The American Kennel Club's pedophile problem

The girl was 14 and attending a Dallas dog show. She and her family were talking to a prominent handler and longtime family friend, Adam Wilkerson, 31, when he asked her to help him get coffee for the group. Instead, he brought her to an empty hall closet and instructed her to touch his exposed penis.

She began working as Wilkerson's assistant a few months later. She'd been showing dogs since she was a toddler, her mother told Business Insider. Working for Wilkerson, whose dogs had won awards including best of breed at the lauded Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, seemed like a natural step to achieving the girl's ambition of becoming a professional dog handler.

The dog-show circuit brought them back to Dallas later that summer. This time, the girl was staying in a hotel room with Wilkerson and his girlfriend, also a professional dog handler. Wilkerson emerged from the shower and forced the girl to perform oral sex on him, according to court records. His girlfriend was asleep on the bed.

By the end of the summer, Wilkerson was charged with sexually assaulting the girl across five counties, mostly at dog shows, according to court documents reviewed by BI. He confessed to several assaults, pleaded guilty to indecency with a child, and served 12 years in prison.

He was required to register as a lifetime sex offender when he was released in 2020. He couldn't live near schools or playgrounds and was prohibited from holding certain jobs. But he continued showing dogs.

He was often at the same dog shows as the girl, now an adult, her mother said.

"We'd come to shows and he'd show up, and clubs would have his grooming setup literally 60 feet away from her, weekend after weekend," the mother recalled. "You could toss a ball and smack him." The girl was "terrified," her mother said, that Wilkerson might approach her.

BI does not publish the names of victims of sexual abuse without their consent. The girl declined to comment. Her mother asked not to be named to protect her daughter's identity. Their identities are known to BI.

The mother contacted the American Kennel Club, the organization that oversees most dog shows in the country. The AKC helps local kennel clubs enforce rules about conduct and animal treatment. It routinely bars people from participating in dog shows or, crucially for some dog breeders, registering their dogs with the AKC for violating rules about conduct, recordkeeping, or animal abuse.

But when the mother asked the AKC whether it could stop Wilkerson from attending events, the group's response, she said, amounted to a shrug. The AKC's reply was that it's just a "registry organization," meaning it exists to keep canine-breeding records.

The message she took was that the AKC believed protecting her daughter was less important than protecting Wilkerson.

Wilkerson died in March. But his was not an isolated case. For decades, members of the dog-handling community have clamored for the AKC to take action to prevent the sexual abuse of children, and they say their pleas have fallen on deaf ears.

BI identified three other dog-show professionals — a handler, a breeder, and a former AKC employee — who were convicted of crimes against children. None were suspended by the AKC or local clubs, meaning they could return to the sport if they chose. Two of them did so.

As similarly situated organizations have taken measures meant specifically to protect child participants — including instituting background checks for people who work with children, barring people who have been convicted of crimes against children from membership, and publishing guidelines on unsupervised interactions between children and adults — the AKC failed to intervene, critics say, pleading that it was powerless to bar people accused or convicted of child abuse from participating in its events.

At the same time, it enforces strict discipline for infractions such as using curse words at a dog show and sometimes requires members to pay a $500 deposit to lodge a complaint about behavior.

The organization has only recently begun adopting policies to protect children, including expanding the number of people who take mandatory training on child-abuse awareness.

It's also considering an "extensive personal conduct policy designed to cover all manner of criminal behavior," a spokesperson, Brandi Hunter Munden, wrote in response to a request for comment, adding: "This policy will address cases where individuals alleged to have engaged in conduct that is illegal, violent, dangerous, or damages the reputation of others in the sport, and will allow AKC to bar individuals from the sport for that conduct."

Munden declined to share the draft policy with BI and did not answer a question about when it would be implemented.

The AKC markets dog shows as family-friendly events. Children as young as toddlers compete in junior handler divisions. Young teens eyeing a career in the sport often apprentice to professional handlers, a role that can put them in unsupervised proximity to the handler for days or weeks at a time.

