Inside South Florida’s struggle again underground dog fighting

By: Brian D. Crecente

Shack died amid the discarded cans and cigarette wrappers of Northwest Second Street, his bitten and bruised body lying in the knee-high weeds of a dirt alley.

Tossed into a fighting pit with a trained and vicious dog, the pet pit bull lasted only 15 minutes. He was put there by Deroy Dawes, a Boynton Beach 19-year-old who had found the dog wandering the streets a week earlier, police say.

After the April 4 fight, Dawes told police he washed the blood from the dog’s body, walked him to a nearby house and chained him to a backyard fence, where he died hours later.

Shack’s owner found him, still chained to the fence, the same day and buried him where he lay. A week before, Alonzo Austin, also of Boynton Beach, had reported as missing the dog he had owned for all its three years.

“I couldn’t move him, I’d gone through so much,” Austin said. “For me to see my baby like that, it really hurt me.”

Police arrested Dawes Thursday on felony charges of fighting animals and animal cruelty, making him the first person in Palm Beach County to face such charges in five years.

“He told us he fought Shack because he wanted to see what he could do,” said Boynton Beach animal control officer Liz Roerich. “It’s becoming fashionable for teens to have pit bulls and fight them.”

Dogfighting, which seems prevalent in Boynton Beach, is growing throughout South Florida, police say.

“Rich folks, poor folks, smart folks, stupid folks – the only thing they all have in common is the blood lust of fighting and baiting dogs,” said Palm Beach County sheriff’s Cpl. John Howley, whose mounted patrol unit has investigated animal cruelty cases throughout the county since 1998. “And there’s quite a lot of it going on in Palm Beach County.”

His four animal cruelty investigators work closely with the 14-person cruelty investigation unit of Palm Beach County Animal Care and Control. Lt. Gina DiPace, who heads the unit, said the department has 21 open cases of dogfighting and investigated about 50 cases last year.

“There is probably some fighting going on every weekend in this county,” she said.

But only three people in Palm Beach County have been convicted of the felony crime since 1995, officials at Palm Beach County State Attorney’s Office say.

That’s because under the current law you would have to catch a dogfight in progress and prove it was intentional to charge someone with the crime, said sheriff’s deputy Cassie Kovacs, who specializes in dogfighting investigations.

Dawes was charged because he confessed, according to a warrant.

“There are loopholes in the law,” Kovacs said. “The last few I did I had to get them for animal cruelty, because I couldn’t prove the dogfighting. It’s very frustrating.”

Prosecutors say another problem is the law forbids dogfighting, but allows a person to own a fighting dog or train dogs for fighting.

“It is an absolute aberration in the law that allows individuals to actively breed animals whose only purpose is to fight but to outlaw the fighting,” said Mike Edmondson, spokesman for State Attorney Barry Krischer.

Sen. Ron Klein, D-Boca Raton, introduced a bill to the legislature this year that would have made it a third-degree felony to “own, possess, keep, train, promote, transport, purchase or sell any animal for the purpose of fighting or baiting.”

The bill, which covers both dogfighting and cockfighting, passed unanimously in the Senate, but died in the House when it was unable to get a hearing.

“We know that this kind of activity is going on in the state,” said Klein, who plans to reintroduce the bill next year. “It’s inhumane and it’s not the kind of thing we want to condone in this state.”

Fort Myers State Attorney Joseph P. D’Alessandro is also lobbying state lawmakers in Tallahassee, trying to upgrade the crime of attending a dogfight from a misdemeanor to a felony, after 21 people in Lee County were charged with the crime April 9. Attending a dogfight is illegal in all but four states, but is a felony in only 13 states.

Dogfighting also is associated with other crimes, police say. In 1997, Broward County sheriff’s deputies seized rock cocaine and marijuana when they arrested four people in a warehouse dogfighting operation.

“This is a very, very, very serious problem,” said Broward County Sheriff’s detective Mike Vadnal, who has been investigating dogfighting for seven years. “To start with, you have people who enjoy watching a blood sport. That shows their mentality. Then you have gambling, narcotics and weapons at these fights. You are dealing with a pretty bad element.”

Broward County sheriff’s Sgt. Sherry Schlueter says dogfighting in south Florida increased significantly over the past five to 10 years.

“Thousands of dollars, sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars, change hands at these fights,” Schlueter said.

The Lake Worth Police Department’s frustrations with dogfighting are detailed in an inch-thick folder with the words “dog caper” written across it in block letters.

Inside the folder is the sum of two years’ worth of investigations into dogfighting in the city, including a number of findings at one house:

* A video of a caged dog, its once white muzzles coated in a thick layer of blood.

* Dogs with names like Nitro or Monster found chained to a front porch and peppered with dozens of scars on their muzzles and forepaws.

* Medical and stitching equipment for patching up wounded dogs.

* Dog-training devices in the back yard.

The owner has not been charged.

“Just because he has all of these dogs and the equipment, just because we have the video, doesn’t mean we can charge him,” said Lake Worth police spokeswoman Raychel Houston. “It was all circumstantial.”

A bloody mess

Investigating a dogfight is like working a drug operation: Officers have to set up surveillance and cultivate sources, which can take up a lot of time, says Eric Sakach, a dog fighting expert for the Humane Society of the United States based in Sacramento, Calif.

And, like narcotics officers, dogfighting investigators need to be trained how to spot dogfighting paraphernalia.

“Illegal animal fighting is a whole new world to investigators,” Sakach said. “It’s an entirely new type of crime to the police. It even has its own vernacular.”

A local landlord, who asked that his name be omitted because he fears retaliation, said two of his rental properties in Boynton Beach were gutted and used for dogfighting pits.

