Michael Vick case blows whistle on dogfighting

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, September 2007:
RICHMOND, Virginia–Pleading guilty on
August 24, 2007 to felony conspiracy, Atlanta
Falcons quarterback Michael Vick will face a
maximum sentence of five years in prison and a
fine of $250,000 when he appears before U.S.
District Judge Henry E. Hudson for sentencing on
December 10.
By then the 50 surviving pit bull
terriers who were seized in April 2007 from the
dogfighting kennel that Vick confessed to
financing for seven years may have already
received the death penalty.
Vick agreed to plead guilty after
co-defendants Quanis L. Phillips, 28, Purnell
Peace, 35, and Tony Taylor, 34, pleaded
guilty to the same conspiracy charge. Each had
agreed to testify against Vick if his case went
to trial.
Vick admitted in a signed statement that
he was present twice when his co-defendants
killed losing dogs after test fights at the Surry
County property where his kennels and a fighting
arena were maintained. The statement said the
dogs “were killed by various methods, including
hanging and drowning.”
Following Vick’s guilty plea, National
Football League commissioner Roger Goodell
suspended Vick for “cruel and reprehensible”
conduct and “significant involvement in illegal
gambling,” an offense often punished in
professional sports by lifetime expulsion.

Seeking to save his career, Vick
apologized at a press conference to Goodell,
Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank, coach Bobby
Petrino, his teammates, and “all the young kids
out there for my immature acts.”
“Dogfighting is a terrible thing, and I did reject it,” Vick said.
“Acceptance of responsibility is one of
the factors Judge Hudson will consider in handing
down Vick’s sentence,” pointed out Dave Forster
of the Virginian-Pilot. For a first offense,
“The federal sentencing guideline range is
projected at a year to 18 months, but Hudson can
impose up to maximum.”
Technically Vick is still a member of the
Atlanta Falcons, because of financial issues
involved in unconditionally releasing him. “The
team intends to pursue the $22 million in bonus
money that he already received in a $130 million
contract signed in 2004,” wrote Forster.
“We cannot tell you today that Michael is
cut from the team,” Blank told news media.
“Cutting him today may feel better emotionally
for us and many of our fans. But it’s not in the
long-term best interests of our franchise.”
Sixty-six dogs in all were seized from
Vick’s kennels, including 52 pit bulls, 13
beagles and mixed breeds, and one dog who was
returned to a person who was not charged in the
case. Impounded dogs who have been bred and
trained to fight are usually killed as soon as
their custody is forfeited to the impounding
agency, since ex-fighting dogs are believed to
present an unacceptably high risk toward shelter
staff, other animals, and prospective adoptors
and their families.
Because of an outpouring of public
concern for the Vick dogs, however, the court
authorized American SPCA science advisor Stephen
Zawistowski to lead a team of certified applied
animal behaviorists in formally evaluating their
The ASPCA invited the San Francisco-based
nonprofit organization Bay Area Doglovers
Responsible About Pit Bulls to help identify dogs
who might be successfully fostered and eventually
A coalition of eleven organizations
headed by the National American Pit Bull Terrier
Association filed a friend-of-the-court brief
asking that Vick be ordered to pay more than $10
million to rehabilitate the dogs–a request going
well beyond the scope of the sentencing
Apart from whatever risk the Vick dogs
might pose themselves to people and animals,
they might become attractive to thieves who in
recent years have made pit bulls the breed of dog
most often stolen. Pit bulls of significant
notoriety and/or fighting pedigree are especially
coveted, as the humane community was reminded
when the Humane Society of the U.S. on August 30,
2007 posted a reward of $5,000 “for information
leading to the arrest and conviction of the
person or people responsible for removing dogs
from an alleged dogfighting kennel in Malad City,
Idaho” on August 29.
The dogs were impounded on August 28.
Alleged kennel operators Andrew and Tiffany
Willard were charged with dogfighting and felony
drug offenses.
“Police had asked the Pocatello Animal
Shelter and Idaho Humane Society to help impound
and care for the pit bulls, but needed to keep
the dogs at the property overnight,” the HSUS
reward announcement explained. “A deputy ordered
to guard the dogs was called from the scene to
respond to another call, and when another deputy
arrived to take over guard, all 30 dogs were
Some of the Vick dogs are rumored to be
of the same lineage as 50 pit bulls seized in
April 2004 from David Tant, formerly of
Charleston County, South Carolina. Tant was
sentenced in December 2004 to serve 40 years in
prison after pleading guilty to 41 counts of
dogfighting and assault and battery. He was
arrested after a surveyor stumbled into a
trip-wire on his property set to deter possible
dog thieves, and was wounded by a shotgun blast.