But a string of convictions and arrests for handlers and judges has given many in the dog-show world pause.

A handler, Andrew Mansfield, was charged in 2018 with sexually assaulting the 14-year-old daughter of a client at a dog show in Michigan. He left the state before police could execute a warrant for his arrest and continued to show dogs for a year before he was apprehended at a dog show in Florida. He pleaded guilty in 2020 to one count of criminal sexual conduct.

Mansfield spent a year in jail and is serving five years of supervised release, the terms of which limit his interaction with children. He wasn't barred by the AKC or local clubs for his conduct and briefly returned to showing dogs at events overseen by the AKC after his conviction, he confirmed to BI.

In the world of dog shows, "I think there's a lot more that goes on than people ever know or realize," Mansfield said, "from drugs to abuse and anything else."

Mansfield may not have been censured by the AKC for his assault conviction, but he was briefly suspended from showing dogs in 2014 for a different reason: During a show in Louisiana, his dogs damaged a hotel room, prompting a local kennel club to bar him from events for three months and fine him $500.

The AKC was "not made aware" of Mansfield's 2020 conviction, Munden said, adding: "We can only investigate and act upon information that is reported to us."

A Pekingese breeder and handler, Walter Palmerino, was convicted in Massachusetts in 2008 of possessing child-sexual-abuse material. Since his release from prison, he has continued to breed and show dogs in Florida.

While Munden said he wasn't using the AKC's "services at the time of the arrest or conviction," show results indicate he was breeding and exhibiting dogs while his trial was ongoing. When contacted by BI, Palmerino said he's "no threat to anyone," adding: "I don't have children. I don't know children. I'm not around children. I show my dogs and get out of there, and that's it."

A retired American Kennel Club judge, field representative, and breeder, John Cathcart McCartney, was charged in 2014 with molesting three sisters, all under the age of 12. According to court documents, the girls would play with his show dog, Oscar, when they went over to his house, where McCartney made them touch his penis in exchange for candy and other treats.

But in the gossip pages of Dog News, a weekly magazine widely read by show-dog enthusiasts, McCartney's arrest was portrayed as a tragic misunderstanding by the former columnist and editor in chief Eugene Zaphiris.

"Hopefully, this will all work out in John's favor," Zaphiris wrote. Zaphiris did not respond to numerous requests for comment.

McCartney was convicted to life in prison plus 17 years in February after a decade of delays in his trial. An attorney for McCartney declined to comment. The AKC did not receive any complaints about McCartney before his arrest, Munden said, and he passed a background check before he began working for the organization in the early 2000s.

As a retired field representative, McCartney is entitled to receive a pension from the AKC. It's not clear whether he's still paid by the organization.

Two high-profile accusations in March have also rocked the sport. Adam Stafford King, a veterinary ophthalmologist and prominent AKC judge, was arrested on one charge of distributing child-sex-abuse materials. Federal prosecutors claim King also discussed raping a 4-year-old, abusing his toddler-aged niece and nephew after drugging them with Benadryl, and sexually abusing the child he and his husband were expecting via a surrogate.

A week later, Wisconsin police arrested Jacob Boudreau, a dog handler and groomer, charging him with 12 counts of possessing child-sexual-abuse material. Police said they found Snapchat messages with fantasies of having sex with his friend's 5-year-old son, as well as images of sex acts performed on his dog.

King has pleaded not guilty and is "committed to fighting these charges until his name is cleared," his attorney said in a statement, adding: "We look forward to a swift trial where the facts will demonstrate Mr. King's innocence and that he has been wrongfully accused."

Boudreau also intends to plead not guilty, his attorney said.

The AKC "did not condone or participate in any of the actions of these bad characters," Munden wrote in her statement. The AKC is "not always privileged to a person's private legal matters," she added, saying: "AKC advises individuals that they can contact law enforcement if they believe an individual is unlawfully at an AKC event."

