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Putting a leash on dogfighting

Juvenile DelinquencyDog (animal)RentalsPets

When police officers burst into a West Baltimore Street rowhouse on a hot August afternoon, their target was a suspected drug dealer, and the raid yielded a stash of cocaine, heroin gel caps and marijuana. But they found much more: a loaded revolver as well as two pit bull terriers and the weights, chains, homemade harness and other equipment that are telltale signs of dogfighting.

That volatile mix - drugs, guns and dogfighting - has fueled a deadly subculture that is tearing at some city neighborhoods, police, animal enforcement and health officials say.

Pit bulls, or "pits" as they are commonly called, are prized by drug dealers and other criminals for their loyalty, muscular beauty and aggressive nature, a characteristic that can be manipulated to sadistic extremes. Some pit bulls are trained to guard drug houses and outdoor heroin caches; others to participate in organized fights.

"Dogfighting has been woven into the fabric of Baltimore's drug culture," said Frederick H. Bealefeld III, the city's acting police commissioner. "It's a part of that scene."

In April, dogfighting exploded into the headlines after Virginia police raided a house and property owned by Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick. They obtained a search warrant after the arrest of Vick's cousin on a drug charge and found 66 dogs, including 55 pit bulls - some of them badly scarred. Last month, a federal grand jury indicted Vick and several associates.

In a plea agreement filed Friday, Vick admitted that he had bankrolled an interstate dogfighting operation and had participated in the killing of pit bulls; he faces up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. He was also suspended indefinitely by the NFL on Friday.

In Baltimore, dogfighting has been popular for decades, but city officials say they've seen a spike recently. They're also concerned about random attacks, such as the June pit bull mauling that left Ruby Pulley of East Baltimore hospitalized with bites and gashes on her head, neck, arms and legs.

Concern for public safety as well as the city's escalating homicide rate - fueled by drug dealing and gang violence and on pace to top 300 this year - has forced officials to take a closer look at dogfighting. Last month, Bealefeld and City Health Commissioner Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein announced the creation of a dogfighting task force that will investigate allegations of animal cruelty and, they hope, lead to arrests.

"We have to look at dogfighting as a criminal enterprise," said city police Maj. James Rood, who oversees the new task force, one of 11 special investigation units he manages. "We often encounter [pit bulls] when we go to drug houses."

Pit bulls offer protection from police as well as rival drug dealers, police say. Drug stashes are commonly placed in the dogs' territory; at the West Baltimore Street rowhouse, for example, a large yellow flashlight filled with 45 tubes of powder cocaine was kept outside in a yard with the dogs.

During another drug raid at a house in the 2700 block of Tivoly Ave. in Northeast Baltimore several months ago, police found five pit bulls in a pitch-black basement. The dogs were malnourished and scarred from past fights.

As a result of interviews with residents of the house, police confirmed the identities of three men wanted in connection with an armed carjacking and shooting, they said.

Dogfighting in Baltimore, however, has been hard to stamp out. The animals are often kept in the backyards of abandoned rowhouses, making it difficult for police or animal enforcement officers to track ownership. Even if they do, those responsible often say the animals belong to a relative or friend, and charges are never filed.

And unlike the dogfights that Vick and his Bad Newz Kennels partners allegedly attended - events that drew spectators and purses worth thousands of dollars - many Baltimore fights take place on the street, when two dog owners cross paths. The fights are more likely about bolstering street credibility than making big-money wagers.

Fighting for respect

"It's like, `What do you think your dog can do to mine?'" said city animal enforcement officer Robert E. Hudnall Jr. "They go at it right there."

Those who stage organized dogfights carefully guard information about events, using code words and moving dogs around the city often to avoid detection, authorities say. Larger fights are staged in the basements of abandoned rowhouses, in neighborhoods where barking, cheering and late-night traffic won't be noticed.

It is impossible to know how rampant dogfighting is in Baltimore. Calls to the city animal enforcement division about alleged dogfighting are often logged as reports of animal cruelty or an injured animal. The Humane Society of the United States estimates that there are about 250,000 dogs nationwide involved in fighting, but it does not break down that number by city or state.

Investigating a dogfight can be dangerous. Baltimore's animal enforcement officers, who do not carry guns, often request police assistance before entering a house where a fight is taking place. Hudnall said he has learned to watch for booby-trapped rowhouses. He and his colleagues have come face-to-face with swinging sledgehammers, fire extinguishers and cinder blocks set up to hinder intruders.

Dogfighting is a felony in 48 states and the District of Columbia; federal laws also make it a crime. In Maryland, participating in a dogfight is punishable by up to three years in jail and a $5,000 fine. Possessing a fight dog is also a felony that carries a large fine - up to $5,000. Spectators can be fined up to $1,000 or spend as many as 90 days in jail.

But authorities usually don't find out about a dogfight until it is too late.

"A fight could be happening, and we wouldn't know anything about it," Rood said. "Even if we do show up, everyone scatters. It's complete chaos. We don't even know who owns the dogs."

Even when authorities encounter abuse, it may be difficult to bring charges.

