Fewer fighters, more dogs
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, May 2002:
PUEBLO, Colorado–Issuing one of the stiffest sentences yet
given to a convicted dogfighter, District Judge Scott Epstein of
Pueblo, Colorado, on April 15, 2002 sent Brian Keith Speer to
state prison for six years.
Speer, 32, of Colorado Springs, is to serve 18 concurrent
three-year sentences for 18 felony counts of animal fighting, plus
three more years for his felonious mistreatment of one especially
badly injured pit bull terrier found in his possession during a June
2000 raid on his trailer home near Boone.
Speer was convicted on February 11, after a four-day jury trial.
“In June 2000,” reported Patrick Malone of the Pueblo
Chieftan, “36 adult pit bulls and eight puppies were confiscated”
from Speer, almost all of whom were later killed at the Pueblo
animal control shelter because of aggressive behavior. “Animal
control officers also seized performance-enhancing drugs commonly
used by breeders who train dogs to fight. Many of the animals had
severe wounds at various stages of healing, indicating they had been
involved in fights over an extended span. In addition, officers
seized a bloodstained rug that had been taped off into the dimensions
of a dog-fighting ring. Evidence,” Malone wrote, “included a poem
Speer wrote about Gatoree, a prize dog of his, dying in his arms
after a valiant effort in the ring.”
The prosecution indicated that Speer was associated with
dogfighters in many other states and possibly in Mexico.
The Speer sentencing came five days after Associate Judge
Diane Brunton of Macoupin County, Illinois, ordered accused
dogfighter Jeffrey M. Giller to post bond of $90,000 or forfeit 17
pit bull terriers. Arrested on March 28, Giller, 24, was jailed
in lieu of posting bail of $300,000 on four counts of felony
dogfighting, plus $20,000 bail on misdemeanor charges of domestic
violence and aggravated assault.
“Sheriff’s deputies noticed the dogs,” wrote Robert Goodrich
of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “when they went to Giller’s property
to investigate a domestic violence complaint by a girlfriend.”
“These are violent crimes,” commented attorney Ledy Van
Kavage, representing the Belleville Area Humane Society and the
American SPCA. “Dogfighting is a blood sport. Those who do this are
usually not nice people. Usually drug crimes and weapons crimes are
For example, Tallahassee Democrat staff writer James L.
Rosica found in looking up the criminal history of Arthur “Mo Jo”
Hutchinson, 45, of Family Circle, Florida, that in addition to
the four felony charges of dogfighting, cocaine possession with
intent to sell, and possession of drug paraphernalia brought against
him in November 2001, Hutchinson had been in trouble since 1975 for
possession of a sawed-off shotgun, auto burglary, auto theft,
grand theft, robbery, and aggravated child abuse. He served nine
years in state prison on the child abuse charge.
Repeated arrests for dogfighting are also common. Samson G.
Pruitt, 28, of Knightdale, North Carolina, was convicted in 1997
of marijuana possession and misdemeanor cruelty to animals after
police seized 27 pit bulls from his home. Pruitt escaped a felony
penalty conviction because the North Carolina felony penalty for
dogfighting and attending dogfights was not introduced until the
following year. Pruitt did eventually serve a year in prison,
however, for violating parole. He was out of prison just seven
months when arrested for felony cruelty, dog-baiting,
and–again–possession of marijuana. Sheriff’s deputies on November
1 seized 81 pit bull terriers and a variety of reptiles from Pruitt,
including a baby Nile crocodile, a Gabon viper, three green tree
pythons, a monitor lizard, and a Western diamondback rattlesnake.
Drug-related crimes and/or homicide have been among the
charges filed in 56 of the 257 most recent U.S. dogfighting cases
known to ANIMAL PEOPLE: 22%. But sales of illegal drugs are
believed to be the major source of money gambled on dogfights,
whether or not drugs are actually found on the premises when arrests
are made. This is why the Office of the U.S. Attorney in February
2002 seized the home, pickup truck, two station wagons, and other
property valued at a total of $700,000 from Christopher Devito, 33,
owner of Smiling Buddha Kennels in Newton, New Hampshire.
Assistant U.S. attorney Jean Weld explained to reporters that
federal law permits custodial seizure of assets in suspected drug
cases ahead of filing criminal charges, to prevent suspects from
disposing of assets or concealing them while charges are pending.
Devito, 33, was charged with 37 counts of cruelty in
January 2002, after police found 37 pit bulls, a bloodstained pit
apparently used for dogfighting, a treadmill, steroid drugs
allegedly used to make the dogs bigger and more aggressive, and
$292,000 in unexplained cash in a raid on the Devito premises.
