The Donaldson twins only had their puppy a few months, but already they were in a routine: They’d mope their way to the school bus in the morning, leaving a sad Reilly behind, and they’d rush back home in the afternoon, full of hugs and horseplay for the champagne-colored Wheaten terrier pup.
This fall was different. Reilly was gone, and Sean and Brian, the 9-year-old boys from Farmingdale, Long Island, had little hope of getting him back.
But on Nov. 13, a Suffolk County Supreme Court judge ordered the breeders who had seized the Donaldsons’ dog-the very breeders who had sold them the pup in the first place-to return Reilly to the Donaldson home.
Whether that happens is another matter. John and Mary Ann Donaldson-the twins’ parents, who brought suit against the breeders-have no idea where Reilly is now. They don’t know whether the breeders, Walter and Diane Lenowicz, still have their now-18-month-old dog, or whether they’ve sold Reilly to another family. Their victory, like others won against the Lenowiczes, may be pyrrhic.
But the evidence is piling up-much to the embarrassment of the extremely prim members of the dog-breeding and dog-show worlds-that the Lenowiczes have been fiercely cofrontational with some of those who’ve purchased their highly coveted dogs. The Observer , which first reported last spring the Lenowiczes’ unusual practice of invoking a questionable clause in their sales contracts to take back the dogs they’ve sold, has learned of four cases, including the Donaldsons’. And a check of public records and interviews reveals a number of financial and legal matters involving the Long Island couple, two of which, in the last two months alone, have ended unfavorably for them.
One was the Donaldsons’ case, which has yet to go to a jury. But Judge Thomas Whelan of Suffolk County issued a preliminary order to return Reilly to the family that had paid $1,500 for him and taken him into their home and, of course, their hearts. The case is expected to go before a jury in the coming months, which will also hear the copious counterclaims the Lenowiczes have filed.
The second case involved an unusual victory by two California breeders who were sued by Ms. Lenowicz, but instead won on all of their counterclaims in the suit. The judge ruled in that case that Ms. Lenowicz had to pay the breeders almost $20,000, and he also dismissed all of the Lenowiczes’ original claims.
In that case, according to witnesses, the judge noted from the bench that as many as seven other cases were pending in Suffolk County courts involving the Lenowiczes. Though it appeared that only one of them involved Wheatens, the judge pulled copies of them all to review whether they should all be tried in a single courtroom, possibly his. (No conclusion has yet been reached.)
Despite extensive efforts, the Lenowiczes could not be reached for comment. At press time, it was not clear where they were living, hampering efforts to get their side of the story, and also impeding the efforts of their legal combatants to serve notices and enforce judgments against them. While last spring they could be reached at a number in Bayport, Long Island, that number no longer works. The Lenowiczes have recently offered post-office boxes as their legal address in court; when asked in court for a street address, they offered one, said Bryan Holzberg, a lawyer for the California breeders, and Ed Troy, the Donaldsons’ lawyer, but the address turned out to be fictitious.
The most recent lawyer of record for the Lenowiczes, Martin Efman, did not return calls placed to his Long Island office. Nor were messages to Jennifer Boch, an associate at the firm who was working with the Lenowiczes, returned. A message left for John Huber, who represented the Lenowiczes in earlier proceedings, has also gone unanswered.
But the Lenowiczes were very vocal last spring, defending their practice of taking back pups that, they claimed, were not being properly maintained. They said they had sold more than 50 puppies in the last six years, and have had problems with only a handful of buyers. Indeed, Ms. Lenowicz supplied The Observer with almost 20 testimonials from people who had bought dogs from her over the years, as well as from trainers and others she’s worked with. Although she blacked out the names, it’s clear that the Lenowiczes had many satisfied customers.
Then, of course, there are the Donaldsons. They haven’t seen Reilly since February, when they left the then-10-month-old puppy to be groomed overnight at the Lenowiczes’ home. On the day they were supposed to pick the dog up, they called the Lenowiczes four times, they said, and did not hear back until the following day.
Mr. and Ms. Donaldson assured Brian and Sean that the dog would be coming home soon-after all, why would the breeder who whelped the pup hold onto him? But according to the Donaldsons, Ms. Lenowicz told them the dog was “mouthing” (the euphemism that dog-show people use for biting), and that she wanted to work on his behavior for a week.
