Thursday, April 4, 2013
Huge dogfighting ring busted
By SUE WATSON
What is believed to be one of the largest organized dogfighting operations in the United States was taken down in Benton County last weekend, according to sheriff Kenny Dickerson.
Officers with the Marshall, DeSoto, and Benton county sheriff’s departments, along with the Fayette and Hardeman county, Tenn., sheriff’s departments, assisted federal and state authorities in breaking the case, he said.
Shortly before midnight Saturday, 80 to 100 law enforcement officers conducted a raid on a dogfighting operation in progress on Stewart Road, a dead-end road in Benton County.
Dickerson said the case had been under investigation for months by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Drug Enforcement Agency, focusing on illegal dogfighting on the west coast and in other areas of the country.
“They knew it was happening all over the United States, but were just recently able to pinpoint close to where the next fight would occur,” the sheriff said.
As the intelligence gathering got closer to North Mississippi, local law enforcement was brought to bear on the investigation. Two suspects were arrested in Marshall County Saturday on U.S. 78 prior to the culmination of the investigation in Benton County, where 52 suspects were arrested and taken into custody and about 90 vehicles were impounded late Saturday and throughout the day Sunday.
“We knew, with a high degree of certainly, they had a fight in Charleston Friday night,” Dickerson said. “We were all working a contingency plan Thursday night, all day Friday, Friday night, and Saturday after realizing there was a fight Friday night in Tallahatchie County.”
As intelligence continued to come in, law enforcement was able to pinpoint the next fight in Benton County next to the Mississippi and Tennessee line.
Money and drugs from the vehicle in the arrest of the two suspects on Highway 78, helped law enforcement refine their investigation to Benton County, Dickerson said. Joy Leticia Williams, 25, of the 2700 block of Tess Circle, Tallahassee, Florida, and Vince Lorenzo Gilliam, 29, of Pecan Street, Tallahassee, were arrested by Marshall County deputies and about $5,000 in cash and an undetermined amount of marijuana were seized from the vehicle, according to Dickerson. The two suspects were charged with possession of a controlled substance with intent to sell and with dogfighting, he said.
The sheriff said officers knew they would be facing as many as 100 individuals, many who were probably armed, when they drove the last mile along the dead-end road in Benton County. They announced themselves upon arrival at the relatively new metal building, which had two new gates and locks securing it from unwanted traffic. Officers arrived around midnight after at least one fight had taken place, going by evidence of a pair of injured dogs.
“We knew we could not get there on foot or in disguise,” he said. “Once we arrived, suspects began to flee and they fired shots.”
Fifty-two people were arrested and placed in custody in Marshall, Benton and Tippah counties. About 90 vehicles were seized and impounded at the Benton County Fairgrounds, where the evidence is under protection around the clock by armed law enforcement guards.
The vehicles are being combed for evidence such as drugs, money and other illegal contraband and the owners of the vehicles are being sought. Dickerson said he expects 30 more arrests could be made based upon the number of seized vehicles alone.
The suspects made an initial appearance before judges Gary McBride and Brody Childers of Benton County Monday.
“All suspects were read their charges individually and bond was set for each suspect at $20,000,” Dickerson said.
Law officers estimate that one-third of those suspects at the fight fled the scene into the woods, leaving their vehicles. K-9 dogs were used to search the woods and about 12 suspects were arrested using the search dogs.
Dickerson said he believes that one of those suspects who was arrested may be the owner of the National Grand Champion and that the dog could have been at the fight.
“We will try, for intelligence purposes, to identify the dog and the owner,” he said.
A high-dollar fight
Attendance at the fight was by invitation only, Dickerson said. People had to pay $100 just to attend. People from many states, including Florida, Alabama, Tennessee, Missouri, Indiana, and some from the Mississippi Gulf Coast counties were among those arrested. Dickerson said vehicles were parked along the road, around the metal building, and in an area that looked like it once had been a hog pen. The individual responsible for being host of the event has not yet been identified. The property owner is a person of interest, at this time, the sheriff said.
Upon entering the barn, a concrete corridor, about 15 feet wide and from 30 to 40 feet in length, was used as the main stage for the dogfight. There was space upstairs on each side of the corridor where people stood to look down on the fighting arena located in the center of the corridor, the sheriff said. Spectators also stood in the corridor and around the ring.
