Family says city DART raid of North Side pet shop was excessive

Administrative warrant executed at property on Jan. 30

SAN ANTONIO – The owners of a North San Antonio pet shop claim the city was unjustified in flooding the property earlier this year with investigators from various city agencies while executing an administrative search warrant.

The Jan. 30 enforcement action at Forever Pets Inc., located in the 1000 block of Basse Road, has contributed to a tense stalemate between the family that owns the store and the city’s Dangerous Assessment Response Team (DART).

“I just think it was a waste of city dollars that they brought all these people in. It was. It was a waste of time, waste of our tax dollars, it really was,” said Vivian Louie, who has helped her elderly mother Ann Louie run the store since the late 2020 passing of Vivian’s father, Toy Louie.

City officials, meanwhile, told KSAT an extensive history of violations at the shop and the family’s refusal to come into compliance forced its DART unit to get involved.

Animal Care Services brings store to the attention of DART

“It all started with one little goldfish, with my dad bringing home a little goldfish from a carnival when I was three years old,” said Vivian Louie, during a recent interview at the offices of the attorney representing her and her store.

Toy Louie, a World War II veteran, opened Forever Pets in the early 1980s.

His intricate woodwork is still on display throughout the store, years after he passed away.

His death forced Ann and Vivian to take on larger roles at the shop, attempting to learn the ins and outs of operating the business as they went along, according to the family.

Following a records request from KSAT this spring, Animal Care Services released more than 500 records, mostly pictures, from prior enforcement actions at the store as well as complaints filed by people claiming to be customers.

One complaint stated the pets were living in “horrid conditions,” while pictures provided by ACS showed rodent droppings on the floor, piles of bird excrement at the bottom of cages, a dead seahorse and an emaciated or dead bearded dragon.

The city records confirm visits to the property by ACS investigators ramped up in regularity in early November.

ACS on Nov. 7 denied the store’s commercial permit renewal that allows it to sell pets, and ordered the owners to remove all pets from the property within 30 days, records show.

Additionally, Vivian Louie was issued four misdemeanor citations related to the care of animals and record keeping.

That same day, an ACS investigator in plain clothes had entered the store and purchased a turtle under four inches in length, telling the shop’s staff that it would be a pet for his son.

It is illegal to sell turtles under four inches in length unless they are used for educational purposes, ACS records indicate.

The ACS records include the following details about the encounter, with multiple misspellings and grammatical errors:

“After the turtle was bagged I walked to the front counter and paid for the turtle. I asked if I needed to sign anything and the woman stated that she forgot. I asked what I needed to do on the sheet and the woman stated that it doesnt matter. She stated that I could pu anyname becuase it did nt matter.”

The investigator provided fake information and was allowed to leave the store without showing ID, the records state.

“We attempted education. We attempted voluntary compliance. We came up with a roadmap to obtain that compliance so they could continue selling and it was all met with flagrant disregard,” said Savita Rai, an assistant city attorney.

The store remained open and in mid-January, received additional notices of violation from city code enforcement for issues including its plumbing and electrical, records show.

That same month, ACS investigators brought the property to the attention of DART, which has carried out enforcement actions at hundreds of properties in San Antonio since its creation in 2007.

According to past media reports, DART targets homes and other properties where criminal activity is believed to be occurring.

The property must have a history of non-compliance dating back at least two years, city officials have said.

The unit targets the worst of the worst properties in San Antonio, city officials have previously said.

“With DART it’s not just about code violations or criminal activity. It’s about the health and safety of not only persons, but of animals too,” said Rai.

Tensions flare during Jan. 30 DART visit

A magistrate judge signed an administrative search warrant for the location of Forever Pets on the morning of January 30.

Multiple property maintenance violations were listed on the warrant, a copy of which was released to KSAT by the city earlier this year.

DART investigators then descended on the property about two hours later.

The administrative search warrant filed by the city to investigate Forever Pets Inc. (KSAT)

Paul Burgess, an attorney hired by the Louie family, arrived at the store around 10:40 a.m. and began recording the enforcement action on his cell phone.

The footage shows two rows of city vehicles from multiple departments in the shop’s parking lot.

Marked San Antonio Police Department patrol vehicles were parked alongside vehicles from Animal Care Services, Development Services and the Metropolitan Health District.

Once inside the store, Burgess and assistant city attorney Eric Burns, the head of the DART unit, took part in a heated argument, the footage shows.

“Excuse me, sir, you’re not going to instruct them,” said Burns, as Burgess attempted to get city personnel who had walked away from him to identify themselves on camera.

Burns then accused Burgess of interrupting DART’s investigation multiple times.

“Mr. Burgess, again, I’m going to ask you this one more time then I’m going to ask SAPD to assist me. Do not, do not interrupt while we are doing our inspection,” said Burns.

“Dude, you need to take it down,” Burgess said on the recording.

