Among the statements jurors heard last week in the trial of a suspected puppy mill operator was that the defendant was breeding dogs for the United States government.
That wasn't the case, said the former leader of a federal dog-breeding operation, but it's true that there was contact between the federal government and Stuart Earl West, who ran the Alma Bottom Pointing Labradors facility out of his town of El Paso home.
West, convicted last week of about half of the 125 misdemeanor counts he faced related to mistreatment of yellow Labradors, was being courted by a special division within the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Transportation and Safety Administration, according to the man who headed the operation until a few months ago.
Scott Thomas, former manager of the TSA's Canine Breeding and Development Center, said West's developments in pointing Labradors made his dogs a coveted potential asset for the program as it attempted to source dogs for bomb sniffing.
West's dogs were attractive to the administration, Thomas said, because of their rare ability to point at a remarkable distance and a well-roundedness that would allow them to be sociable in places like airports.
"It was amazing what he had done," Thomas said last week in a phone interview with RiverTown Multimedia. "He was quite impressive."
West's attorney, Keith Belzer, declined to comment for the story but said he is aware of Thomas and "would trust his" assessment of his interactions with West.
Originally a dog breeder, Thomas became a government contractor in 2002 to produce Labradors and Belgian Malinois dogs for the Federal Aviation Administration. He was later offered management of the TSA's breeding program, a role in which he stayed for 13 years at the Lackland Air Force Base.
He said he first heard about West in 2011 during a national conference, where an American Kennel Club official praised the Wisconsin man's work after learning Thomas was breeding Labradors. Thomas checked online resources chronicling West's Alma Bottom dogs and what he said were remarkable accomplishments in their hips, eyes and elbows. He said the homework confirmed West was a founder of the breed — "the granddaddy of the whole thing," he said.
Thomas called West and the two struck up "an immediate kinship," he said, as they discussed the craft of breeding. What struck him most was how West's dogs were bred for function over appearance and their ability to point at a great distance, thanks in part to their elongated snouts.
The ability to point isn't typical of the Labrador breed, Thomas said — labs are generally retrievers — so West's accomplishments at the time were "unheard of." He said West showed him videos of his dogs stopping cold after catching a bird scent from 1,000 feet away.
"That just isn't something that is done everyday," Thomas said.
But would that sniffing and pointing talent have translated to bomb detection? "It's all speculation," Thomas said.
He said the TSA had evolved over the past decade from package checks to airline passenger searches and sought dogs that could alert agents to someone carrying explosive material. Dogs have that ability, but most need to be close to the source in order to pick up the scent and make the alert.
That's why Thomas said a dog that could accomplish the same goal from a safe distance would have been such an asset from a tactical standpoint.
"Stu's dogs could have been helpful," he said.
Thomas said he "groomed (West) up to do business" with the agency in hopes of collecting frozen semen from an Alma Bottom stud dog that he could breed with a dog in the TSA program.
"It never materialized," Thomas said. "He had little or no interest in getting dogs to me."
He said West balked at the thought of releasing his dogs' DNA to the government without a $20,000 payment. Eventually, West told him he preferred to clone the dogs instead, Thomas said.
Eventually Thomas said he became concerned about the quality of West's operation as the Pierce County man got deeper into his raw-meat food philosophy — the one that led to a host of charges after authorities learned his labs were feeding on roadkill and fallen cattle.
He said the controversial raw-food method doesn't reconcile with genetic mutations dogs have undergone since evolving from their wild ancestors.
"The domestic dog evolved to eat our garbage, not a deer," Thomas said. "That's a wolf, not a dog."
He said he never visited West's town of El Paso facility. If he had seen the conditions that authorities found in April 2016, he said he'd have walked away.
"You can't be attached to that stuff," he said. "When it comes to dogs, you've got to be extremely cautious to be sure you're staying within the letter of the law. And he was making up his own law."
Yet in spite of West's apparent fall from grace, Thomas, who is developing a new K-9 research venture, said he hopes the punishment won't be too severe. He said he plans on writing a letter in support of probation with conditions.
"This was a good person who, somehow, made some bad choices," Thomas said. "His peers have found him to be guilty of at least half the charges. I just think we all deserve to be forgiven and to start anew."