Efforts to transfer dangerous dogs out of the shelter system fill Citrus County Animal Shelter with more dangerous dogs than before, now held as evidence
INVERNESS, Florida––Two pit bulls and an apparent Rottweiler mix impounded in January 2021 from Out of the Box Rescue attacked two Citrus County Animal Shelter volunteers and a staff member in separate incidents in March and April 2021, Citrus County Chronicle reporter Mike Wright disclosed on May 22, 2021.
The attacks intensified the issues and heightened the long-running drama surrounding Out of the Box rescue founder Robert Schweickert Jr., 57, tentatively scheduled for trial in June 2021 if the case is not for a second time continued.
Schweikert, facing two felony aggravated animal cruelty charges and 25 misdemeanor cruelty to animal charges, has been involved in a variety of litigation against Citrus County agencies for nearly 20 years, much of which had nothing to do with animals.
At least two of the cases ended in substantial judgements or settlements in Schweikert’s favor. That history may have something to do, indirectly, with how Out of the Box Rescue evolved into a community issue.
So might the stated nonprofit mission of Out of the Box Rescue: to “pull any dog off of death row. Regardless of the breed, temperament, age, or size of the dog. This will alleviate the existing stress on the shelter system.”
For two years, from 2017 into early 2019, Out of the Box Rescue pulled dogs, mostly pit bulls, from Citrus County Animal Services, helping the agency to avoid having to euthanize dogs who might otherwise have been considered too dangerous to rehome.
During this time, and even afterward, public officials at several levels appear to have acted as enablers for Schweikert to an unusual extent.
Schweikert meanwhile shed copious tears over the pit bulls in his care in fundraising videos posted to social media, but Out of the Box Rescue never filed an IRS Form 990, and declared gross receipts and assets of zero on Form 990-N, the electronic form meant for organizations with gross receipts and assets of less than $50,000.
The apparently always problematic rescue, founded in 2017, incorporated nonprofit in 2018, was evicted from one location after another in Inverness and Floral City before the Citrus County Sheriff’s Office on January 13, 2021 arrested Schweikert on the cruelty and neglect charges.
Citrus County Animal Services quit releasing dogs to Schweikert in mid-2019, after two pit bulls escaped from the-then Out of the Box Rescue premises, killing five goats belonging to neighbor Chuck Sanders.
One might suggest that Citrus County Animal Services in effect got back the dogs Schweikert had taken, with interest.
Altogether, Citrus County Animal Services on January 13, 2021 impounded 43 dogs, a pig, and three chickens from Out of the Box Rescue, and filed a civil case seeking permanent custody of all 47 animals.
“Attacked without provocation”
After Citrus County Judge Bruce Carney agreed to the Animal Services custody request, reported Wright of the Citrus County Chronicle, “The attacking dogs [who injured the two volunteers and the shelter staff member] were euthanized.”
The euthanasias proceeded despite an appeal of the custody order reportedly filed by attorney Luke Lirot, representing Schweickert and Out of the Box Rescue.
Schweickert has more recently been represented by attorney Sean Colon, of Clearwater, Florida, according to subsequent Citrus County Chronicle reportage, and was previously represented by attorney Marcy LaHart, of Gainesville, Florida.
“The county would release neither names of those who were attacked, nor their injuries, citing privacy laws,” Wright wrote. “Incident reports have those details blotted out. But the reports show that in all three cases, the dogs attacked without provocation from either other dogs or humans.”
“Cautious about dogs from Out of the Box”
Added Wright, “Animal Services Director Colleen Yarbrough said she is cautious about dogs who come from Out of the Box, which is known for rescuing dogs deemed for euthanasia due to aggressive or biting behavior.”
Of the impounded dogs, Wright said, “One dog was euthanized for medical reasons, leaving 42 dogs for shelter staff and volunteers to care for.
“The first attack,” Wright learned from public records, “occurred on March 24, 2021,” when the apparent Rottweiler mix “attacked a shelter volunteer in an outdoor play area.”
The following day a black pit bull from Out of the Box “attacked a shelter volunteer without provocation,” Wright continued.
“The third attack was on April 3, 2021,” when a a 79-pound pit bull from Out of the Box Rescue “charged an employee in the play yard who was trying to separate two other dogs,” Wright recounted.
Allegedly did not comply with court order
Schweikert was criminally charged and the Out of the Box Rescue animals were impounded, summarized Citrus County Chronicle reporter Fred Hiers on April 30, 2021, “after deputies reported that he did not comply with a court order to allow county officials to inspect his facility and fix animal care problems.
“The arresting deputy reported that most of the rescue facility was open-air, and that there was a strong smell of feces and urine at the location,” Hiers wrote. “The arresting deputy also noted some animals did not appear to have the county’s mandated minimum area of open space.”