The American Kennel Club is not your average, resource-strapped not-for-profit.

Founded in 1884, the organization brought in over $100 million in revenue in 2022, according to the most recent year tax filings are available. Its president and CEO's total compensation in 2022 was $1.3 million. Its headquarters occupy the entire floor of a building on Manhattan's Park Avenue next to Grand Central Terminal.

The bulk of the organization's income comes from the dog-show community, in the form of event and registration fees paid by local kennel clubs and breeders. But it also generated roughly $20 million in advertising, media sponsorships, and royalties in 2022, including from pet-food brands such as Royal Canin, Purina, and Eukanuba. The AKC also has media deals with ABC and ESPN to air exclusive dog-show content.

Four affiliated nonprofits — AKC Reunite, the AKC Canine Health Foundation, the AKC Museum of the Dog, and the AKC Humane Fund — have annual combined revenues of about $20 million. (A fifth affiliated nonprofit, the AKC Purebred Preservation Bank, was established last year; its revenues could not be determined.)

Mars Inc., which owns Royal Canin and Eukanuba, did not respond to a request for comment; neither did Purina. ABC and ESPN declined to comment.

Munden told BI the AKC was blindsided by the charges against King and Boudreau. Their alleged conduct "did not occur in the sport or at an event," she said.

"The entire American Kennel Club Board of Directors and staff condemn alleged criminal conduct by any participant in our sports, and we will continue to examine ways to strengthen our oversight," Dennis Sprung, the AKC's president, wrote last month in an open letter published in The Canine Chronicle and Dog News. "We are committed to the well-being of every fancier, young or old, and will investigate every complaint that is received."

The arrests, though, have galvanized — and divided — parts of the dog-show community.

In an op-ed in Dog News in late March, Margaret Poindexter, the AKC's former general counsel, excoriated what she described as the AKC's "pathetic, pasty, paltry pablum" of a response to King's and Boudreau's arrests.

Another camp advises caution. "Making quick decisions based on current events is not the way to develop good, lasting policy," Deb Cooper, a dog-show gossip columnist who has judged some AKC events, wrote in The Canine Chronicle.

In addition to the pages of dog-specialist magazines, battle lines have been drawn in raucous Facebook groups, some established years ago to share intelligence — and gossip — about bad breeders and bad judges. Dog handlers, fed up with what they see as the AKC's complacency, have compiled lists of people in the community who have been accused or convicted of child-abuse-related crimes. Others have shared stories on social media of abuse and harassment at the hands of judges and handlers.

The debate is taking place as kennel clubs try to entice younger children to show dogs. Many dog shows include competitions for junior handlers, including a "Pee Wee" division for kids under the age of 10. In recent years, some clubs have introduced events for children under the age of 5. Instead of showing dogs, they show their stuffed animals.

Many longtime dog handlers started as children, according to interviews with a dozen people involved in the sport. Teenagers who want to work as dog handlers apprentice as assistants, a sometimes unpaid position that involves long hours and days or weeks on the road.

Munden, the AKC spokesperson, said the organization "does not encourage nor promote minor children traveling to dog shows without a parent or legal guardian" and that parents were responsible for overseeing their children's participation in the sport.

Many people involved in the sport take pains to protect children, in part through a vigilant whisper network, longtime handlers told BI.

One dog handler and AKC judge, who asked to remain anonymous as they were not authorized by the organization to speak with the media, said that as a child showing dogs, it was apparent to them that some adults in the dog-show community found young girls sexually attractive. "I was probably 13 or 14 when I understood that," this person said. "You'd see older men take an interest and it was like, 'Why'd you put your arm around me?'"

Anonymous AKC judge and handler

Children who want to work in the sport professionally aim to work for handlers who have led their clients' dogs to the winner's podium, Ashley Miller, a Texas handler who apprenticed to dog handlers as a teenager, said.

