Triple murder follows dogfighting raids that net 62 suspects and 120 pit bulls
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, April 2013:
Walking inside, the unidentified man found the bodies, and a two-month-old baby girl beneath Carter’s arm. “It looked as if she was protecting the baby when she was killed,” Oneida County Sheriff Jeff Semrad told media. Sheriff’s deputies found 64 pit bulls chained in two dog yards. Both dog yards were visible in photographs taken from two county highways intersecting near the scene, and found 38 marijuana plants, with a cumulative street value estimated at $95,000. Bruce Christensen, brother of Brent, told media that Brent had served prison time for drug-related offenses.
Brent L. Christensen was also reputedly a professional dogfighter. “Evidence at the scene suggests dog fights were held at the site,” reported Debbie Bryce of the Idaho State Journal. “So, we have a dog fighting ring going on here and pretty good grow operation. And so we just don’t know right now. Is it drug related, or not? Maybe it’s not related to either one of those things,” Semrad said. “We believe that they knew who the killer was. There’s no evidence there was a robbery.” Semrad said the investigation had discovered names of interest from other parts of southern Idaho and northern Utah. The Oneida County Sheriff’s Depart-ment in August 2007 found as many as 34 pit bulls believed to have been bred for fighting on the premises of alleged marijuana growers Andy Ray Willard and Tiffany Willard, near Malad, the only incorporated city in the county. Both Willards were convicted in November 2007 of manufacturing a controlled substance. Andy Willard was sentenced to serve two years in state prison; Tiffany Willard was eligible for probation after serving 180 days. Dogfighting charges were not filed, after the 34 pit bulls disappeared soon after the Willards were arrested. Semrad indicated that the murder victims were not involved in the Willard case, but the Willard case did involve other suspects. “These are dangerous people, and the individual we arrested [apparently Andy Willard] has told us that. That’s why he doesn’t want to cooperate and give names, because he’s scared,” Semrad said soon after the dogs vanished. “We did locate what we thought possibly were some of the dogs that were stolen but the attorneys for the Willards would not allow them to cooperate with us and identify the dogs, because they were worried about federal charges,” Semrad told KPVI News, of Pocatello, in November 2007. Oneida County Commissioner Max Firth donated food for the pit bulls who were impounded after the murders. The pit bulls had apparently not been properly fed in some time. “Occasionally they would grind up the meat of a dog who died and feed that to the other dogs,” Semrad e-mailed to Local News 8, of Idaho Falls. “We found a dead dog in the freezer and a grinder nearby,” Semrad said. Removing the pit bulls from the premises on April 8, the Idaho Humane Society reported on April 9 that most were “in very poor body condition,” malnourished, with open wounds and skin, eye, and ear ailments resulting from neglect of basic care. Some had untreated broken bones. The Best Friends Animals Society reportedly offered to take the dogs for possible rehabilitation for adoption. Unclear was whether the Idaho killings were connected with the dogfighting raids of the preceding weeks. Possible motives might include silencing suspected witnesses or retaliating against suspected informants. But there were earlier hints that some of the alleged dogfighters involved in the raids had homicidal inclinations. As many as 10 shots were reportedly fired early on Easter Sunday near Benton, Mississippi when more than 100 officers and agents with the Marshall, Benton, and DeSoto county sheriff’s departments and the Mississippi Bureau of Investigations closed in on a dogfight that allegedly included “major players” in dogfighting nationally. “I don’t know if it was a lookout [firing shots to warn the dogfight participants] or if it was a psycho who realized at 2:00 a.m. in a crowd of 200, he could shoot into the woods and maybe kill a cop with no one being able to figure out who did what,” Humane Society of the U.S. director of animal cruelty policy John Goodwin told ANIMAL PEOPLE. “A bunch of guys got away,” as many as 70 according to local police, “and we suspect the weapon that was fired got away too,” Goodwin said.
