MARLBOROUGH — Sgt. Zachary Byam was patrolling Route 124 around 10:30 p.m. when the cars ahead of him began stopping.
According to a police report, Byam saw “three yellow labs and one black lab circling the vehicles and standing in the roadway as the motorists were trying to get through.”
Byam parked his cruiser nearby, activated its flashing lights and got out to deal with the dogs. A vehicle approached from the opposite direction. “The operator slammed on the brakes and the car came to a skidding stop nearby,” almost hitting Byam and the dogs, the sergeant wrote.
That night — Dec. 28, 2015 — was the seventh time in six months that John Riggieri’s dogs had been reported on Route 124, according to Marlborough police reports. That included three complaints over seven days that October, including one in which road workers put the dogs into a N.H. Department of Transportation pickup for safekeeping.
Riggieri is set to be tried Friday on 10 counts of misdemeanor animal cruelty, which allege he kept dogs in unsanitary conditions and deprived them of needed medical care. The charges stem from a July 10 eviction in which the Cheshire County Sheriff’s Office seized 33 adult Labs and 19 puppies from Riggieri’s house on Shaker Farm Road South, a forested dirt road off Route 124 with splendid views of Mount Monadnock. A sheriff’s deputy alleged Riggieri’s house, where he kept the dogs, was filthy with urine and excrement.
The dogs, in state custody, are being housed at the Monadnock Humane Society and in temporary foster homes pending Riggieri’s trial.
Speaking to The Sentinel in August, Riggieri called the charges “claims against my good character” and vowed to fight them vigorously.
But complaints about Riggieri’s dogs getting loose, barking loudly or otherwise disrupting the peace date back years, according to police documents The Sentinel obtained through public-records requests, as do concerns about the animals’ welfare.
Neighbors have complained about excessive, prolonged barking and dogs that roam the area. Loose Labs have reportedly disrupted traffic on Route 124 multiple times, including a February 2016 collision that injured a dog named Indy.
Between June 2014 and July 2018, Marlborough and Jaffrey police logged more than 30 reports of Riggieri’s dogs barking or running loose.
Police have also investigated Riggieri for possible animal cruelty and neglect before. For several months beginning in July 2017, Marlborough police looked into allegations about the dogs’ living conditions and medical care before the inquiry stalled due to insufficient evidence.
Dogs at large
After the near-miss on Dec. 28, 2015, Riggieri acknowledged he had to work on controlling his dogs, according to Byam’s report. “He agreed that he needed to do more to contain them and said that they are starting to become out of control,” Byam wrote.
But dogs kept getting out.
On Feb. 6, 2016, around 7 p.m., police got word a driver had hit a dog on Route 124. When Officer Jeremy Jeffers arrived on scene, he saw a black Labrador retriever lying in the road and blood on the road’s surface, according to Jeffers’ incident report.
Riggieri arrived for the dog, a female named Indy. He later told police he’d rushed Indy to the vet and spent thousands of dollars on her care, and that the collision left her with nerve damage in her leg, according to an August 2017 police report.
Since then, Marlborough and Jaffrey police have received more than 15 reports of Riggieri’s dogs being loose.
Many of the more recent complaints have come from William Jack, who lives a few houses down from Riggieri on a portion of Shaker Farm Road South that lies in Jaffrey.
Jack said he installed a security camera about a year ago and has since captured numerous instances of unaccompanied Labs on or near his property. A Sentinel reporter viewed five of those videos, which show small groups of Labradors wandering around Jack’s driveway or trotting by on the road.
Riggieri downplayed the number of loose-dog complaints. “If you look at the number of dogs that I have and the number of incidences I have, I don’t know if it’s all that exorbitant because of the number of animals that I keep,” he said Wednesday.
He accused Jack of luring the dogs to his property by grilling meat in the driveway.
“When I let my dogs out, and my dogs run straight down the driveway, make a hard left-hand turn and race towards his house … and I see a Weber grill smoking away at noontime with no utensils, with no condiments, no table, I say, ‘Hmm, it looks like he’s baiting my dogs,’ ” Riggieri said.
Police in Marlborough have also fielded multiple complaints of Riggieri’s dogs barking at length, sometimes at night, according to police reports. Under state law, barking dogs can be considered a nuisance — leading to a violation for the owner — if the noise continues for more than a half-hour or disturbs a neighborhood at night.
On a call one morning in September 2017, Marlborough Police Chief Christopher J. Lyons heard barking coming from the Riggieri property. He wrote in a report that he lingered nearby to see how long the noise would last.
Riggieri appeared and soon revved up a chainsaw “with the throttle wide open,” the police chief wrote.
Lyons wrote that he observed Riggieri “using the chainsaw dangerously over his head cutting the branches to saplings randomly,” a characterization Riggieri disputes. Riggieri said he was operating the tool safely to cut brush.
Every so often, when the noise from the chainsaw died down, Lyons could hear continued barking, he wrote. Eventually, he cited Riggieri for the continuous barking.
Riggieri protested. “He argued that I could not hear them over the chainsaw,” the Marlborough chief wrote.
Riggieri called the citation baseless. “It was physically impossible for him to hear the dogs continuously once I started my chainsaw,” he said Wednesday. He said he used the chainsaw not because Lyons was there but because he had “work to do.”
Since October 2015, police in Jaffrey and Marlborough have issued Riggieri more than a dozen citations for alleged animal-control violations. Rather than paying the fine, typically $25 or $50, Riggieri routinely contests them in court, as is his right.
But the practice appeared to frustrate Marlborough police.