Devito was jailed in lieu of posting bond of $125,000.
As ANIMAL PEOPLE went to press, a Superior Court ruling was
pending as to whether or not the Devito dogs could be killed.
Keeping them at the Rockingham County shelter was costing taxpayers
$10,000 a month, prosecutor Jim Reams said.
Dogs hard to shelter
In Durham County, North Carolina, district attorney Jim
Hardin and animal control shelter director Dean Edwards estimated in
January 2002 that keeping seven pit bulls and five puppies seized in
a dogfighting raid 13 months earlier had cost taxpayers at least
$40,000. The dogs were still alive because of repeated postponements
of the civil forfeiture procedure.
“People don’t realize how dangerous these dogs are. They are
very unpredictable,” Edwards told Raleigh News & Observer staff
writer Barbara Barrett.
The risk that alleged fighting dogs pose to shelter personnel
is considerable. One pit bull named Hercules twice bit shelter
workers, Barrett wrote.
“The dogs are too dangerous for playtime or outdoor
exercise,” Barrett explained–but lack of play and outdoor exercise
in turn makes them more hyperactive.
Alleged fighting dogs are also notorious for the amount of
damage their strength enables them to do to shelter facilities.
Accounts of impounded pit pulls tearing down chain link fences with
their teeth and dislodging cement blocks by hurling their bodies
against walls in a fury at other dogs in a shelter are not uncommon.
The highest price of keeping alleged fighting dogs in an
animal shelter, however, other than the price paid by the alleged
fighting dogs themselves, who are almost invariably killed, is paid
by other dogs who are killed due to lack of cage space while the
doomed alleged fighting dogs occupy cages for months or years as
their owners await trial– just one dog to a cage or run, to prevent
fights. The Speer case cost the lives of at least 50 otherwise
adoptable dogs, according to observers in Pueblo.
Apart from the danger posed by the dogs, there is the risk
that dogfighters will raid a shelter, attempting to steal their dogs
back, which happens around a dozen times a year around the U.S.,
occasionally with inside help.
As ANIMAL PEOPLE reported in January/February 2002, about
half of all verified dog and cat thefts in 2001 were in evident
connection with dogfighting, including about 60 of the 68 solved
cases of theft for alleged violent abuse, and 61 other cases
involving thefts of pit bull terriers who were held as evidence in
The pit bull thefts, plus the theft of 14 alleged fighting
cocks held as evidence at one shelter, drove the total number of
reported thefts from shelters in 2001 to a record 108.
Already in 2002 ANIMAL PEOPLE has received reports of 61 pet
thefts in apparent connection with dogfighting: 58 pit bulls, two
Rottweilers, one boxer mix, and one English bulldog.
Less risky than stealing pit bulls, either from private
owners or from shelters, is to adopt them from shelters under false
pretenses, sometimes by placing a gang member inside a major shelter
staff. Many large shelters have been burned in this manner,
including the Pennsylvania SPCA for a few months in 1994. Already
more experienced in dealing with dogfighters than most humane
societies, the Pennsylvania SPCA learned to be even more careful in
supervising new personnel.
Bogus breed rescuers
Other shelters–and private citizens–have been duped into
surrendering pit bulls to “breed rescue” organizations which turned
out to be fronts for dogfighters. Convicted in 1999 for directing a
major dogfighting ring in California, Cesar and Mercedes Cerda, now
30 and 29, had a supply and support network whose members stole at
least 18 pit bulls held as evidence from shelters as the Cerdas
awaited trial, reputedly included shelter employees, and also
reputedly included links to two different pit bull rescue groups.
Police in several states have subsequently arrested self-described
pit bull rescuers for allegedly supplying fighting rings, in cases
all still pending before various courts.
Christopher Devito, facing trial in New Hampshire, has
claimed through his attorney to be a pit bull rescuer, but the most
widely watched case of this sort is probably that of former New
Jersey resident Patricia Edmondson, 45.
Edmondson formerly solicited donations of pit bulls under the
business names Save-A-Pet and Pit Bull Rescue League and is
reportedly still representing herself as a pit bull rescuer in
Pennsylvania. What exactly Edmondson did with the pit bulls she
collected is still unknown, but almost all of them seem to have
vanished. Edmondson was reportedly fined in December 2000 for
improperly confining four pit bulls, and was sued in October 2000 by
seven people who had entrusted pit bulls to her on the promise that
they would be adopted into new homes.