At dog shows, professional handlers "flirt; they give compliments," Miller said, adding: "These girls think, 'He wins,' and they want to win too. If you're with someone who wins, you have a leg up."

The AKC, local kennel clubs, and dog-show participants have overlooked or minimized dynamics that can enable child abuse in the sport, Carissa Shimpeno, a professional dog handler, said.

Shimpeno's mother was also a professional dog handler. When Shimpeno was in third grade, one of her mother's clients began sexually abusing her, Shimpeno said, adding that the abuse lasted for years.

Shimpeno's mother "really relied" on her abuser's business, Shimpeno recalled, saying: "That fact was used against me. It made it very complicated. I didn't want to mess up our security." Shimpeno last month helped found a group, Show-Safe, dedicated to expanding the reach of child-abuse awareness training in the dog-show community.

The AKC appears to be listening to its critics and says it's taking reasonable steps to protect children involved in the sport.

In addition to announcing its forthcoming behavior policy, the AKC mandated in April that staff, registered handlers, judges, and local clubs' youth coordinators take a two-hour training from the nonprofit Darkness to Light on recognizing and preventing child sexual abuse. Previously, only AKC staff and registered handlers, a group of about 350 people, had been required to take a similar training.

The group also recommended that children and their parents in the dog-show community take training from the national nonprofit SafeSport for Kids and temporarily suspended King and Boudreau from participating in AKC events.

Such steps are major improvements over the organization's historically anemic response to allegations of abuse and assault, Mary Dukes, a breeder and dog-show judge, said. Dukes is also a former AKC employee; in 2021, she persuaded the AKC to roll out SafeSport training for registered handlers.

"Any movement is a step in the right direction," Dukes said. "I'm happy that they've made a big public start because they've been hesitant to do that in the past."

In her experience, the AKC has been reluctant to step beyond its role as a repository of dog genealogical data to police the conduct of people in the dog-show community, Dukes added. The organization has faced similar criticism from animal-rights groups who have said it should take a firmer stand against animal cruelty and high-volume dog-breeders, with the AKC similarly pleading that it's not a law-enforcement agency.

Others in the sport have already gone beyond the AKC.

A breed club dedicated to a rare North African sight hound, the Sloughi, recently barred people convicted of certain crimes from membership and began requiring background checks for judges, moves it positioned in a public statement as a response to the two recent arrests. Florida's West Volusia Kennel Club announced last year it would no longer allow convicted sex offenders to participate in its dog shows, a change spearheaded by Susan Shephard, the chair of the club's shows, after she said she encountered Palmerino, the Pekingese breeder who was convicted of possession of child sex abuse material, "bold as brass, wheeling his Pekingese ringside" at a dog show.

Susan Shephard, show chair of Florida's West Volusia Kennel Club

Shephard said the rule hadn't been difficult to enforce. If someone comes to her with a screenshot from a state or national sex-offender registry, she will bar the offender from the show, she said.

"I'm over this being swept under the rug," she said.

But the response hints at the difficulty the AKC and other clubs may face if they attempt to implement similar rules. Palmerino said he's in the process of drawing up a lawsuit against the AKC and Shephard for barring him from shows.

"I have some of the top Pekes in the country," and his breeding program has taken a hit, Palmerino said.

Compared with similar organizations, the AKC's existing policies around protecting children from sexual abuse are notably lax. The youth farming and animal-husbandry club 4-H, which has branches across the country, requires volunteers to undergo criminal background checks before they're authorized to work with children. So do the Boy Scouts and many church groups, changes implemented after decades of unaddressed child sexual abuse resulted in damaging media coverage and expensive lawsuits. After child-abuse accusations against a prominent trainer became New York Times headlines in 2018, the US Equestrian Federation announced strict guidelines barring children from unsupervised, one-on-one time with trainers and massage therapists.

In its statement, the AKC disputed that it lacked a process for dealing with inappropriate behavior.