“Sir, I don’t need to take it down. I’m doing my job and I ask that you be respectful and allow us to do their job,” replied Burns, who suggested Burgess use the zoom function on his camera to record investigators taking pictures inside the store instead of walking toward them.

After the two men argued about the city not notifying the family that DART was coming to the shop, Burns accused Burgess of interfering with city business and asked that he move outside.

Once outside, multiple city employees refused to identify themselves to Burgess, as he attempted to gather their names while he recorded them with his cell phone.

“I don’t have to give that. Open records will give you my information. You don’t need it,” an employee from Metro Health told Burgess on camera.

Rai said the response from city employees who refused to identify themselves was “probably not the best response,” but that Burgess and the family had escalated the enforcement action unnecessarily.

San Antonio Assistant City Attorney Savita Rai. (KSAT)

Vivian Louie told KSAT she counted 37 city personnel in all during the inspection.

“They scared my mother half to death. It boggled my mind that all those people were in there,” said Vivian Louie.

“We want to make a scene. We want to.”

During a November appearance before the Building Standards Board, Burns described the role DART plays in San Antonio.

“I can tell you the neighborhood, what it looks like, they are like ‘Oh my gosh, what is happening here?’ We want to make a scene. We want to. We’re dealing with one of the worst properties,” said Burns, before adding that what happens at DART stays at DART.

“We don’t tell anybody what we are doing,” Burns said during the hearing.

But during a Feb. 8 BSB hearing, that included an appeal from the Louie family that they were not properly served notice of possible violations, Burns appeared to downplay the heavy-handed enforcement aspect of the city unit.

Burns at one point said there is no such thing as a DART raid.

City officials declined to make Burns available for an interview for this story.

“They’re not raids. I think raids is a sexier word for when people speak about them. They’re inspections,” said Rai.

She acknowledged that people are often arrested during these inspections, but that SAPD officers are included in the enforcement action primarily to provide security for everyone involved.

Like the Jan. 30 enforcement action, the Feb. 8 appeal hearing was emotionally charged.

Burns repeatedly interrupted people speaking on behalf of Forever Pets, telling the board the speakers’ comments were outside the scope of whether the store was properly served.

“Are you trying to destroy this business?” asked a member of the Louie family, before Burns cut in.

Ann Louie pleaded with the board not to shut down her business.

“Please don’t make me sell the pet store,” an emotional Ann Louie said.

An emotional Ann Louie addresses the Building Standards Board Feb. 8. (KSAT)

Vivian Louie told the board the city failed to walk her and her mother through the list of violations and to physically show them what needed to be corrected.

The board voted during the Feb. 8 hearing for the six violations against the business to be upheld.

“Schedule an inspection with our electrician and our plumber so they can speak the trade language and we can pinpoint the issue and get into compliance,” Burgess told KSAT.

“How can you tell me to fix something if I don’t know exactly where to fix?” asked Vivian Louie during her interview with KSAT.

That day she showed KSAT some of the improvements made at the property, including the addition of new electrical boxes behind some of the animal enclosures.

What happens next?

Rai told KSAT during her interview that Forever Pets, which has remained open, has a right to appeal the non-renewal of their pet seller’s permit to the director of ACS.

A letter sent to Burgess by a different city attorney, however, states that there is no appeals process when a license is denied.

Asked for clarification, a city spokeswoman told KSAT, “While there may not be an appeal to the ACS director on an administrative level, Forever Pets does have the right to appeal to civil district court via common law. Simply put—the owners of Forever Pets can either follow the simpler administrative route of abating the violations and then re-applying to the Director for the sellers’ permit or they can take the route of filing an appeal in district court. It is our hope that Forever Pets chooses to simply abate the violations to ensure a safe and healthy environment for their staff and animals; and then reapply to the Director.”

“By not selling the animals while they do not have a permit to sell the animals is the first step we need to see that they do want to comply and they do want to have a thriving business,” said Rai.

Vivian Louie (right) shows KSAT improvements made to the store's electrical system. (KSAT)

Vivian Louie is scheduled to make an appearance in municipal court on April 19 on the citations she was given.

Burgess said the family could file a lawsuit against the city, describing the enforcement action as a violation of their due process.

“A widow of a World War II veteran. This is supposed to be Military City. We’re not supposed to treat veterans and their families like this. It’s despicable, it’s sickening to see it happening. We’re left with only: they want to shut down a female-owned, Chinese-American-owned family business,” said Burgess.

“That is a ridiculous assertion and the city vehemently denies that,” said Rai.

Read more reporting on the KSAT Investigates page.

About the Authors

Emmy-award winning reporter Dillon Collier joined KSAT Investigates in September 2016. Dillon's investigative stories air weeknights on the Nightbeat and on the Six O'Clock News. Dillon is a two-time Houston Press Club Journalist of the Year and a Texas Associated Press Broadcasters Reporter of the Year.

Joshua Saunders is an Emmy award-winning photographer/editor who has worked in the San Antonio market for the past 20 years. Joshua works in the Defenders unit, covering crime and corruption throughout the city.

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