In August 2001 Edmondson was arraigned on 15 counts of theft
by deception. She declined an opportunity to plea-bargain a sentence
of eight years in prison. Her attorney moved in March 2002 that the
charges should be dropped. A ruling is pending.
Women are rarely involved in dogfighting: among 1,066 people
arrested in connection with 257 dogfights and related incidents since
1997, just 19 were female. However, 16 of the 19 were either
convicted of related felonies or were intimate associates– wife,
daughter, mother, or girlfriend–of at least one of the defendants
who were convicted of felonies. All were allegedly involved
primarily with breeding, training, and procuring dogs, rather than
in actually handling dogs in the ring.
Three women are currently facing related felony charges. In
Rochester, New York, Bam’s Pet Shop owner Bernita Hawkins, 37,
was charged in March 2002 with practicing veterinary medicine for
dogfighters without a license. In Salt Lake City, Tawnya
Sutherland, 25, and Lynn Yakovich, 21, were charged with training
dogs to fight, a rarity not only because they are women but also
because their case is the first in Salt Lake City to be prosecuted
under the 1987 state law that made dogfighting a felony in Utah.
Pit bulls preferred
Of the 3,444 dogs seized most recently in U.S.
fighting-related cases, 15 were identified as pedigreed
Staffordshire terriers; 12 were Rottweilers; two were German
shepherds; two were boxers; and one was a mastiff. All the rest
were identified as pit bull terriers or mixes of pit bull with
imported “fighting” breeds such as the Presa Canario, Fila Brasiero,
and Japanese tosa.
Pit bulls, especially of unknown history, were problematic
for animal shelters even before the dogfighting boom.
Excluding fighting dogs and guard dogs, pit bulls kept as
pets have accounted for 612 of the 1,354 life-threatening attacks by
owned pet dogs logged by ANIMAL PEOPLE since 1982 (45%); 291 of the
747 life-threatening attacks on children (39%); 223 of the 372
life-threatening attacks on adults (60%); 51 of the 155 fatalities
(33%); and 336 of the 744 attacks resulting in disfigurement or
Although the numbers of attacks grew fivefold from 1992
through 2001, the ratios from 1982 through 1991 were similar.
The dogs inflicting those injuries were not trained to fight.
Yet the behavior and physical strength leading to the disproportional
severity of those injuries is generally believed to reflect the
selective breeding of pit bulls for fighting, not just individual
temperament and background.
Relatively few of the pit bulls entering animal shelters have
actually been seized in dogfighting raids, but investigators believe
that only a very small percentage of dogfights are detected and
raided by law enforcement, while a much higher percentage of the pit
bulls found running at large, surrendered by owners, or seized for
other reasons are believed to have been used or trained for fighting.
Humane Society of the U.S. regional representative Sandy
Rowlands, of Bowling Green, Ohio, told Akron Beacon-Journal staff
writer Carol Biliczky that as many as 250,000 pit bulls may be fought
each year in the U.S., but admitted that this is only a guess.
The risk that any pit bull brought to a shelter may have been
bred and trained for fighting increases the reluctance of shelter
managers to keep pit bulls any longer than necessary, to try to
house them with companions, to allow volunteers to walk them, or to
even attempt to rehabilitate them for adoption.
With liability awards for fatal and severely disfiguring dog
maulings now running in excess of $400,000, some shelters report
being unable to get liability insurance if they adopt out pit bulls.
Many more see the proliferation of suspected fighting dogs,
especially pit bulls, as the biggest problem they face in achieving
no-kill animal control.
Pennsylvania SPCA executive director Eric Hendricks, in
announcing the December 2000 decision of the Pennsylvania SPCA to
relinquish the city animal control contract effective on July 1,
2002, cited frustration with the reluctance of the city council to
adopt a breed-specific ordinance to curtail the backyard reproduction
of pit bulls and other “fighting” dogs.
Philadelphia paid the Pennsylvania SPCA $790,000 to handle
animal control in 2000-2001 under the current contract, but
Hendricks estimated the actual cost of the program at several million
“We don’t have the resources to continue to subsidize animal
control, nor do we have the desire to continue to simply process
thousands of animals on their way to death,” Hendricks told
Philadelphia Daily News staff writer Gloria Campisi.
The Pennsylvania SPCA killed 3,500 pit bulls in 2000, 4,000
in 1999, and 3,200 in 1998, Hendricks said. Many of the dogs were
suspected veterans of illegal fighting.
The Pennsylvania SPCA experience is not unique. Rochester
Animal Services, in upstate New York, noted that the 1,600 pit
bulls it handled in 1998 were 60% of the total volume of dogs it
received. The number of pit bull bites reported to Rochester Animal
Services had doubled since 1994.