The fighting arena was constructed of plywood sheets of about 30 inches in height arranged in a circle. There was old and new blood on the plywood, suggesting it may not have been the first use, the sheriff said. Interior carpet was in the floor of the ring to provide footing for the dogs.
The small table believed to have been in use for betting was inside the barn. A set of scales, with a hook on it, was also hanging in the barn and was believed to have been used to weigh the dogs before they were matched for the fight.
There was a small bar and place to obtain food.
Dickerson said money was found all around the table and on the floor inside the barn. A sock found by investigators in the woods contained about $10,000 in cash – $20s, $50s and $100s in bills. Many of the vehicles towed were very valuable late-model trucks and cars estimated to range in value from $60,000 to $80,000.
“There were three-quarter and half-ton pickups and classy-type cars,” Dickerson said. “They were parked along the road, around the barn, in pastures.”
Most of the vehicles were locked and officers believe some of those who fled on foot may have thrown away money and their keys.
Close to $100,000 in cash has already been recovered from the persons or the vehicles and it will take many days to thoroughly search all hidden compartments in the vehicles for money and other contraband, the sheriff said. One vehicle had a number of trophies in it.
The take-down was successful in the fact that no one in law enforcement fired a shot and no one was injured, except several suspects who may have injuries as a result of the K-9 arrests.
The suspects range in age from the early 20s to the mid-50s. Most of them were African American males and most from outside the state. Their occupations, as given at the time of arrest, included school teachers, restaurant employees and owners – people with money, the sheriff said.
Two suspects that were arrested were in wheelchairs and one relied on a walker.
“This is, without question, a big enough operation that the FBI opened a case on it,” said Dickerson. “It is no small-time thing. It is one of the most high-dollar fights in the United States. The bottom-line – they picked the wrong place to have a fight.”
Humane society speaks
Chris Schindler, with the Washington, D.C., office of the Humane Society of America, said 20 dogs were seized following the arrests. One dog was treated but died and another was in critical care and being treated Monday, he said.
The dogs used in fighting are American pitbull terriers, he said. The takedown was unique for its size, he said, and will affect dogfighting nationwide.
“This will have a ripple effect or dampening effect on illegal dogfighting nationwide,” he said.
Schindler described the action as “a very swift, collaborative effort.”
He said Humane Society experts track the players in dogfighting operations nationally and internationally.
“We gather intel and assist law enforcement nationally,” he said.
The illegal industry is a big money operation for owners who choose and condition their terriers from birth and often breed the animals. Prices range from several thousand dollars for puppies to up to $50,000 for a five-time grand champion, he said.
Schindler said owners keep detailed books on their animals and training methods, the types of medicines they use and where they obtain medical supplies. The owners select dogs out of a litter that show aggression toward other dogs and condition them with test fights before setting them in matches.
Before matching up dogs for a battle, the owners agree on the exact weight-in much like boxing matches. Conditioning for a match is begun eight weeks ahead of the match, he said.
He described the owners as very involved in the illegal industry.
“They can talk about it for hours,” Schindler said. “They live and breathe this stuff.”
The cases of those under arrest and charged will be taken before a Benton County grand jury. The suspects are being charged with a felony under Mississippi statutes. Anyone who is convicted of sponsoring, promoting, staging or conducting a fighting match between dogs, or betting on a fight, or transporting a dog for the purpose of fighting, can be charged with a felony. Upon conviction, punishment can range from a fine of $1,000-$5,000, or by imprisonment in the state penitentiary for a term of from one to three years, or both, at the discretion of the court.
Upon conviction, spectators of a dog fight may be fined $500 to $5,000 and be imprisoned for one year.
Dickerson thanked the U.S. Humane Society and the Marshall and Benton county humane societies for their help with the transport of the dogs that survived the ordeal.
He also thanked Benton County Sheriff Arnie McMullen, DeSoto County Sheriff Bill Rasco, officers with the five sheriffs’ departments assisting with the case, officers with the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. Marshals Service, the Mississippi Wildlife, Game and Fish Commission, and uniformed officers with the Mississippi Highway Patrol for helping with the search, arrests and seizures.
“The bottom line, the end results of this investigation show what cooperation among federal, state, and local law enforcement can do to take these type people off the street and put them in prison,” Dickerson said.
“And, hopefully, the lives of living creatures will be protected from being mistreated.”
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