“This was definitely a gathering of some of the most hardcore dogfighters in the country,” Goodwin added. “Since the Benton County jail couldn’t hold everyone, they were spread around a tri-county area,” delaying release of a master list of the 52 suspects who were arrested at the scene. Fifteen to 20 pit bulls were also taken into custody, according to the Benton Clarion-Ledger. Other reports said as many as 26 pit bulls were seized. Among the suspects were 13 Texans, 12 Misssissippians, six Alabamans, five people each from Tennessee and Florida, three Arkansans, two people each from Illinois and Ohio, and one man from Louisiana. Five more suspects and 18 pit bulls were rounded up on April 5, 2013 from locations in Tracy and Carmichael, California. The California suspects were charged with possession of fighting dogs, drug and weapons-related offenses, and child endangerment. “These are the kind of guys who operate under street names,” said Goodwin. “This wasn’t the old school, big-name dog man crowd, but rather the core of the new high roller gang-affiliated dogfighters. They came of age when the underground magazines [published by and for the “old school” dogfighters] were starting to disappear, and are much harder to track.” But HSUS senior law enforcement specialist Eric Sakach remembered the oldest of the California arrestees, James Leiva, 60. “I testified against Leiva in a dogfighting case in Lake County, California, in 1999. He was found guilty and served 16 months in state prison,” Sakach said. The Benton raid came a week after the biggest seizure of alleged fighting dogs in nearly four years, disclosed on March 25, 2013, brought the total number of alleged fighting dogs seized by law enforcement in the first 100 days of the year to more than twice as many as were impounded in all of 2012. The American SPCA took custody of nearly 100 pit bulls found by the FBI, U.S. Attorney’s Office, and Missouri State Highway Patrol, during weekend raids on sites in Kansas, Missouri, and Texas. Pete Davis, 38, and Melvin Robinson, 41, both of Kansas City, Kansas (across the Missouri River from Kansas City, Missouri) were indicted for interstate animal trafficking in connection with animal fighting. “For years, the wails and cries of dogs troubled” Davis’ neighbors, reported Tony Rizzo of the Kansas City Star. “Numerous calls to the city about the home reported suspicions of animal abuse and neglect. Neighbors said they sometimes glimpsed dogs inside the garage hanging by their necks. Because they were pit bulls, neighbors suspected that the dogs were used for dogfighting.” In September 2011 one of Davis’ dogs mauled two small dogs being walked by neighbor Brandi Oude Alink and her seven-year-old daughter, Davis was fined $400. “Kansas City Municipal Court records show three other convictions against Davis for violating animal ordinances,” Rizzo wrote. The raids resulting in criminal charges against Davis and Robinson came about six weeks after the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation, Federal Drug Administration, and local sheriff’s deputies seized 99 alleged fighting pit bulls from seven sites in five North Carolina counties. The North Carolina raids were assisted by the Humane Society of the U.S. Law enforcement activity in response to dogfighting soared after the April 2007 discovery of a dogfighting operation at the Surrey, Virginia home of football star Michael Vick, but fell off after the Humane Society of Missouri and the ASPCA in July 2009 took custody of 378 pit bulls who were seized in raids on alleged dogfighting operations in five states. Puppies born to those pit bulls raised the count to 407 dogs in custody, of whom 237 were reportedly rehomed. “We do not feel like there has been any decline in animal fights,” ASPCA vice president Tim Rickey told Maria Sudekum of Associated Press. “There is better awareness, but there continues to be a lack of enforcement because they’re very difficult to investigate.” “A lot of the big breeders of game dogs complain about sales being off by half. Based on what metrics we have,” Goodwin told ANIMAL PEOPLE, “dogfighting indeed shrank and hasn’t gone back to pre-Michael Vick levels. That said,” Goodwin added, “there is still a lot more happening in the shadows than people suspect.” Conventional belief, when the Michael Vick case broke, was that pit bull proliferation was driven by dogfighting demand, and that cracking down on dogfighting would help to reduce the numbers of pit bulls killed in animal shelters, the numbers of pit bulls involved in non-dogfighting-related cruelty and neglect cases, and the numbers of fatal and disfiguring pit bull attacks on humans. The numbers of pit bulls killed in U.S. shelters fell from 2007 to 2009, rebounded in 2010, then dropped somewhat in 2011. ANIMAL PEOPLE is still collecting the data from 2012. Arrests for non-dogfighting-related cruelty to pit bulls and impoundments of neglected pit bulls dropped in 2009, but rebounded in the next two years. Arrests for non-dogfighting-related cruelty to pit bulls fell by two-thirds in 2012, even as the numbers of pit bulls impounded for neglect more than doubled, largely due to the collapse of several large pit bull rescues. The combined total of fatal and disfiguring pit bull attacks on humans in 2007 was the lowest since 1999. But pit bull attack fatalities doubled in 2008 and have remained at or above the 2008 number. Disfigurements post-2007 have nearly sextupled. ANIMAL PEOPLE analysis of dogfighting participation data suggests that there are fewer than 800 actual dogfighting trainers in the U.S., of whom only 60-90 are professionals. Most or all of the professionals appear to make money mostly by breeding pit bulls of purported “champion” pedigrees for sale to would-be dogfighters and status seekers.