In May, speaking to a town resident who had complained about Riggieri’s dogs barking through the night, Lyons “explained the lengthy process of issuing John civil forfeitures, them not being paid, going to arraignment, then going to trial several months later for each violation,” according to his report of the conversation. “The end result is the dogs still bark, run at large and the police department still spending numerous hours dealing with continued complaints.”
“I preserve my rights to defend myself against any allegation I think is baseless,” Riggieri said.
Concern about puppies
In July 2017, three people contacted Marlborough police about posts they said Riggieri shared in a closed Facebook group he created called The DogFather Labrador Edition. They said they had concerns about Riggieri’s ability to care for so many dogs and said he had posted about puppies dying from an infection, according to a police report.
On Aug. 1, 2017, Byam went to Riggieri’s property and was met by about a dozen dogs who “appeared to have healthy looking coats, eyes, and mouths” and “normal energy levels,” he wrote.
In Byam’s account, Riggieri said some puppies had succumbed to an infection. “He confirmed that six deceased puppies were buried on his property,” Byam wrote. Asked about this Wednesday, Riggieri confirmed that he buried several puppies on his land after they died of a virus.
According to Byam’s report, Riggieri said staff at a veterinary clinic in North Grafton, Mass., had examined one of the ill puppies and told him the condition couldn’t be treated, so he declined expensive tests.
Riggieri did not let Byam into his house, and the sergeant concluded he did not have the evidence to bring charges.
In late October, the department subpoenaed veterinary records from three facilities Riggieri reported using. A report from the North Grafton clinic, dated July 13, 2017, noted Riggieri declined recommended tests, according to Byam’s description of the document.
“John declined de-worming medication and declined to have them euthanize the very sick puppy he brought in,” Byam wrote, summarizing the clinic’s report. “The vet also said that they strongly recommend that John start de-worming and vaccinations in his puppies going forward, as he has not done so before.”
Riggieri, who rejects the label “breeder,” said he sells puppies as part of an effort to raise money for a nonprofit organization he founded. He said that when he sells a puppy, he makes sure the new owner’s vet signs off on the dog’s health. But he said he does not believe it is necessary to de-worm puppies before that.
“If the vet says this dog has worms, and it’s critical — it’s gonna make the dog sick or hurt the dog — OK, then you know what? Bring it back, I’ll treat the dog,” he said. “But for my money, I’m not taking the risk with a puppy by putting any artificial vaccination or any kind of poison in there that’ll affect its GI tract.”
On Dec. 14, 2017, Riggieri called the police station to report one of his dogs had been abducted.
Riggieri explained he had temporarily given one of his dogs to a woman renting a studio apartment at his house, as a sort of trial to see if she would adopt the dog, according to a police report. But he’d had second thoughts, and now the woman was AWOL with his dog, he reported.
The woman called police that night, according to the report. She said she’d kept the dog to rescue it from “deplorable” conditions, including a house that stank of urine and excrement, the report states.
Under the threat of a possible felony theft charge, the woman eventually agreed to return the dog, according to police reports.
In February, Byam interviewed another former tenant of Riggieri’s. The former tenant “felt that John had too many dogs for one man to keep up with” and noted that there “are often times where the house is full of feces and urine, because it is almost impossible to clean up after all of them all the time,” Byam wrote.
But the former tenant said he never witnessed abuse or neglect and believed Riggieri had “the best intentions,” according to the report.
Byam concluded “probable cause does not exist for search or arrest warrants at this time” and suspended the investigation.
Five months later, Lt. Caleb Dodson of the Cheshire County Sheriff’s Office came to Riggieri’s door for the eviction, which related to the property’s foreclosure for nonpayment of mortgage installments, according to a deed filed in federal court.
Dodson wrote in an affidavit that he saw dogs growling at one another over food and some with “wounds of varying degrees,” including one with an open wound on its head.
The property reeked, Dodson wrote. On entering the house, he found it “completely covered (in) dog feces, urine and dirt” and full of chewed-up furniture, he wrote.
Dodson wrote that he saw a tub “smeared with feces,” where Monadnock Humane Society staff, on hand to help with the dogs, said they’d found a litter of puppies. A container “appeared to be their water dish, but was yellow with urine,” Dodson wrote.
Riggieri declined to discuss Dodson’s affidavit because it is part of his pending criminal case, but said he expects to challenge the legitimacy of Dodson entering his home.
On Friday, Riggieri will answer to charges in a Keene court that he kept 52 dogs in unsanitary conditions and failed to treat at least 20 dogs for a range of medical conditions, including hookworm, tapeworm and giardia.
Two months before the eviction that led to those charges, Sgt. Byam visited Riggieri’s property about a dog-barking complaint.
Riggieri wasn’t home. Byam, according to his report, noticed the porch was “more dirty, worn, and cluttered than I remembered.”
Through the windows, Byam wrote, he could see white curtains stained brown and “a dark packed ‘slime’ made up of dog prints” covering the floor. “The sliding glass doors opposite my position had slime as high as a dog could reach,” he wrote. He observed light-colored dogs with brown stains on their coats, according to the report.
Riggieri would not confirm or refute Byam’s description. “My house has 33 dogs that live in it, OK?” he said. “And my house is, again, my home, and what goes on in my house is my privacy.”
He added, “What I find clean and what you may find clean are totally two different — two different things, my friend.”
The following afternoon, Byam returned. He spoke to Riggieri about the conditions in the house. “He admitted that he is in over his head and cannot keep living the way he is,” Byam wrote.
In the report, Byam said he offered to help Riggieri arrange adoptions for some of the dogs.
“He said that he would be contacting the Humane Society himself to explore his options,” Byam wrote, “but he found it hard to pick which dogs to keep and which dogs to give away.”