Judge Carney at a February 2021 hearing found Scheickert “unable and unfit to care for animals,” Hiers continued, following testimony by the Citrus County Sheriff’s Office animal control unit supervisor that dogs at Out of the Box Rescue “had no water, no food, and had eaten the drywall and insulation out of the walls.
“A sheriff’s office animal control officer testified that some dogs kept indoors had no lights, no power, and no ventilation,” Hiers added.
“The county’s animal services chief veterinarian testified that 20 dogs were underweight, 10 dogs were emaciated, and two dogs suffered from painful infected wounds caused by shocking bark collars, two dogs suffered from painful, untreated ear infections, 18 dogs had heartworms, which are life threatening if not treated, one dog needed hospitalization, and dozens of dogs had dirty hair, feces in their fur, and smelled bad because of inappropriate care,” Hiers summarized.
“The veterinarian also testified 13 dogs had orthopedic disease, nine were dehydrated and needed IV fluid, and eight dogs had viral and bacterial upper respiratory ailments because of their living conditions and poor air quality.”
Originally ordered to make improvements to the Out of the Box Rescue shelter in November 2020, Schweickert on January 12, 2021 allegedly failed to appear on time for a court-mandated inspection.
Kept waiting for more than an hour, a Citrus County Animal Control officer and several sheriff’s deputies “were able to gather evidence showing several violations from the outside fenced area of the rescue,” reported Brody Wooddell of WFTS television news, an ABC affiliate in Tampa.
These violations included, Wooddell said, “Several kennels left outside in the elements with no coverage, while other small kennels were found with corrugated roofs and tarps wrapped around the entire kennel, drastically restricting the airflow to the animal.”
“In addition,” recounted Wooddell, “Citrus County Fire Rescue’s Hazmat Unit responded to take air quality readings which will be forwarded for case evidence. The firefighter who took the readings attempted to enter without protective gear, but had to come back out and put on Tyvek and full breathing gear, due to the levels of ammonia in the buildings.”
Grand Theft woodworking equipment
This was scarcely Schweikert’s first brush with the law.
Wrote Tampa Bay Times reporter Kit Troyer on August 17, 1995, “The 31-year-old University of South Florida accounting and finance student from Seminole has been told to step down as president of the student government,” a post he held for two terms after running unopposed, “or he will be thrown out of school.
“Schweickert, a student at the St. Petersburg campus for two years, has a criminal past,” Troyer explained. “He has twice pleaded no contest to grand theft charges, records show, and he has been charged with stopping payment on a check to defraud its recipient.
“Some of the charges stem from transactions in Pinellas and Pasco counties in 1992,” Troyer continued, “in which Schweickert, a cabinet manufacturer, sold woodworking equipment to buyers and then, according to prosecutors, either did not deliver the equipment or stole it back.”
The University of South Florida alleged that Schweikert “failed to own up to his past fully when he applied [for admission] two years ago,” Troyer elaborated. “Schweickert mentioned only a driving infraction and said he had been put on probation.”
By 2002 Schweikert was in the contracting business.
Recounted Pat Faherty for the Riverland News, of Dunellen, Florida, “In March 2002, the city [of Dunellen] entered an agreement with Robert A. Schweickert Jr.
“He was to furnish all the materials and/or equipment and perform all the work for a city sidewalk project. But the contract between the city and Schweickert was terminated in November 2002 through a letter sent by Jim Alsobrook, Dunnellon’s city manager at that time.
“During a May 7, 2003 city council workshop, Alsobrook explained the contract had been terminated because the company did not perform as expected and was not completing the project in a timely manner.”
Schweikert submitted an invoice for $53.057.50 for work already done, as Alsobrook instructed, but was not paid until after lengthy litigation.
“The city has agreed to settle the dispute for $100,000 plus $1,130 for Schweickert’s expenses,” Faherty reported on January 6, 2010.
From 2013 to 2016 Schweickert, as publisher of a sporadic and apparently now dormant online periodical called The GroundHog News, filed multiple freedom of information requests about dealings of the Citrus County Port Authority, Citrus County Hospital Board, and the Citrus County Commission itself. The various agencies balked at fulfilling those requests.
Schweikert eventually won access to the documents in question, and in June 2016 won an award of attorneys’ fees as well from a three-judge panel of the 5th District Court of Appeal.
Just under a year later, in May 2017, the Inverness City Council reportedly agreed to allow Out of the Box Rescue to use a city-owned building that was slated for demolition rent-free, as a “pet adoption and learning center.”
Out of the Box Rescue appears to have avoided public controversy for about eight months. On January 14, 2018, however, Schweikert found a pit bull “dead, hung during the night by the leash she was wearing,” wrote Citrus County Chronicle reporter Mike Wright.
