LAS VEGAS – Animal rights advocates held signs and cursed a Las Vegas pet shop owner as she arrived at court Wednesday to face criminal charges and accusations that she conspired with an arsonist to burn her store with 27 puppies inside.
Armed marshals ushered one protester out of the Clark County Regional Justice Center after she confronted store owner Gloria Eun Hye Lee with angry words and called her despicable. The protester left the building voluntarily and wasn't charged with a crime.
"When you intentionally attempt to burn to death 27 puppies, what do you expect?" said Gina Greisen, head of Nevada Voters for Animals, an advocacy group.
Greisen said the protester was a friend and a member of the group but declined to provide her name.
In the courtroom, Lee, 35, stood silently while prosecutor Shannon Clowers asked Las Vegas Justice of the Peace Joseph Sciscento to order Lee into custody on $400,000 bail as she awaits a Feb. 24 preliminary hearing.
The judge let Lee remain free on $20,000 bail and house arrest, at least until a Friday bail hearing. Lee's defense attorneys, Tom Pitaro and Ozzie Fumo, surrendered her Korean passport.
No puppies perished in the overnight fire Jan. 27 at the Prince and Princess pet store several miles southwest of the Las Vegas Strip. Firefighters rescued the dogs and credited fire sprinklers with preventing extensive damage to the shop and surrounding strip mall.
The rescued animals were later turned over to an animal shelter where they've been photographed staring with fuzzy faces from behind kennel bars.
"I can presume she's going to go to prison for this," Clowers declared during Lee's court appearance. "This is absolutely, 100 percent egregious."
Store security video shows Lee letting a man later identified as Kirk Bills into the store a little before 1 a.m., according to court documents.
The video shows the man carrying a pair of red gasoline cans, and Lee collecting files from the store while the man splashes liquid from the cans around the floor, shelves and puppy cages and ignites the liquid with a flaming newspaper. The video could be made public at the preliminary hearing.
Each faces 31 criminal charges, including first-degree arson, conspiracy, burglary and 27 counts of attempted cruelty to animals. They could face decades in state prison if convicted.
Bills, 27, of Henderson is being sought on an arrest warrant. Attempts by The Associated Press to reach him have not been successful.
Clowers told the judge that Lee is a three-time felon with convictions in California dating to 1999 for bank theft, forgery and escape. Lee also faced criminal charges of improper animal care in 2008, and the charges were dismissed, the prosecutor said.
The judge at one point acknowledged that emotions in the case ran high. After the hearing courthouse marshals ushered Lee and Fumo out of the building through a back entrance while Pitaro faced reporters and persistent hecklers in a hallway.
Pitaro said Lee will fight the charges against her.
"I would hope the concern that's shown here could be shown for the homeless, the helpless, the hungry," the veteran defense attorney said, "instead of yelling and shouting vile comments."
The attempted cruelty charges could be tried as felonies or misdemeanors, with each carrying up to one year each in county jail. Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson said the charges reflect one count for each of the puppies that might have died in their cages before firefighters arrived.
"This case could have been much more than property damage and potential injury to puppies," Wolfson said, adding that the fire could have hurt or killed people and severely damaged adjacent stores.