To Baltimore County police, the townhouse on Lange Street in North Point was more than a nuisance: They allege that occupants sold marijuana in $5 bags, fought with neighborhood rivals and ran a dogfighting ring centered around their pit bulls - Dutch, Whezzy, Lucia, Bruno, Gotti and Kane.
Police said they found blood smeared on walls, weights, chains, collars, a treadmill and three aggressive pit bulls that showed signs of injuries. Authorities arrested three people, including Nicole Marie Caruso, a professional dog groomer lauded by her current and former bosses and friends as a die-hard animal rights activist who goes out of her way to rescue animals, not harm them.
The case - involving a professional trained to care for other people's pets now linked by police to a bloodthirsty sport - has confounded the woman's friends and co-workers, who say her dogs fought one another in play, not for some blood-lust sport, and that if anything, she was victimized by the people with whom she hung out.
"She did everything and anything possible for those dogs," said English Miller, who along with her husband and son rented the basement of the townhouse last year. "She wouldn't let anyone hurt them."
Police charging documents do not detail what detectives think each suspect's alleged involvement was in a dogfighting ring, but they do portray Caruso's role as that of a nurse treating injured patients - whether the dogs were forced to fight for bets or simply fought one another for fun. The documents describe her as having tubs of medicine and medical supplies, and quote a roommate saying she "is trained to suture, stitch, and staple wounds on the dogs when they get injured" and to administer IVs to rehydrate the animals.
Police said they seized from the Lange Street home: photos of dogs fighting and injured; a collar with bite marks; an address book with names of owners and dogs; leg irons with a 2 1/2-pound weight; bulk amounts of animal medicine; and vaccines that authorities said had been obtained from Caruso's current and former workplaces.
Caruso worked for six months as a groomer at the SoBo Dog Day Care in South Baltimore's Locust Point, and she spent two years before that as a veterinarian technician at Animal Medical Clinic on York Road in Timonium.
Her bosses at both places described her as a dog lover who rescued strays, patched wounds, wrote articles on animal health for Web sites, and was so popular and skilled that dog owners from as far as Towson drove to South Baltimore just to have Caruso groom their pets.
"It's a huge shame, very heartbreaking," said Nancy Jolle, the office manager of Animal Medical Clinic, where Caruso did everything from answer phones to prep dogs for surgery.
"We're kind of in shock. We don't know what to think until they sort out the facts," Jolle said.
At the SoBo Dog Day Care, owner Bill Link said customers, including many from the luxury Silo Point condo tower next door, raved about her work.
"She has a fantastic following," Link said, noting that her resume shows seven years of professional experience with animals. The shop's Web site shows Caruso grooming dogs and telling customers, "I give clients the confidence they need when leaving their pet with me." She says on the site that she owns three dogs "that mean the world to me."
"I just can't believe she did what they say she did because she's such an advocate," Link said. He added that some of his staff have been in Caruso's house and met the dogs, and that all had had their shots, were healthy and uninjured, and had been spayed or neutered.
"You don't spay a dog if you plan to fight it," Link said. "You want them angry and aggressive. That's why this whole thing doesn't make any sense." He reiterated what Caruso's neighbors have said: that she bought the treadmill for $30 on Craigslist to lose weight, not to train her dogs to fight. The address book could have been clients from her grooming business.
Caruso has been released on $125,000 bail. She could not be reached for comment on Wednesday, and a relative said the family declined to comment. She has no prior adult arrest record.
In documents, police describe a complex tale involving Caruso, who is identified as the girlfriend of one of the suspects, Romy Bogier, who lived with her and told police the couple owned the six dogs.
Bogier has been convicted in recent years of assault and distributing drugs, and has a pending case along with the third co-defendant, Michael Eckert, both of whom are charged with assaulting a man police describe as a rival neighborhood drug dealer. Police say a dispute prompted Bogier to post a guard on the porch and for Caruso to send Bogier's three children to live in another county.
Baltimore Sun reporter Nick Madigan contributed to this article.
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