Alleged caller Evelyn Herbert, who said she relayed a text message from an Out of the Box Rescue volunteer to the Citrus County Sheriff’s Office, “I had thought they’d come forward and be honest with the public but they’re trying to hide what happened.”
But whatever happened, Citrus County Animal Control supervisor Lora Peckham concluded that the death was accidental, and that no laws were broken.
“Why should we get involved?”
The city of Inverness was by June 4, 2018 trying to get Out of the Box Rescue out of the building, and trying also to get payment of a delinquent balance of $457 for water and sewer service at the property.
Out of the Box Rescue did not actually relocate until December 2018. Neighbor Ashby Nelson reportedly supplied water to the makeshift shelter.
Citrus County commissioner Scott Carnahan argued that the county government should not become involved.
“As far as I’m concerned, the county should not be involved at all in the eviction or whatever’s happening,” Carnahan told Citrus County Chronicle reporter Carly Zervis.
“If they’re feeding and watering and taking care of the dogs,” Carnahan asked, “why should we get involved?”
One obvious answer might have been that Citrus County Animal Services had apparently released to Schweikert most of the dogs then in Out of the Box Rescue custody.
Another obvious answer might have been that Citrus County Animal Services had a statutory duty to enforce the same applicable animal care and control laws that Schweikert is now charged with violating, and that timely intervention might have kept a bad situation from getting worse.
Got the boot three times in three months
Just ahead of eviction from the Inverness site, Schweikert “moved the rescue to a storefront in Floral City,” Citrus County Chronicle reporter Mike Wright wrote, “but the owner of that property also sued for eviction, claiming Schweickert changed the locks prior to any lease being signed and before the owner had decided not to rent to Schweickert.
“Before a judge could set an eviction deadline,” Wright continued, “Schweickert in early February 2019 moved the rescue to the former FDS Disposal site on S.R. 44 in Lecanto. Not long after moving in, two dogs named Jack and Jill escaped from the rescue, killing five of a neighbor’s goats.”
Goat owner Chuck Sanders photographed Jack and Jill, the two pit bulls who allegedly did the killing. That was the incident that ended the transfer of dogs from the Citrus County Animal Shelter to Schweickert.
Meanwhile, Wright added, “William Ray, former owner of FDS Disposal Inc., is asking a judge to remove Out of the Box Rescue and its president, Robert Schweickert Jr., from the former FDS site.”
No lease, no liability insurance
Wrote Wright, “Defendants have no lease, agreement to lease or any other legal right to occupy or possess the premises,” the lawsuit states.
Ray contended that Schweickert had never paid “the proper rent,” and had not provided “proof of liability insurance,” Wright detailed.
Eventually, Wright said, “Ray placed a no-trespassing sign on the locked entry gate. The next day, May 11, 2019, Schweickert ‘drove through the locked gate’ and retook possession of the property, the lawsuit states. Along with eviction,” Wright noted, “Ray is asking a judge to order Schweickert to pay double the rent for the time he has occupied the property.”
Schweickert was evicted from the former FDS Disposal site in June 2019.
Then, Wright followed up, “Citrus County officials asked the sheriff’s office to issue a trespass warning” to Schweickert , ordering him to stay away from the Citrus County Animal Shelter.
“Out of the Box Rescue is now occupying space in a small office building in Inverness that is owned by the Florida Department of Transportation, according to interviews and public records,” Wright explained. “A former tenant, Paul Furman, said he gave the key to Schweickert a month or so ago at the direction of the Florida Department of Transportation, which told him it had a lease with Schweickert.”
Threats, but did not commit a crime?
Schweickert, Wright noted, “has two cases pending in court over three dogs being held at the animal shelter for attacks on humans or other animals.
“According to Commissioner Brian Coleman and Community Services Director Tobey Phillips, a volunteer for both Out of the Box Rescue and the animal shelter said Schweickert called her and threatened shelter director Colleen Yarbrough and the staff.
“Schweickert reportedly told the volunteer that if he had a firearm he would shoot Yarbrough and the staff, Coleman and Phillips said.
Further, Wright reported, “Phillips said Schweickert has shown up at the shelter since the county stopped providing animals to Out of the Box. She said he has sat in his car, in the shelter parking lot, waiting to speak with her or Yarbrough.”
In response, Phillips told Wright, “No employee stays late alone and Yarbrough lets someone know when she’s leaving for the day.”
But Coleman told Wright, Wright wrote, that Schwecikert did not commit a crime if he made a threat over the phone.
Florida law disagrees:
“836.05 Threats; extortion—Whoever, either verbally or by a written or printed communication…maliciously threatens an injury to the person, property or reputation of another, …shall be guilty of a felony of the second degree, punishable as provided in s. 775.082, s. 775.083, or s. 775.084.”