The four pit bulls were kept in a cramped backyard and tethered with heavy chains. As animal enforcement officer Ricky Martin approached the yard, the dogs barked and growled. Two of them had open wounds, evidence, Martin said, that they had been used in an organized dogfight. He also noted smears of dried blood inside the dogs' shelters.
It was not the first time authorities had visited the East Baltimore rowhouse. Police raided it in May and found seven dogs, including four puppies, and a gun. They suspect that the vacant rowhouse is being used to shelter fighting dogs and that those responsible are involved in other illegal activities. The investigation remains open, police said.
City officials say it is this connection between dogfighting, drug dealing, illegal gambling and other criminal activities that has led them to take a more serious look at the cruel matches, which are often staged in rowhouse basements out of sight of neighbors and police. Losing dogs are sometimes shot or hanged because their owners don't want to weaken the breed.
Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein, the city health commissioner, and Frederick H. Bealefeld III, the acting police commissioner, are expected to announce the creation of a multi-agency dogfighting task force today. A police detective will investigate dogfight rings and will collect evidence against organizers, trainers, breeders and spectators. The effort could stem violence in the city and animal abuse, officials say.
"People who are destroying animals and engaging in this criminal conduct are ... also associated with drug culture and drug dealing," said Bealefeld, the former head of a police narcotics unit. "This is absolutely an easy integration into our gang enforcement efforts and our overall goal to reduce violent crime in the city."
Children interviewed at the East Baltimore rowhouse where police found fighting dogs said they were caring for the animals for adults. Bealefeld said he worries that caring for the dogs will lure children into a world that includes drug dealing and violence.
"There is a subliminal indoctrination into the thug world," said Bealefeld, adding that youths who feed fighting dogs are not unlike youths who sell drugs on city corners for adult drug dealers. They are both pawns in a large criminal organization. "It is the same thing," he said.
Sharfstein, who oversees animal control issues as the city's health commissioner, said he wants to make Baltimore a safer place for animals and people, some of whom are terrorized by neglected beasts and their owners.
Last month, Ruby Pulley, 53, of East Baltimore was bitten over 90 percent of her body by two pit bulls that had escaped from a backyard. There was no evidence that the dogs had been used for fighting, but their 17-year-old owner said he was breeding the dogs - two males and two females - so that he could sell their puppies. The boy said he couldn't say what the people who bought the puppies would do with them.
"This relates directly to community safety," Sharfstein said. "If we can break up rings of dogfighting, it will have a impact on neighborhoods."
The task force announcement was made a day after Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick pleaded not guilty to dogfight-related charges in federal court in Richmond, Va. Vick and three co-defendants were indicted this month on a single count of conspiracy relating to dogfighting. If convicted, they could be sentenced to up to six years in prison and fined $250,000 in fines.
The indictment says Vick and others staged fights in Smithfield, Va., on property Vick bought in June 2001. Federal authorities uncovered the dogfighting ring during an April 25 drug raid. Prosecutors say the defendants, who ran Bad Newz Kennels, crossed state lines to participate in dogfights in Maryland and other states.
In Baltimore, dogfighting has been popular for years, police say. Many of the animals that wind up in the city's shelter are pit bulls, which have been bred to fight other animals but are not generally aggressive toward people. Pit bulls are extremely popular, in part because of their reputation as tough street dogs.
The Humane Society of the United States estimates that more than 30 percent of dogs in animal shelters nationwide are pit bulls, up from 2 percent to 3 percent 15 years ago.
Pit bulls and pit bull mixes are common in city neighborhoods. Most of the dogs are pets, but some are trained from the time they are puppies to be vicious fighters, animal control officers and police say. Dogs in training are often tethered with heavy chains and locks to build up neck muscles, said Martin, the city animal control officer, and also to prevent them from being stolen.
Martin said some dog owners use old tires to train dogs to latch on to an object. They also use cats and small dogs to encourage aggressiveness in dogs.
When Martin went to investigate the East Baltimore rowhouse where police discovered evidence of dogfighting, he found two cat carcasses with bite marks. Martin took photos of the dead cats and spoke with neighbors who said the owners of the dogs also placed the cats in yards with other dogs to start fights.
"I don't trust them," neighbor Phillip McArthur, 58, said of the dogs Martin retrieved from the East Baltimore rowhouse last week. "I'm just glad to see them gone."
The dogs - named Tank, Diamond, Bear and Oreo, according to the children who said they were taking care of them - were taken to the city's animal shelter. Martin said he thought all four were rescued.
Only Tank, a male pit bill, remained at the shelter earlier this week. Tank's head was covered with puncture wounds and scratches when Martin found him, but he is healing and is affectionate with members of the shelter staff.
Other dogs are not so lucky. In May, a pit bull was badly burned with hot cooking grease and was euthanized, city animal control officials said. Although some witnesses said the dog was burned because it refused to release its hold on another dog, perhaps in a fight, officials could not gather enough evidence to prosecute the owner, said Robert Anderson, who heads Baltimore's animal control division.
Three dead dogs were found recently in the basement of a city house, one of them hanging by the neck from a leash. Anderson said the dogs had been dead for so long that it could not be determined whether they were used for dogfighting. He said the addition of a full-time police officer should help in such cases because his staff is not trained in investigative tactics and witness interviews.
Bealefeld said he is eager to take on dogfight investigations, in part because they can lead to larger busts. About 15 years ago, when he was a narcotics detective, Bealefeld said, he worked on a case that started out as an animal complaint. A subsequent police investigation lead to the discovery of a large dogfighting ring, members of which were part of drug organizations, he said.
"From that single case we worked years in follow-up cases," Bealefeld said. "We just followed lead after lead. We had one prosecution after the next. It was an incredible gold mine."