After four more nights without Reilly, the Donaldsons said that on Feb. 15 they got a phone call from Ms. Lenowicz accusing them of abusing the dog and of not maintaining Reilly’s coat or weight.
“She said she was afraid for our children,” Ms. Donaldson explained in April, a note of incredulity ringing in her voice. “[She said] we would not be getting the dog back.”
After several weeks of phone calls back and forth, the Donaldsons were getting impatient-and desperate. The twins were asking about Reilly every day. Ms. Lenowicz made a final offer: She would refund $500 to the Donaldsons and agree not to sue them-for breach of the sale contract-if they would walk away.
“Listen, you can go ahead and try to spend a lot of money to get your dog back,” Ms. Donaldson said Ms. Lenowicz told her. “But you’re not getting the dog back.”
‘What Some People Sign!’
The Donaldsons tested Ms. Lenowicz’s prophecy, filing suit in Suffolk County State Supreme Court in April seeking Reilly’s return. But the situation is sticky because of the sales contract that the Donaldsons-like others before them-had signed.
Though the Donaldsons paid $1,500 for Reilly, Ms. Lenowicz was listed in the contract as a “co-owner.” Should the dog be of a high enough quality to compete, Ms. Lenowicz would be able to show the dog, walking away with the prestige of having bred a prize winner. According to the contract, the buyer would share show expenses, but would get to take home the ribbon.
The catch-one that the Lenowiczes have apparently invoked at least four times now-was that the buyer had to maintain the pup in prize-winning condition. As the unhappy buyers have since found out, it was left up to the Lenowiczes to determine exactly what that was.
“It’s amazing what some people sign!” said an officer of the Soft Coated Wheaten Terrier Club of America who asked not to be named, citing the fact that the Lenowiczes are not members of their club (which is the official Wheatens group recognized by the larger American Kennel Club association).
According to the officer, the controversial clause is common, though rarely invoked-except, apparently, by the Lenowiczes.
Neal Hirschfeld, a Manhattan writer who bought a Wheaten from the Lenowiczes last year, learned that the hard way, as did Pam Friedman, a New York literary agent with grown children. In both cases, they-like the Donaldsons-temporarily left their puppies with the Lenowiczes, believing that they were leaving their precious new additions in the most nurturing environment possible, and then were told that they wouldn’t be getting the dogs back.
The Hirschfelds obtained an order of seizure and, with two sheriff’s deputies, removed their dog Frankie from the Lenowiczes’ Suffolk County home. (“Our Elián Gonzáles,” said Mr. Hirschfeld, who wrote about the incident in a New Yorker’s Diary in the March 26 Observer. ) The Hirschfelds and Lenowiczes sued each other, and in September 2000, a Suffolk County judge ruled that Frankie belonged with the Hirschfelds.
The judge in the Donaldsons’ case found similarly in his preliminary judgment.
“The contract was for the sale of the dog to [the Donaldsons],” Judge Whelan of Suffolk County State Supreme Court wrote simply, “which vested in them the rights of ownership. Thus, they are entitled to the return of Reilly to their home.”
The rest of the Donaldsons’ claims-and the Lenowiczes’ counterclaims, which argue, startlingly, that the Donaldsons did not want Reilly back in the first place, and accuse Ms. Donaldson of slander for comparing Ms. Lenowicz to 101 Dalmations villainness Cruella De Vil in The Observer in April-have yet to be tested in court. But the preliminary judgment seems to show that judges are unwilling to interpret their contracts the way the Lenowiczes would like.
The Lenowiczes’ legal battles began almost from the moment they began to breed Wheaten terriers, the cute, teddy-bear-like pups who have special allure because they shed little and their coats are unlikely to trigger allergies. In 1998, Ms. Lenowicz sued Robert Hale and Jon Caliri, a pair of California breeders from whom the Lenowiczes bought their first prize-winning Wheaten bitch, Cassidy.
