LONDON — Becky Parsons was in a taxi from Birmingham Airport when her mother called to give her the bad news: The daughter’s two dogs had gone missing.
Before traveling to Spain for a vacation, Ms. Parsons had left them in the care of a licensed dog sitter whom she had previously trusted with her pets. But this time around the sitter replied to text messages only “hours and hours later,” she said. And when Ms. Parsons’ mother went to pick up the dogs, the sitter said told her that the animals had disappeared during a walk in the woods.
When her mother relayed the news, Ms. Parsons recalled, “Absolute panic washed over me.”
On Thursday, Birmingham Magistrates’ Court disqualified the sitter, Louise Lawford, 49, from having custody of a dog for five years and fined her nearly 3,500 pounds (more than $4,500) over animal welfare offenses. Although those offenses did not cover the dogs’ disappearance, the sentencing brought partial closure in a case that has prompted anger and sadness in Britain, even in the absence of criminal charges against her.
The case had been brought by Birmingham City Council, which accused her of nine animal welfare offenses, including having too many dogs in her care at one time. The BBC reported last week that her dog-sitting license was also revoked after the dogs went missing.
Several elements of the disappearances, which occurred last June, have piqued widespread interest in Britain. Of particular curiosity is that Ms. Parsons’ dogs — Maddie, a 6-year-old pug mix, and Pablo, a 7-year-old black pug — were not the only dogs to disappear under Ms. Lawford’s care that day. No trace of the animals has been found.
Ms. Lawford told the court on Thursday that after separating from her husband in March, she had suffered a nervous breakdown and had made the “foolish decision” to continue looking after dogs, the BBC reported.
Ms. Parsons’ mother realized that other dogs were missing when she went to look for Maddie and Pablo in the woods, near the town of Tamworth, about eight miles from Ms. Lawford’s home in central England. During that search, Ms. Parsons said in a telephone interview on Tuesday, the mother met other owners who were also trying to find their pets there.
Several of the dogs under Ms. Lawford’s care at the time had health problems: One was blind, another was deaf and a third had a deformed leg. The other two were old or timid. All of which made it hard to believe that they had run away, Ms. Parsons said.
She also said that the pet owners had discovered that the woods where Ms. Lawford had claimed to be out walking the dogs were closed for military exercises that day. And she said that Ms. Lawford changed her story about the dogs’ disappearance several times and had since avoided all contact.
The owners were stumped, Ms. Parsons said. “We thought maybe she was being blackmailed or they’d been stolen.”
That is where the case — which British news outlets have dubbed the “Tamworth Five” — took a sinister turn.
Ms. Parsons said that she received a phone call on July 30 from someone who claimed to be close to Ms. Lawford and said that the dogs were dead. The person said the call was “to put us out of our torture and misery,” Ms. Parsons said.
The owners notified the police, but the person who had made the phone call declined to speak to officers. In the absence of any bodies, the owners were told that there was not enough evidence for a criminal prosecution.
That left the council in Birmingham, which had issued Ms. Lawford’s license, to pursue the matter.
Such stories about pets in Britain tend to get outsize attention in the news media. Reports of the killing and mutilation of hundreds of cats over several years in London provoked intense interest until the mystery was solved in 2018: After a three-year investigation, the police concluded that foxes were to blame.
But the case of the Tamworth Five appears far from resolution. April Lock, whose two pugs, Ralph and Charlie, were among the dogs that disappeared under Ms. Lawford’s care, wrote of her anguish on Facebook in August. “When does it get better? When does the pain go?” she posted.
“I thought you would get the best care,” she wrote, “and here I am left with nothing but pain and sadness without you both.”
Ms. Parsons said she had found the experience traumatic. “It’s been my worst nightmare,” she said.