the case but the Manfredis have not responded to their Aug. 20 demand letter. So Perez-Mesa, who works at the Honolulu law firm Clay, Chapman, Iwamura, Pulice and Nervell, filed a circuit court civil lawsuit against both the dog business and the VCA vet operation Monday.

"It is nothing short of despicable for the grieving pet owners to be lied to about the death of their animal, and then for the kennel's owners to order their employees to lie about the pet's death, which is exactly what Mirko and Mia Manfredi did to the Sherrills," Perez-Mesa said. "If filing a lawsuit can prevent the Manfredis from ever doing this again, then justice will be served."

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