"For decades, the AKC has had measures in place to bar people from the sport for conduct regarding the treatment of dogs or conduct that occurs while at an AKC event that is prejudicial to the sport," Munden wrote, adding that the organization's bylaws allowed people to submit complaints to the board.

But submitting a complaint can come with a hefty price tag: a $500 deposit, which the organization keeps if the complaint is found to be unsubstantiated, according to the AKC's regulations.

Munden said the group wasn't a stickler about the fee. If someone submits a complaint to the organization without a deposit, they may choose to open an investigation anyway, she said.

But having such a rule in the organization's bylaws disincentivizes speaking up about abuse, Tonda Curry, who shows toy fox terriers, said — particularly in light of a common perception that the AKC is an old boys' club. A county prosecutor by day, Curry has helped file complaints to the AKC about various misconduct allegations.

"It creates such a mistrust," Curry said.

When Wilkerson continued to show up at dog shows over the protests of his victim's mother, the AKC seemed to believe that law enforcement was best equipped to determine whether he could attend dog shows, not the AKC or local clubs that take their lead from it.

"Each time" a concern about Wilkerson's presence at a dog show was raised, the AKC advised the person "to contact local law enforcement as it would be their jurisdiction to determine if he was permitted to be on the show grounds or in violation of his terms," Munden said, adding: "After each interaction with law enforcement, we were subsequently advised that he was within his rights to be on the grounds."

That explanation rings hollow to some in the sport. Local clubs, following AKC rules, regularly suspend people for minor offenses such as swearing on show grounds, a review of AKC records showed.

"If you can suspend someone at a dog show for telling someone else to fuck off, which they can, and we can tell them they can't go to the dog shows for six months, it seems like you should be able to suspend someone who's been convicted of a sexual offense against a child," Dukes, the former AKC employee, said. "It seems to track."

Paige McCarver, an Arizona dog groomer who has bred and shown dogs, has experience with what she perceives as a double standard: She was suspended for three months and fined $300 when a spectator saw her trip over one of her dogs, but when she told the AKC that a judge had commented on "how full and luscious my breasts were" and "how good would they taste in his mouth," the organization took no action, apart from privately warning the judge that such behavior was unacceptable, according to correspondence McCarver shared with BI.

Munden said that though people raised concerns about Wilkerson being at dog shows, the organization was never specifically asked to suspend him from the sport. "If a formal complaint was made to AKC regarding revoking his privileges to show dogs at AKC events overall, we would have considered it," she said.

Shortly after Wilkerson's release, Curry started a petition asking the AKC to ban registered sex offenders from show grounds. The petition garnered nearly 2,800 signatures.

Curry is sympathetic, she said, to the argument that once someone has served their time, they should be allowed to reenter society. She's worked in the criminal-justice system for 34 years, including as a defense attorney.

But she supports barring people convicted of crimes against children from participating in dog shows.

"Are we punishing them for life? Maybe we are," Curry said. "But we're also trying to protect kids."

The mother of Wilkerson's former assistant said she's certain her daughter was not Wilkerson's only victim. After Wilkerson's arrest, her daughter asked her to contact the parents of five other girls she believed were abused. Those parents chose not to pursue the matter, the mother said.

"Of all the alleged victims that there could have been or were, the fact that only a 14-year-old girl had the courage to step forward and say it stops here — the courage that it takes for a child to do that, and carry that weight on her own, is incredible," her mother said. "To have to sit in the courtroom and stare at him while he stares at you. That's tough for anyone."

Meanwhile, the American Kennel Club, the mother said, showed only cowardice.

Correction: April 24, 2024 — An earlier version of this story mischaracterized the nature and publication of Dennis Sprung's statement. It was an open letter published in The Canine Chronicle and Dog News, not an article written solely for The Canine Chronicle. The story also misstated Deb Cooper's credentials. She has judged some AKC events but is not an AKC-approved judge.

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