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Judge orders largest restitution ever in dog-fighting case

A federal judge in Alabama ordered participants in a high-stakes dogfighting operation to pay a record $2 million in restitution for their animals’ care.

U.S. District Judge Keith Watkins imposed the payments in mid-January on people who pleaded guilty in the multi-state case.

Officials with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Humane Society of the United States said it was the largest restitution amount ever ordered by federal judge in a dogfighting case. It came after the judge earlier imposed the longest sentence ever in a federal dogfighting case.

“I hope it sends a message that not only will you be punished, you will have to pay,” federal prosecutor Clark Morris said.

The restitution will go to the two animal welfare organizations, which provided care for the 451 dogs seized in the case. But even if all the money is paid, which they doubt, it won’t come close to covering the $5.5 million they reported spending on the dogs’ care, including veterinary treatments, housing, food, and retraining to try to make them adoptable pets. The operation involved more than 700 people who set up temporary rescue centers at the National Peanut Festival fairgrounds in Dothan, Alabama, and a warehouse in Gainesville, Florida.

Tim Rickey, vice president of field operations for the ASPCA, said some of the defendants are on payment plans that would require them to be 300 years old to pay the full amount, but he said holding them financially responsible is important to people who donated money to pay for the care of malnourished, injured dogs.

Federal agents raided locations in Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi in August 2013 and seized 367 dogs, nearly all pit bulls. Many were found underfed and attached to heavy chains. Several of the dogs were pregnant, and animal welfare groups ended up with 451 dogs by the time the puppies arrived. Officials said more than half the dogs have been adopted or being prepared for adoption, but the remainder died from health problems or had to be euthanized because they were too aggressive toward humans.

Cooperating witnesses said Donnie Anderson staged fights near Auburn, Alabama, that usually attracted 100 to 300 people who paid $100 to $150 each to attend. They brought large sums of cash and $100,000 or more was often bet on a single fight.

Anderson, described by the judge as “the kingpin of this conspiracy,’ was sentenced in November to eight years in prison. That’s four times longer than the sentence NFL quarterback Michael Vick got in his 2007 dogfighting case.

Anderson worked out an agreement with federal prosecutors to pay $580,000 in restitution for the care of his 147 dogs, and the judge approved it. The judge said in an earlier hearing that 78 of Anderson’s dogs either died from injuries or had to be euthanized.

The judge ordered Ricky Van Lee of Biloxi, Miss., to pay $627,389 for the care of his 68 dogs. Lee is serving four years in prison.

Michael Martin of Auburn must pay $458,752 for the care of his 55 dogs. He has a five-year sentence.

The judge ordered four others to pay smaller amounts that pushed the total to $1,987,411. One defendant, who had two dogs seized, became ill in court and his restitution case had to be postponed. Prosecutors are recommending $17,840 in his case.

The amounts vary because some defendants’ dogs were in care longer than others.

Dogfighting thrives in Milwaukee and around the nation in years since Vick case

In the squalid Jacksonville dogfighting kennel, a champion named Bulletproof Sam sat in a makeshift wooden cage, his teeth exposed from a missing snout.

Nearby, an undercover agent with the sheriff’s office met with Sam’s breeder, a big-timer in the underground world of dogfighting named Willie Coleman, and made a deal that was caught on a hidden video camera.

Coleman — whose puppies other breeders nationwide sought for their prized bloodlines — was charged with 17 felony counts associated with dogfighting after that 2012 sting, and faced possible prison time.

It seemed like a sure win for investigators, who have gone after dogfighting with greater interest ever since NFL star Michael Vick pleaded guilty in 2007 to bankrolling a dogfighting ring and other charges, eventually serving 18 months in prison. The three largest dogfighting busts in U.S. history have occurred since 2009.

But despite being banned in all 50 states and the momentum generated by the Vick case, the ancient blood sport is thriving in the underground, with hundreds of thousands of dollars at stake on big matches, police detectives and prosecutors said.

,“This is a much bigger problem than people realize. Law enforcement is learning that there’s an absurd amount of money involved,” said Officer Ivan Wick, a dogfighting investigator with the Milwaukee Police Department.

Wick, who worked with the FBI in April on a dogfighting bust that netted 12 suspects in Milwaukee, said investigations focused on a criminal group’s dogfighting business can be more useful to detectives than following drug money.

“The criminal organization (in Milwaukee) was making more money from the dogfighting part of gang activities than from the drug trafficking part,” Wick said.

Authorities say dogfighting isn’t a regional phenomenon: arrest data collected by The Humane Society of the U.S. since 2011 show hundreds of busts ranging from San Francisco to New York City, and in nearly every state.

“People believe it’s happening in someone else’s community,” said Tim Rickey, of the ASPCA, who worked with law enforcement on the 367 bust. “There’s not one kind of neighborhood or type of individual … we’ve seen judges, a doctor, lawyers, nurses and firefighters all being involved in this.”

Still, when there are arrests, prosecutors are often hamstrung by outdated laws once a case gets to the courts.

State laws still require no minimum mandatory jail time, so while arrests and convictions can be disruptive to dogfighting rings for a short while, the practice continues to flourish.

“Unfortunately, in our courts today, animal welfare is not given the attention and seriousness that it deserves,” said Cyrus Zomorodian, the Jacksonville-based animal cruelty prosecutor who tried Coleman’s case. “We constantly fight for more court time, resources and attention.”