Task force

The Tant case gave impetus to the
anti-dogfighting efforts of the South Carolina
animal cruelty task force, formed in 2004.
Former South Carolina assistant attorney
general William Frick told Alan Judd of the
Atlanta Journal Constitution that a confidential
informant in late 2003 or early 2004 told a task
force investigator that Vick had a “dog yard” in
South Carolina. The task force found no
supporting evidence, but Vick in pleading guilty
to the Virginia charges acknowledged entering a
pit bull named Big Boy in a 2003 fight in South
Both the Humane Society of the U.S. and
PETA claimed to have received reports since 2004
that Vick was involved in dogfighting in
Virginia, but the tips were “not specific enough
that we or anyone else could do anything else
with it,” said PETA assistant program director
Dan Shannon.
“Three years ago, South Carolina
attorney general Henry McMaster was laughed at
when he tried to place dogfighting on the
national agenda,” recalled Charleston Post &
Courier reporter Jessica Johnson. Since the Vick
case broke, however, McMaster and the South
Carolina animal cruelty task force have emerged
as national exemplars of how to respond to
dogfighting. The South Carolina task force
investigations have brought 42 dogfighting
arrests in less than three years, resulting in
17 guilty pleas and one jury conviction, with
many of the cases still pending.
Former HSUS North Carolina state director
Robert Reder, who retired on September 7, 2007,
told Raleigh News & Observer staff writer Jim
Nesbitt that North Carolina attorney general Roy
Cooper should form a similar task force, which
like the South Carolina task force would include
a criminal investigator and a prosecutor focused
specifically on animal fighting.
North Carolina already has an ad hoc task
force on animal fighting, headed by Chatham
County animal control chief John Sauls. “We need
structure, we need some staff, we need a home,”
Sauls told Nesbitt.
Currently, Nesbitt pointed out, “North
Carolina law restricts the ability of Cooper’s
special prosecutors and the State Bureau of
Investigation to jump into local jurisdictions.
Except where the legislature grants them the
power to do so, the SBI can’t initiate an
investigation, and special prosecutors can’t
take over a case unless invited in by a sheriff
or district attorney.”
The North Carolina legislation keeping
state-level law enforcement out of local
jurisdictions appears to have originated decades
ago as protection for the Ku Klux Klan, which
had heavily infiltrated county sheriff’s
departments and reputedly raised funds through
dogfighting and cockfighting.
“Cooper did not respond to interview
requests. A spokeswoman did not say whether he
favors a dogfighting task force similar to the
one in South Carolina,” Nesbitt wrote.

N.C. connections

“The Vick indictment is peppered with
North Carolina references,” Nesbitt noted.
“Three of the four confidential witnesses reside
in North Carolina. A court filing entered by
Purnell Peace, one of the three Vick
co-defendants who pleaded guilty, outlined a
2003 trip the four made to the state to fight a
pit bull named Jane against a dog owned by
Lockjaw Kennels of North Carolina. A web search
showed on-line sites for two Lockjaw Kennel pit
bull breeders in North Carolina–one in LaGrange,
the other in Fayetteville.
“The owners of the LaGrange kennel said
they weren’t involved in the fight against Vick’s
dog and denounce dogfighting on their Web site.
The web site for the Fayetteville kennel was
recently taken down but could be traced to Walter
Little, whose name was listed as the site’s
“Court records show that Little, 49,
was charged with dogfighting in Cumberland County
in 2000, but that felony count was disposed of
with a deferred prosecution,” Nesbitt added.
“Little said he was arrested as a spectator at a
dogfight that ended before he arrived. He denies
owning the Lockjaw Kennel in Fayetteville and
said he was not involved in the match against
Vick’s dog.”
Raids on alleged dogfights in 2005 and
2006 in Madison County, Illinois, also had
North Carolina connections, pointed out Brian
Brueggemann of the Belleville News-Democrat.
Arrested in both raids were Basil Sitzes, 34,
who owned the property, and Jason Bland, 33,
of Brighton, Illinois. Also arrested in the
second raid was Kimberly Columb, 43, of Alton,
Illinois, whom Brueggeman identified as a former
housemate of cancer researcher Alane Koki.
Koki, whose last known address was in
Hillsborough, North Carolina, was on February
6, 2007 appointed to an Orange County citizens’
committee formed by the county commissions to
study an anti-chaining ordinance proposed by
Dietrich von Haugwitz, 79, who died on June 26,
Koki resigned after Ashley B. Roberts of
the Orange County Independent Weekly exposed what
Roberts summarized as “her long history of
breeding pit bulls…and her association with
local kennel owner Tom Garner, a nationally
known breeder of pit bulls and a convicted dog
fighter whom commissioners declined to appoint to
the committee the same night they approved Koki.”
Roberts described archived versions of
Koki’s Thundermaker Bulldogs web site listing
three of Garner’s dogs as sires and grandsires of
her dogs; a conversation between Koki and
Wisconsin dogfighting and drug trafficking
defendant Robert Lowery, taped by the Dane
County sheriff’s department; her efforts to
obtain possession of nearly 50 pit bulls who were
seized from Lowery; and the 2006 discovery of
about 50 pit bulls on property Koki owns in
Pennsylvania. Licensed to keep up to 26 dogs
there, she eventually moved all but 11, Animal
Rescue League of Berks County executive director
Harry Brown told Roberts.
Madison County Assistant State’s
Attorney Amy Maher told Brueggemann that she had
received a call from an attorney who said Garner
owned one of the dogs seized in Illinois and
might want the dog back, but had heard nothing
further after that conversation.