He said he went by one of his homes to collect rent on Jan. 20 and found the house trashed, all of the appliances missing and a bloody mess in the living room.

“There was blood smeared everywhere, bloody paw prints. The dogs must run up against the wall while they are fighting,” he said. “There was blood on the walls from 3 feet up, all the way down, a perimeter of blood all the way down. The carpets were saturated.”

He said someone had pulled all of the doors off their hinges and laid them on their sides against the doorways to the living room.

“Then they must have run the dogs inside, thrown some food in the center of the room and watched them fight,” he said.

A few months later, he went to his other house in Boynton Beach to collect rent and found a similar scene of gutted rooms and bloody walls.

“I’m disgusted with all of this,” he said. “I’ve cleaned and boarded them up. I’m getting out of the (rental) business.”

The Boynton Beach Police Department began working with animal control officers on the problem shortly after The Palm Beach Post made inquiries into dogfighting in the city.

“We’ve had officers from animal control, code enforcement, vice and the directed patrol unit looking at this for the last several months,” said Assistant Police Chief Matt Immler. “But it’s tough to catch them in the act. There is no schedule of events. We never know when they are going to have the fights.”

Street fighting most prevalent

The department relies heavily on the city’s two animal care and control officers to spot the signs of dogfighting, but Scott Blaise, who heads the code enforcement and animal care and control units, says his department is seriously understaffed.

“We have people doing backyard pit bull fighting. We suspect that there is gambling on a moderate scale. We also have situations where we think people are breeding dogs for fighting,” he said. “But we are having to deal with this as we can and it’s frustrating.”

There are three levels of dogfighting, Sakach says.

Professional dogfighters typically travel the country and the world fighting and breeding dogs for profit.

Hobbyists may have a handful of dogs they breed and follow the rules of a refereed dogfight, but usually stay at the local level.

Street fighters, which officials say are the most common in Palm Beach County, fight all breeds of dogs and don’t typically keep track of a dog’s record or bloodlines.

It’s the street fighters who often take to stealing dogs to fight, or to use as bait, Sakach said.

It’s what police say happened to Shack in Boynton Beach and what Jeanne Martin says happened to her pit bull in West Palm Beach.

Her husband returned to their home in December to find their front gate open and their two pit bulls, Bunny and Horse, gone.

West Palm Beach police found one of the dogs a week later in the wake of a dogfight they broke up.

Horse stood in the rain, bloody and listless. Martin said her husband didn’t recognize the dog at first.

About a week later, someone returned Bunny, unharmed, for a reward.

Martin, who works in the advertising department at The Palm Beach Post, said she spent weeks nursing Horse back to health, handfeeding him stew and trying to settle his nervous shaking.

In February, he was stolen again. And once more, he was returned bloody and beaten, the apparent victim of a one-sided dogfight.

Staff researchers Lynne Palombo and Nicole Puccinelli Ortega contributed to this story.

The people who train fighting dogs

Although most dog fights are held in rural areas or inside large buildings, investigators say there are several signs that may indicate dog fighting or breeders of fighting dogs are in the area. If you suspect anyone, you can call your local police department.

1. Dogs with lots of scars, typically around the muzzle and forelimbs.

2. Twelve or more dogs kept outside on heavy chains bolted to the ground in neat rows and separated from one another.

3. Training equipment for dogs such as a treadmill or a Jenny, a conditioning device that lets a dog chase a lure in a circle.

4. Large caravans of vehicles, typically pickups, with kennels in the back.

How they talk

Breeders and trainers have developed terminology that allows them to describe dog fights and their dogs without overtly talking about the illegal sport. Here are some frequently used terms:

Bad signs – Indicators that a dog is about to quit a pit contest such as growling, barking, crying out, turning away and making slower scratches.

Breaking stick – A wedge-shaped stick used to break the bite hold of a pit bull in a fight.

Catmill (Jenny) – A conditioning device made up of one or more spokes projecting from a rotating central shaft in the ground. A dog is harnessed to one spoke and a small animal is attached to a leading spoke in front of the dog so that the dog will run in circles attempting to catch it. At the end of a practice the lure is given to the dog to reward it.

Champion – A rank conferred by various pit bull publications on dogs who have won three contract matches.

Convention – A major show of several matches, which typically involve participants from several states and last for an entire weekend.

Cur out – To quit in a fight.

Cutters – A dog’s incisors or canine teeth.

Fanged – When a dog accidentally pierces its own lip with its teeth while attempting to bite another dog.

Fast-mouthed – A dog that makes numerous bite holds in rapid succession during a fight.

Game (Gameness) – The “sport” of dogfighting. The combined qualities of courage, aggression and tenacity in the face of exhaustion and possible death.

Game test – Measuring a dog’s “gameness” by fighting it against another dog until it is exhausted and then having it attack a new dog.

Grand champion – Rank given to a dog who has won five contract matches without losing.

Pick-up – A handler conceding a match by picking up his or her dog during a fight.

Roll (Bump) – The controlled fighting of dogs as a training exercise. Often used to weed out dogs unsuitable for fighting.

Rough-mouthed dogs – A dog who shakes its opponent violently after getting a bite hold.

Scratch – The act of rushing across the pit and taking hold of an opponent within a certain amount of time during a pit contest. Scratches are made from behind diagonal lines in opposite corners of the pit. The first scratch is simultaneous, the rest alternate.

Courtesy scratch – At the end of a match, the losing dog is released to make a short, no-contact scratch. This is done to maintain a dog’s aggressive behavior despite losing.

SOURCE: The Humane Society of the United States and the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office.

This story originally ran in The Palm Beach Post on April 29, 2000.

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