Tough cases to crack: Dogfighting common, but it's hard for investigators to break wall of silence, police say

Sunday, August 30, 2009
A dog stands chained at a site in East St. Louis, Ill., where the Humane Society seized 15 to 18 dogs July 8. Members of the U.S. Department of Agriculture office of the inspector general, the Illinois State Police, the Humane Society of Missouri and the Humane Society of the United States were on scene. (Emily Rasinski ~ St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

Earlier this month, someone dropped a 2-year-old pit bull called Cowgirl off at the Humane Society of Southeast Missouri, saying they had found her a few days ago.

Her lip had been ripped at one point during her life and stitched back together, and there was a tear in her left ear. Old and new lacerations running over her head and neck forged a latticework of shiny scars, and some of her teeth were cracked and broken. The cartilage across the bridge of her snout was also ruptured, an injury that could have occurred when another dog crushed her face in its jaws.

"A dog does not get to looking like this in a day," said local pit bull rescuer Melanie Coy.

"This is hard-core fighting."

Less than three months ago, about 450 pit bulls were seized by operatives in multistate dogfighting raids, and the 2007 conviction of NFL quarterback Michael Vick for running a dogfighting ring cast a national spotlight on the crime.

Animal rescuers seize dogs July 8 at a site in East St. Louis, Ill.

Though the above cases drew media attention that some animal cruelty investigators and activists say helps raise awareness about the problem of dogfighting, they also say it's a crime that's been rampant in Missouri and other parts of the nation for years, and one without an easy solution.

"This is something that happens every weekend in the state of Missouri," said Kyle Held, animal cruelty investigator for the Humane Society of Missouri.

Held said members of the Humane Society have testified before legisalators and are always asked whether they're seeing more dogfighting incidents since widely publicized incidents like the one involving Vick.

"It's always happened. I don't think it's happening any less because of it," Held said.

In October 2007, a raid on a farm in Stoddard County led to the conviction of two men on charges related to dogfighting. A third was arrested but later acquitted by a jury.

Even in Cape Girardeau city limits, police have dealt with dogfighting incidents in the past, police spokesman Cpl. Adam Glueck said.

In some of the rural counties to the south, like Pemiscot, law enforcement and animal rights activists have forged an alliance dedicated to eradicating dogfighting and the serious crime and animal abuse that accompany it, said Karol Wilcox, president of the Caruthersville Humane Society.

Coy said law enforcement in Southeast Missouri is beginning to take more of an interest in cracking down on dogfighting, but these are often some of the toughest crimes to investigate and can be even more difficult to prove in court.

Best-kept secret

"The best-kept secret in the criminal world is when they fight. There's a lot of fear involved," Coy said.

Though investigators will often spend months working cases based on tips they receive, unless they are able to pinpoint a specific time and place of a fight, the real challenge for law enforcement lies in securing enough evidence for an arrest.

"The hard thing is to catch them in the act," Held said.

Though police frequently rely on confidential informants to make arrests in drug cases and other types of crimes, there is a vow of silence the dogfighting world, making it next to impossible to infiltrate.

Most "hard-core hard-core" dogfighters take part with the intention of staying in it for life or until they go to prison, Held said.

"They'd give up their own mother or brother, but they won't give up the location of a dogfight," said Beverly Alexander, police chief in Wardell, Mo.

Fights are often organized online in private chat rooms, and most of the conversation takes place in code. Websites where dog food, first aid supplies and collars are sold are a common avenue for those interested in staging a fight to make connections with one another, also in code, Held said.

The dogfights that receive the most media attention are those that involve a handful of spectators, wagers of thousands of dollars and take place in a pit of some kind, but "street" dogfighting is also common, especially in more urban areas, Held said.

"Fights can be three crack rocks in the backyard. It's the pride of saying 'I have the meanest dog,'" said Caruthersville police chief Chris Riggs.

Wilcox said what animal rights activists typically see is the aftermath. Earlier in the summer, her Humane Society rescued six that had been dumped at a location in Hayti Heights, Mo. The dogs' injuries leave no doubt in the minds of animal care specialists and law enforcement that they were used for fighting, but without any solid link to an individual or a specific fight, nothing can be done.

"The difference is that animals can't speak for themselves. It's hard to put a case together," Riggs said.

Though federal and state laws prohibit dogfighting, investigating nearly always leads to the discovery of other crimes, according to members of law enforcement.

Alexander said she's seen child abuse and domestic assault crimes frequently linked to dogfighting cases.

Though Held said participants in dogfighting run the gamut from ex-convicts to schoolteachers to professional athletes like Vick to white-collar professionals, drugs, prescription narcotics are commonly associated with dogfighting, some of the illegal drugs even used to treat injured dogs.

According to the U.S. Humane Society, illegal possession of drugs and firearms are both commonly linked to dogfighting, likely attributed to the large sums of money being passed around, and even homicides have been connected with fights.

Cowgirl's story has a happy ending. Her face is healing and her skin has improved with a better diet, and though her former owner tried to get her back, she is now settled with Coy, who described the sweet-tempered female pit as "truly the most special dog I've had a privilege to spend time with."

Wilcox said she frequently has owners whose fighting dogs have been picked up try to get them back, either through attempting to adopt them back or even trying to break into the Humane Society and steal them.

With rehabilitation, some pit bulls that have been used for fighting can become pets for the "right person," someone with an understanding of the breed and the time to put work into the dog's training, Held said.

Still, many of the fighting dogs that are rescued eventually have to be destroyed because their treatment has made them too aggressive toward other animals, Wilcox said.

"We cry a lot," she said. "We try to hold them a week just so they know someone cares about them."

bdicosmo@semissourian.com

388-3635

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