In 2013, after a three-year investigation that included local police and the FBI, more than 15 people were arrested, 367 dogs seized, $500,000 in cash, firearms and drugs were seized in Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi and Texas. It was the second-largest dogfighting bust U.S. history, known as the “367 case.”

A few big federal busts like the 367 case that have occurred since Vick are rooting out some large fighting groups, the more investigators look for organized, professional level dogfighting, the more they’re finding.

In Florida, where dogfighting arrests are routine, there is no minimum mandatory sentence for conviction. The state’s animal welfare law was written to protect livestock, so prison time is mandatory for the felony abuse of a horse or a cow, but not a dog.

Animal cruelty legal experts say the same is true in states throughout the nation, but note that there is progress in toughening laws.

For example, New York’s animal protection laws are more than a century old, and also focus on the treatment of livestock, said Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice. Rice, who heads the state’s district attorneys association, is advocating for a new law in Albany that would bring cruelty laws up to date and strengthen penalties.

“Prosecutors and the courts are hamstrung by laws that aren’t just out of date but that don’t treat crimes against animals like the serious crimes that they are. Not only does animal crime law in New York have little to no sentencing requirements, but it doesn’t even allow the courts to count prior convictions in sentencing, essentially giving a free pass to repeat offenders,” Rice said.

Laws are slowly changing in other states to make prosecuting these cases easier, said Lora Dunn, a staff attorney at the Animal Legal Defense Fund in Portland, Oregon. Seven states have added dogfighting to racketeering laws since Michael Vick’s case in 2007, and in 2013 the federal government added a law to the Farm Bill that made attending a dogfight illegal.

Florida prosecutor Zomorodian wants increased penalties for animal fighting to help bring more successful cases, but says either way, the cases will always be difficult.

Even though Coleman, the dog breeder who faced 17 counts, and was well-known by advocates and dogfighters alike, he received no time behind bars. His case was delayed for two years until August, when a judge taking into account Coleman’s advanced age — he’s now in his 70s — and lack of a significant prior record sentenced him to probation and set him free.

“Our victims don’t have a voice and cannot testify as to what happened,” Zomorodian said.

Milwaukee police: Dogfighting owners hard to track

The dogfighting matches described this week by Milwaukee County prosecutors allegedly took place in residential neighborhoods, not in far-flung rural communities.

If true, it raises the question of why neighbors never reported seeing or hearing anything out of the ordinary.

The answer hints at why dogfighting remains so persistent in Milwaukee: Perpetrators go to such lengths to hide their actions that neighbors may not even know dogs are living next door. To combat the scourge, police have begun teaming up with animal-welfare groups to spot signs of dogfighting, and community groups have set up a telephone hotline where residents can report anything that seems the slightest bit suspicious.

Authorities arrested 13 Milwaukee-area residents Thursday and recovered 22 pit bulls, the culmination of an investigation that began with a tip of dogfighting in 2011. Police acknowledge that other perpetrators may still be out there.

Dogfighting operations can be highly sophisticated. Dog owners might build elaborate fighting pits in their basements, and they’ll often breed or pay top dollar for pit bull puppies genetically predisposed to be vicious toward other dogs. Owners also put their dogs through rigorous training regimens that build up their stamina through hours on a treadmill or long walks while dragging heavy weights.

But the owners are also part of a secretive, highly insular community, Milwaukee police Officer Ivan Wick said Friday. Matches are often planned hours in advance, and participants might arrange two or three meeting points beforehand so they can ensure they’re not being followed. They might keep their animals locked in the trunk, only taking them out when their vehicle is inside a closed garage.

Many matches are also held late at night or during pre-dawn hours, and basements can be soundproof.

So even if three or four matches are being staged in one night in a residential area, neighbors might not have a clue.

Even so, Wick said neighbor vigilance is one of the best ways to combat dogfighting.

“If you see a bunch of people showing up at a house, taking dogs in and coming out with injured dogs or not as many dogs, please call us,” he said. “There are many people who’d like to have the opportunity to investigate.

Some owners fight their dogs for the pride that comes with owning a “gamer,” Wick said. But often they’re more interested in making money. Some owners make $20,000 or more in matches in wagers with other owners, through carefully managed matches that comply with a sophisticated set of rules and regulations.

“Some people are in it for the money. Then there are some people who just like to see blood,” Wick said. “The problem posed by dogfighting is larger than I think most people realize.”

It’s hard for authorities to know how widespread the issue is. Officers often have to rely on neighbors to phone in tips, and police have begun seeking investigative advice from groups such as the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

The nonprofit ASPCA provides free training to police departments across the nation. It helps officers spot signs of dogfighting and recognize otherwise-benign objects that are actually props used in training or fights. Those might include treadmills modified for small dogs, or wooden bite sticks used to pry a dog’s jaws open during a match.

“These things by themselves aren’t definitive evidence,” said Tim Rickey, the vice president of the ASPCA’s field investigations team. “But they’re things that hopefully raise their awareness level so they can begin investigating further,”

Wick said the training has been valuable for his officers, who are now more thorough in their searches. For example, even when they’re investigating something unrelated they might examine walls for signs of spattered dog blood.

Community groups are also trying to spread the word about dogfighting. Brew City Bully Club, a group highlights the positive aspects of pit bulls, announced an anonymous tip line Friday where residents can call in their concerns. The number is 414-688-0899.