GILBERT, AZ - An Arizona couple convicted of animal cruelty in the heat-exhaustion deaths of 23 dogs at their kennel were sentenced to staggered 60-day jail terms Friday in a case that drew complaints that Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio used the investigation to garner publicity for himself and damage a political critic.
Arpaio has ordered them both to serve their sentence in the Tent City Jail.
Kennel owners Jesse Todd Hughes and Maleisa Maurine Hughes apologized to dog owners shortly before the punishment was handed down.
Jesse Hughes was ordered by a judge to start his jail term immediately while his wife will begin her sentence in January. The couple also were each sentenced to six years of supervised probation and 230 hours of community service.
"We are sorry about this. We have lived this every day for the last two-plus years," Jesse Hughes told the court.
Maleisa Hughes expressed remorse toward the dog owners while wiping away tears.
"I would do anything to take away their pain," she said. "I want these guys to be able to forgive us and get some closure. That's why I pleaded guilty."
Through her sobs, Maleisa Hughes pleaded with the county Superior Court Judge Margaret Mahoney to consider her two daughters when deciding the sentence.
The dogs died in June 2014 in a 9-by-12-foot room at the Gilbert kennel while the Hugheses were in Florida and were left in the care of Maleisa Hughes' college-age daughter and her then-husband, Austin Flake, who is the son of U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz.
The Hugheses and the younger couple were originally charged with animal cruelty, but the case against Maleisa Hughes' daughter and Austin Flake was dismissed after an expert determined the kennel's air conditioning unit failed because it wasn't properly maintained.
The kennel owners had initially claimed dogs chewed through a wire connected to an air conditioner. Prosecutors have said the case presented to grand jurors didn't take into account the potential for problems with the air conditioner.
Austin Flake and his ex-wife have filed a malicious-prosecution lawsuit that alleges Arpaio pursued the investigation to gain publicity and do political damage to the senator, who had criticized an investigation by a sheriff's volunteer posse into the authenticity of President Barack Obama's birth certificate.
The lawsuit alleges the young couple's reputation was damaged by Arpaio publicizing trumped-up accusations over the animal deaths. Arpaio has denied exploiting the investigation for publicity.
Arpaio refused in a deposition two months ago to accept responsibility for bringing the case against Austin Flake and his then-wife.
The sheriff was unable to cite any evidence to support the allegations against the couple, but repeatedly expressed confidence in his investigators.
The Hugheses pleaded guilty earlier this summer to charges of animal cruelty and facilitation to commit fraudulent schemes. The plea deal called for 23 days of jail time, barred them from operating a kennel and required them to write a letter of apology to the dog owners.
The dog owners made tearful pleas for a tougher sentence, saying the crime was serious because they regarded their pets as family members.
They accused Jesse Todd Hughes of lowballing the maximum number of dogs that he claimed would be boarded at the kennel and telling some owners that their pets had run away when in fact the animals had died. A video was played in court showing dead dogs partially covered by a tarp.
Jacqueline Heath, whose three dogs died at the kennel, said she is haunted by police photos of her pets after they had died. People in the courtroom were shown an overhead photo of Heath's golden retriever, lhasa apso and shih tzu curled together on a doggie bed.
Heath's voice cracked with emotion as she described the pain of losing her dog. After learning of the deaths, Heath said she asked Todd Hughes why he boarded such a large number of dogs when he promised to her that he cares for only six animals at a time.
"He never really gave us a straight answer," Heath said of Todd Hughes. "He said this is a busy time for us."
Logan Brown, Maleisa Hughes' daughter who is now divorced from Austin Flake, choked her way through comments to the court as she expressed how badly she felt over the dog deaths.
"I hope they really know we are sorry," Brown said.