Chicago police officer Steve Brownstein, assigned to
investigate dogfighting in May 1999 as a one-person task force,
seized 700 fighting dogs and made 200 arrests during the next 18
Cleveland impounded 536 pit bulls in 1999, 621 in 2000, and
nearly 700 in 2001. Akron, where a 1989 pit bull ban held the
average number of pit bulls impounded down to about 50 per year
throughout the 1990s, reportedly impounded close to 500 in 2001.
Milwaukee animal control received 1,477 pit bulls in 2001,
of whom 265 (18%) were impounded during drug raids.
Denver impounded 371 pit bulls in 2001, and had already
impounded 111 through March 6, 2002.
“Every year for the past few years there has been a
substantial increase in the number of pit bulls we are getting,”
Denver animal control shelter director Doug Kelley told Rocky
Mountain News staff writer Brian D. Crecente.
A national surge in dogfighting became apparent in 1998, as
the number of major cases and people arrested both approximately
doubled, and the number of dogs seized nearly quadrupled. All the
numbers approximately doubled again in 1999, before leveling off
somewhat in 2000-2001. But the surge was already apparent by 1996 in
inner cities, including Detroit, where the number of dogfights
reported to the Michigan Humane Society doubled from 1995.
The good news is that law enforcement is becoming
increasingly serious about stopping dogfighting, especially as
recognition spreads about the links among dogfighting illegal drug
trafficking, gambling, domestic violence, prison gang activity,
and–especially in the South and Pacific Northwest–remnants of the
Ku Klux Klan.
A wake-up call for North Carolina law enforcement came in
July 2001 when a Lee County jury convicted Gaston Williamson Jr., of
dogfighting, but a local judge let him walk with a suspended
sentence and allowed him to reclaim and sell 152 pit bull terriers
seized in a March 2001 raid that also found 2.5 pounds of marijuana,
drug paraphernalia, $2,300 in cash, and 31 firearms including
pistols, shotguns, and semi-automatic rifles. Called “The
Undertaker,” Williamson, 60, reportedly fought dogs as far away as
Texas and sold pit bull puppies to suspected fighters from California
to the Virgin Islands.
The Lee County Sheriff’s Depart-ment and Wake County Animal
Control responded by forming a statewide dogfighting task force that
first met on January 11, 2002.
The 12-member Ohio Dog Fighting Task Force, formed in August
2001 under the direction of state department of agriculture law
enforcement chief Jim Hoekstra, recommended in April 2002 that
dogfighting should be upgraded to a third degree felony, carrying a
mandatory year in jail for anyone convicted and allowing for
sentences of up to five years in jail. Currently, first-time
offenders in Ohio and most other states get only probation.
Other statewide anti-dogfighting task forces have formed in
recent years, have begun sharing information about cases and
suspects, and in some cases have produced evidence enabling the USDA
Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service to bring Animal Welfare
Act charges against suspects who sell dogs for fighting across state
lines without possession of Class A or B dealers’ permits.
There are signs that as law enforcement becomes more
effective in responding to dogfighting, the surge of recent years
may crest. Notably, while the numbers of arrests and dog seizures
during the first three months of 2001 predict new records, the
numbers of people actually found at dogfights and dogfight training
facilities are down by 43%.
In addition, more raids on breeders and trainers seems to be
translating into fewer cases of street corner dogfighting. Among 195
dogfighting arrests logged by ANIMAL PEOPLE from 1999 through 2001,
59 appeared to involve casual street corner fighting, as opposed to
fights arranged in an organized semi-professional manner. Dogfights
of that sort have either dropped out of the news in 2002 or have
markedly declined in frequency.
Fads and trends typically follow a trajectory from obscurity
to prominence that attracts big investment followed by
professionalization of the money-making opportunities. As the
professionals take over, amateurs quit, and the support base for
the activity erodes.
This may have happened to dogfighting. The professional
dogfighters who have dominated the activity since the combined
opposition of author Jack London and Massachusetts SPCA founder
George Angell drove it out of respectable sporting newspapers early
in the 20th century have apparently reclaimed control, through their
traditional alliances with illicit distillers, backwoods producers
of methamphetamines and marijuana, car theft rings, prison gangs,
and in inner cities, the crack cocaine trade. The street corner
dogfighters of a few years ago may have either gained entry into the
professional inner circle, or been driven out.
There is more dogfighting going on, and more gambling money
in it now, than ever before. Certainly there are more dogs. But
there are markedly fewer casual participants and spectators who have
only to walk up to be invited to place a bet.