Despite the high visibility of
dogfighting in North Carolina, HSUS has
identified Idaho, Wyoming, Georgia, Nevada,
and Hawaii as having “the weakest dogfighting
laws on the books, allowing some aspects of the
cruel practice to go completely unpunished, and
punishing others with little more than a slap on
the wrist,” after analyzing all applicable U.S.
“Idaho and Wyoming are last on the list,”
explained an HSUS press release, “because they
remain the only states in the nation that do not
consider dogfighting a felony. Worst-ranked
Idaho carries misdemeanor penalties with a
minimum $100 fine and a maximum six-month jail
“It is legal to possess dogs for fighting
in Georgia and Nevada,” the release continued,
“and it is legal to be a spectator at a dogfight
in Georgia, Montana, and Hawaii.
“Strong felony penalties for dogfighting,
including being a spectator at a fight, are
essential to controlling this criminal
multi-million dollar industry,” emphasized HSUS
manager of animal fighting issues John Goodwin.
“No one who fights dogs or who is complicit in
this horribly cruel activity should be able to
escape the law.”
HSUS endorsed the Dog Fighting
Prohibition Act, H.R. 3219, introduced in the
U.S. House of Representatives by Rep. Betty
Sutton (D-Ohio), which would increase federal
penalties for dogfighting and add penalties for
dogfight attendance.
The HSUS anti-dogfighting campaign was
bolstered on August 27, 2007 by $200,000 from
the Holland M. Ware Charitable Foundation of
Hogansville, Georgia. HSUS used the funding to
double the rewards it offers for information
leading to the arrest and conviction of animal
fighters, and “to produce and air public
service announcements on animal fighting
throughout the U.S.”
Introducing improved state legislation
against dogfighting will have to wait in most
states until the beginning of the 2008
legislative session.