Much more of the money in cockfighting appears to be derived from actually staging fights. While organized dogfights are usually seen only by people known to the trainers, cockfights are often open to almost anyone who shows up with the admission fee. Far fewer cockfighting arrests in recent years than circa 12 years ago might mean less cockfighting, or might reflect changing law enforcement priorities. There are now only about 1,700 active gamecock breeders in the U.S., down from about 8,000 at peak, Goodwin believes. But the remaining breeders appear to have much bigger operations. More alleged fighting birds were seized in 2012 than in any year on record except 2007. Three of the top five annual totals of alleged fighting bird seizures have come since 2007. Responding to an exotic Newcastle disease outbreak that raged through southern California and Arizona in 2002-2003, believed to have been spread mainly by cockfighters but causing the deaths of 3.7 million laying hens, the USDA paid $11.4 million to buy and kill 144,000 gamefowl. This disrupted the normal patterns of activity among cockfighters, gamefowl breeders, and law enforcement against cockfighting for more than two years. If the USDA in 2002-2003 culled 70% of the potentially infected gamebird flocks, the minimum percentage necessary to cull or vaccinate to stop the spread of a contagious disease, the numbers of birds involved in cockfighting could be projected to have been 10 times greater than the numbers seized in 2000-2001. If the pattern continues that the numbers of birds seized in cockfighting raids are 10% of the birds involved, and if the same pattern applies to human participation in cockfighting, there may be about 50,000 cockfighting enthusiasts in the U.S., most of whom are spectators or gamblers, rather than breeders and trainers. ––Merritt Clifton
U.S. pit bull data, 2000-April 7, 2013
“Busts” means reported dogfighting raids. “Arrests” means persons arrested in connection with those raids. “Dogs” means pit bulls impounded in connection with those raids. “PB shelter kills” means pit bulls killed in animal shelters. “Cruelty” means non-dogfighting cruelty cases documented either by Pet-Abuse.com or by other information in the ANIMAL PEOPLE archives. “Neglect” means dogs impounded or found dead in non-dogfighting neglect cases documented by either Pet-Abuse.com or by other information in the ANIMAL PEOPLE archives. “Fatal” means fatal pit bull attacks on humans. “Maimed” means disfiguring pit bull attacks on humans. ANIMAL PEOPLE surveys of dogs offered for sale or adoption in classified ads, done in 2003, 2010, 2011, and 2012, indicates that the total U.S. pit bull population has remained relatively consistent, at about 2.8 to three million dogs at any given time. Year Busts Arrests Dogs PB shelter kills Cruelty Neglect Fatal Maimed 2000 66 297 896 (no survey) 26 79 11 60 2001 75 282 869 (no survey) 19 68 7 62 2002 108+ 160+ 1612+ (no survey) 36 69 6 64 2003 (no data) 900,000 50 106 13 71 2004 (no data) (no survey) 87 267 8 38 2005 71 100 743 (no survey) 163 355 14 81 2006 61 148 864 967,300 194 629 14 63 2007 71 170 1350 920,000 125 604 12 37 2008 81 269 1189 825,000 161 785 24 52 2009 94 202 1589 810,000 102 261 29 91 2010 77 118 789 930,000 154 570 29 141 2011 63 158 549 888,000 245 420 23 198 2012 17 42 145 (survey underway) 86 924 24* 189 2013 11 65 324 (as of 4/7/2013) 17 60 8 85 + 2002 dogfighting info was projected from partial data. * Bite fatalities only. Counting non-bite head injuries and heart attacks suffered during dog attacks, the total of fatalities was 38. U.S. cockfighting data Year Arrests Birds seized 1997 350 725 1998 498 763 1999 389 1023 2000 874 876 2001 1508 7995 2002+ 1840 7036 2003* 53 2061 2004* (no data log) 2005 1064 2267 2006 377 2721 2007 729 9423 2008 691 5158 2009 447 8151 2010 413 7658 2011 461 4677 2012 665 9314 2013# 132 801 + The 2002 numbers were projected from three months of data. * In 2002-2003 the USDA paid $11.4 million to buy and kill 144,000 gamefowl who were believed to have been exposed to exotic Newcastle disease. This appeared to suppress cockfighting activity for more than two years. # As of March 31, 2013.