A woman waited outside a courtroom Thursday until its judge called on her to enter a plea to charges she let two pet dogs starve to death in her Pekin home.


Regina Robards pleaded not guilty, then left with her attorney by a side door at the Tazewell County Courthouse to avoid a group of people who have trailed her criminal case since it was filed in early December.


Before the hearing the group, ranging from about a dozen in past appearances to six Thursday, again displayed homemade signs outside the courthouse that announced their accusations of “dog killer” and calls for harsh punishment in the case.


They sat quietly in the courtroom, however, as Robards, 43, entered her plea and Circuit Judge Paul Gilfillan scheduled a review of her case status for March 30.


It could move quickly then. Robards’ attorney, Maureen Williams of Peoria, indicated to Gilfillan she plans to meet that day with the county assistant state’s attorney prosecuting the case. Until then, Robards’ case remains on track toward trial.


She faces between probation and three years in prison if convicted of any of the four felony counts of aggravated cruelty to an animal that replaced a misdemeanor charge initially filed after her arrest.


Robards, now of South Pekin, is charged with intentionally allowing two dogs, a mastiff puppy named Walker and a mixed-breed named Sparkie, to die from lack of food and water in the home she rented last year at 1509 Howard Court.


She was arrested after her landlord found Walker dead Nov. 24 in the home. Four days later the landlord found the significantly decomposed remains of Sparkie in one of the home’s bedrooms.


Robards told the landlord she was no longer living in the home last fall but was regularly visiting it to care for Walker, according to a prosecutor’s court affidavit.


The landlord, who has regularly joined the group’s protests and attendance at Robard’s court hearings, told a prosecutor after one of them that Robards said Sparkie had died of cancer and was buried in the home’s backyard.


Robards waited outside Gilfillan’s courtroom Thursday as the group of observers joined the crowd of defendants in other cases in filling the room’s limited seating availability for the weekly schedule of case preliminary hearings.


After she entered her plea the group left and gathered in the first-floor lobby, while Robards and her lawyer lingered in the courtroom. A courthouse bailiff then led the two to a side door, typically locked and used only by authorized courthouse personnel.


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