Humane education

Meanwhile, a coalition of Chicago city
officials, clergy, and animal advocates
introduced an anti-dogfighting community
education program called “Safe, Humane Chicago.”
Building on work begun by the Anti-Cruelty
Society, documented in the 2002 humane education
video One Last Fight: Exposing the Shame,
“Safe, Humane Chicago “aims to reach children
and their parents through church and community
groups, emphasizing the link between dogfighting
and other violent crime,” wrote Chicago Tribune
staff reporter Monique Garcia.
“This isn’t just about dogs,” alderman
Walter Burnett told a news conference at the
Wayman African Methodist Episcopcal Church.
“Violence breeds violence.”
Dog Advisory Work Group executive
director Cynthia Bathurst told Garcia that
approximately 70% of dogfighting and animal abuse
offenders in Chicago have also been arrested for
committing violent felonies against people.
Actress and comedienne Whoopi Goldberg on
September 4, 2007 emphasized the failure of
humane education to reach all segments of society
in remarks on The View, an ABC television talk
show. Speaking of Vick, Goldberg said, “You
know, from his background, this is not an
unusual thingŠIt seemed like a light went off in
his head when he realized that this was something
the entire country really didn’t appreciate,
didn’t likeŠThis is a kid who comes from a
culture where this is not questioned.”
Goldberg’s comments were widely construed
as a defense of Vick, but she made clear in
follow-up remarks that they had no such intent.
“Some of the media had me eating dogs and
swinging them by the tail,” Goldberg complained
to Fox News.
Commented ESPN environmental columnist
Gregg Easterbrook, “I can’t help feeling there
is overkill in the social, media, and legal
reactions to Vick, and that the overkill
originates in hypocrisy about animals. Thousands
of animals are mistreated or killed in the United
States every day,” Easterbrook pointed out,
“without the killers so much as being
criticized…Ranchers and farmers kill stock
animals or horses who are sick or injured.
Greyhound tracks routinely race dogs to
exhaustion and injury, then kill the losers.
Hunters shoot animals for sport.
“From the perspective of the animal,”
Easterbrook suggested, “there seems little
difference between a hunter shooting a deer and
Vick shooting a dog.”
“Much more troubling,” Easter-brook
continued, “is that the overwhelming majority of
Americans who eat meat and poultry–I’m
enthusiastically among them–are complicit in the
systematic cruel treatment of huge numbers of
animals. One of Vick’s dogs was shot, another
electrocuted. Gunshots and electrocution are
federally approved methods of livestock slaughter.
“Vick’s lawbreaking was relatively
minor,” opined Easterbrook, “compared to animal
mistreatment that happens continuously, within
the law, at nearly all levels of the meat
production industry, and with which all but
vegetarians are complicitŠWe won’t lift a finger
to change the way animals die for us. But we will
demand Michael Vick serve prison time to atone
for our sins.”
Among Vick’s few actual defenders were
Southern Christian Leadership Conference
president Charles Steele, who told Ernie Suggs
of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that SCLC
“would find some way to honor and recognize”
Vick, for his past contributions to the
Noted Suggs, “Media mogul Russell
Simmons and activist and former presidential
candidate Al Sharpton both condemned Vick and
called for his corporate sponsors to break ties
with him. But R.L. White, president of the
Atlanta branch of the National Association for
the Advancement of Colored People, urged the
public and the media not to rush to judgment
against Vick.”
Heeding Sharpton, the Upper Deck and
Donruss trading card companies removed Vick’s
card from their 2007 NFL sets, a day after the
athletic apparel makers Nike and Reebok suspended
promoting items associated with Vick. The
trading card removal may have been a boon,
however, to collectors who already have 2007
Vick cards. Topps, the largest maker of
baseball cards, tried to expunge obscure first
baseman Ed Bouchee from their 1958 set, after
Bouchee was convicted of a morals offense–and
thereby ensured that Bouchee is remembered
because the few of his 1958 cards that escaped
the purge fetch some of the highest prices paid
for any sports card.
Other celebrity cases
Los Angeles Times staff writer Gary Klein
noted the contrast between the attention paid to
the Vick case and the minor notice given to
former NFL running back Todd McNair in the 1990s
when he was twice convicted of charges resulting
from dogfighting investigations.
McNair, now running backs coach for the
University of Southern California, was charged
with animal neglect in July 1993, found guilty,
fined $500 and put on probation, according to a
case summary posted by <www.Pet-Abuse.com>.
“As part of the probation agreement, he
was to donate $250 to an animal shelter,” the
summary states. “The judge issued a warrant for
contempt of court after McNair paid the fine but
did not make the donation. He was fined $100 for
contempt and sentenced to community service,
which he fulfilled.”
In 1996 McNair was charged with 81
offenses involving 22 pit bull terriers,
including 17 adults who were found chained to
trees on his property and five puppies. A grand
jury did not indict McNair for dog-fighting,
however. Convicted in October 1996 of 22 counts
of misdemeanor neglect, McNair paid fines and
restitution totaling $16,226.50.
McNair was not penalized by his teams or
by the NFL. Following the Vick case, however,
NFL players will be warned against dogfighting.
The NFL already makes annual presentations to
players about issues including substance misuse
and sexual misconduct. Added this year will be
warnings about dogfighting, using materials
prepared by the American SPCA.
As the Vick case moved toward a
conclusion, another possible celebrity
dogfighting case broke in Maricopa County,
Arizona. Leigh Munsil of the Arizona Republic
reported that sheriff’s deputies found three dead
pit bull terriers, 12 others in a state of
emaciation, guns, cars with non-matching license
plates, drug paraphernalia, and a substance
suspected of being methamphetamine at the Cave
Creek home of rapper DMX, 37, whose given name
is Earl Simmons.

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