In June, officers found three dead dogs in the basement of a house in the 3900 block of Bonner Road. One was hanging by a leash from the basement ceiling. The house was abandoned.

City police and animal control officers also investigated an incident in which a pit bull was allegedly doused with sizzling cooking oil during a brutal dogfight in the 4000 block of W. Cold Spring Lane. The injured animal, whose neck and back were hideously burned, had to be euthanized. But witness accounts of the incident varied so greatly that officials could not secure charges against the owner, a 16-year-old boy.

'Major cruelty'

"That was a major cruelty case," said Robert Anderson, head of the city's animal enforcement division. "But there wasn't sufficient evidence. We couldn't prove who actually did it. There were so many conflicting stories."

When they can, authorities confiscate equipment used to train fight dogs and destroy it.

During the Aug. 17 rowhouse raid in the 2500 block of West Baltimore St., for example, animal enforcement officer Ricky Martin found a tether and harness commonly used to exercise dogs and strengthen their neck and back muscles. There were also weights, which were secured to the dogs' collars, and cinderblocks, which can be used to build girth.

Martin, who was called to the scene by police to remove the dogs, said the equipment was "basic" and indicated that the owner was "just starting out." Old car and bike tires are often used in the city to strengthen a dog's bite. Dogs are taught to latch on to the tires and not to let go. In more sophisticated operations, dogs are trained on treadmills and fed special diets and steroids.

Dogs who are seriously injured in the ring or who give up - a sign that some trainers take for genetic imperfection - are often abandoned or shot, according to the Humane Society.

After a thorough search of the West Baltimore Street house, police arrested James Brown, 22, whom they had allegedly seen selling drugs and had chased into the house. He was charged with possession of drugs with the intent to distribute. Police have issued arrest warrants for three other men as a result of the investigation, they said.

Rood said that the Humane Society, which has launched a major anti-dogfighting initiative, has offered to train police and animal enforcement officers in how to detect the crime.

Recently, the city added two new positions in animal enforcement, bringing the total number of officers to 16. But not all of those positions are filled. On most days, the agency, which also deals with injured and dead animals, struggles to keep up with calls for service.

Anderson hopes that by working with police his team can improve public safety and get to the root of dogfighting.

"A lot of the problems with dogfighting is not just the dogs; it's the kids that get involved," he said. "It desensitizes the kids, and it could be adding to the growing violence in the city."

Police fear that youths introduced to the bloody world of dogfighting will graduate to more serious crimes. Recent investigations by the animal control division suggest a link between dogfighting and illegal activities among juveniles.

"It's easy to focus on the dog, but there is also some indoctrination going on," said Bealefeld, who as a narcotics detective made many arrests as a result of a dogfighting investigation in the 1990s.

Teenagers often care for dogs that were cast off because they were injured, sick or old, according to animal control officials. Often, they keep the dogs in the backyards of abandoned rowhouses, where the creatures are exposed to extreme heat and cold. And they fight the dogs because that is what they have seen adults do.

"They have a totally different mentality," said Rood. "If you love the dog, you are going to put the dog in the fight. You and I can't comprehend it."

Martin has seen random fights erupt on the streets. In one recent incident in Southwest Baltimore, a pit bull jumped a fence and attacked two others being walked on leashes. Although Martin tried to separate the dogs, the fight lasted several minutes and left blood smeared on the street.

During another sweep, Martin found three pit bulls in the backyard of a rental house in the 2300 block of Druid Park Drive. Neighbors said the woman renting the house was keeping the dogs for a 17-year-old boy in exchange for drugs. The neighbors, who were afraid to give their names for fear of retribution, also said the boy, who lives nearby, was fighting dogs.

Martin went to the teen's house and on the front porch found old car tires, which could have been used to train the dogs. He later removed the dogs, including a puppy whose ears were cropped so low that they were nubs, and took them to the animal shelter.

But the teenager, when asked about the dogs, denied fighting them.

A teenager also owned the two dogs that attacked Pulley. The boy blamed Pulley for teasing the pit bulls, which he kept in the backyard of the East Baltimore rowhouse that his family rents. He said he was breeding the pit bulls - puppies sell for $100 or more in the city - and blamed the landlord for failing to fix a broken fence that allowed the dogs to escape.

A victim's story

"I thought those dogs were going to take me out," said Pulley, 53, who was only recently released from a rehabilitation facility. "One of the dogs went for my neck. I said, `Oh God, don't let me go out like this.'"

Pulley, who nearly lost an ear in the attack and is still recuperating from puncture wounds and gashes over most of her body, is encouraged by city efforts to protect residents from vicious dogs. She still has nightmares about the dogs that attacked her and calls them "devils."

"This thing has done something to me psychologically," Pulley said.

Police and city officials hope to protect citizens and combat mistreatment of pit bulls, which with proper care and training are not dangerous. They want the new dogfighting task force to have an impact on crime in Baltimore.

"Before we were reactive, now we want to be proactive," said Rood. "We're going to treat dogfighting like a criminal investigation. If there's a tip, there's going to be an investigation."

lynn.anderson@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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