The suit, obtained by The Observer , outlines a series of grievances largely based on what Ms. Lenowicz claimed was the California breeders’ failure to assist in breeding Cassidy with a local dog of acceptable quality. An initial default judgment in Ms. Lenowicz’s favor-the California breeders said they didn’t know the suit had been filed-was overturned, and protracted negotiations commenced.
Finally, Messrs. Caliri and Hale almost reached a settlement agreement with the Lenowiczes earlier this year, said their lawyer, Bryan Holzberg of Melville, Long Island. But, he said, Ms. Lenowicz put an abrupt halt to the proceedings.
The case went before a jury in State Supreme Court in Suffolk County on Oct. 11; eight days later, the jury returned a verdict denying all of Ms. Lenowicz’s claims and affirming all of Messrs. Caliri and Hale’s counterclaims. The jury found that it was Ms. Lenowicz, not the California breeders, who had breached the contract, and ordered Ms. Lenowicz to compensate them nearly $20,000.
Meanwhile, in the American Kennel Club’s monthly Gazette , Gay Dunlap, vice president of the Soft Coated Wheaten Terrier Club of America, wrote of a “debacle on the East Coast” that “gives testimony to the agony some breeders will put their [buyers] through for the sake of a champion.” She spoke of the owners of a soft-coated Wheaten terrier who left the pup with a breeder while they went on vacation, echoing The Observer ‘s description of the Friedmans’ motives for leaving their dog Casey with the Lenowiczes: “They reasoned that no one else would be better qualified to care for their beloved pup.” The piece goes on to describe in detail the same negotiations that the Hirschfelds and Friedmans went through to retrieve their pups.
“It’s time to take a cold, hard look at this frenzied need-this race-to produce the most champions,” Ms. Dunlap wrote, insinuating that breeders like the Lenowiczes were giving dog-show people a bad name.
The association’s president would not comment for the record, though she said that she was “aware” of The Observer ‘s coverage of the case.
Shortly after the American Kennel Club rescinded awards won by two of the Lenowiczes’ dogs-a move Ms. Lenowicz attributed in April to a misunderstanding-Ms. Lenowicz’s membership in the Soft Coated Wheaten Terrier Club was rejected, according to sources there, although they would not say why.
Ms. Lenowicz has said that this doesn’t bother her; after all, she said, she’s known breeders who are members who have sold diseased pups. “It kind of makes you lose respect,” she told The Observer . Nonetheless, when another breeder-a member of the Wheaten Terrier Club who asked not to be identified-informed the A.K.C. of irregularities in the Lenowiczes’ show dogs, the Lenowiczes had their lawyer, Mr. Huber, write to the woman. The letter demanded that she “cease and desist from making any and all defamatory statements” regarding the Lenowiczes “to avoid legal action.”
(Mr. Huber has since resigned as the attorney of record for the Lenowiczes, having told the court in the middle of the Caliri and Hale proceedings that he could not continue representing the couple until he received his retainer. Thomas Quinn, a partner of Mr. Huber’s in Birzon, Quinn, Strang & Huber in Smithtown, Long Island, was also recently allowed to stop representing Ms. Lenowicz in a personal-injury case arising out of a Halloween 1996 rear-end collision in Brooklyn, after he told a Suffolk County judge that “Ms. Lenowicz is not being truthful with the Court” and referred to “ongoing difficulties which have existed between this office and her throughout the various legal matters we have represented her on.”)
The Lenowiczes have also been involved in a prolonged dispute with a Manhattan buyer who wanted to give her dog back. In still another case, an owner who contacted The Observer said that she’d had an experience similar to the Friedmans, Hirschfelds and Donaldsons, but had gotten her dog back in early April and didn’t want to speak about it.
Reilly, Come Home
Meanwhile, the Donaldsons are trying to keep their twins’ spirits up without giving them false hopes. Several witnesses during a motion hearing in the Donaldson case heard Ms. Lenowicz say-though not in an affidavit or under oath-that she had already resold Reilly to another family.
The prospect of reclaiming Reilly from another home has Mr. Donaldson in knots. But then, he said, he thinks of his boys and what they’ve been through.
“We love this dog,” he said. “I don’t want to put someone else through all this, but you know what? I’m gonna have to.”
Follow Tom McGeveran via RSS.