Sheriff's Office increasing efforts against dogfighting


Published: Saturday, September 1, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, September 1, 2007 at 12:25 a.m.

The Alachua County Sheriff's Office is stepping up efforts to combat dogfighting, which apparently has made local inroads, including the publication of a magazine and a Web site related to the blood sport.

Sheriff Sadie Darnell said dogfighting - to some extent - goes on here, and part of her office's quest to quell it will include training more officers in how to spot the signs of potential dogfighting or the remnants of it.

The Sheriff's Office also has added an additional rural services deputy who can help look for dogfighting off the beaten path, Darnell said

Since pro football star Michael Vick's indictment on federal dogfighting charges last month, a light has been shed nationally on the backwoods, underworld where two dogs - usually pit bulls - are pitted against each other.

Sheriff's Capt. Jim Troiano - previously the head of the office's Criminal Investigations Division before recently transferring to the county jail, where he is commander of the Support Services Unit - said he had been looking into the magazine, called Performance A.P.B.T. (for American pit bull terrier), for about a year.

However, disclaimers that the magazine's articles are pure fiction have prevented law enforcement from making any arrests. State law makes it a felony to promote or advertise dogfighting.

"Based on what they're printing, it makes it almost impossible to prosecute," Troiano said.

A Gainesville post office box is listed as Performance A.P.B.T.'s address, and advertisers and subscribers are asked to address money orders to Carlton Cunningham.

Attempts to reach Cunningham for comment at addresses and phone numbers in his name were unsuccessful.

A Web site linked to Gainesville also appears to have connections to dogfighting. The Web site for 50/50 Kennels - www.5050kennels.com - boasts that its dogs come from lineages such as Jeep, Redboy and Jocko, which are known fighting-dog pedigrees, said John Goodwin, manager for animal fighting services for The Humane Society of the United States.

One dog, named Crazy Teeth, is listed as being imported from Russia from a known fight-dog breeder, Goodwin said.

The Web site contains a list of videos - such as Dogman 2000 - that Goodwin said are popular in fighting circles. Most of the videos are known as "yard videos," which dog breeders sometimes use to show off their dogs, Goodwin said. Yard videos typically do not contain footage of dogs actually fighting.

But the six-hour Dogman 2000 video is a known fighting video, Goodwin said. However, versions excluding fighting footage likely are also circulating.

Troiano said he was not aware of the Web site and it wasn't under investigation.

Goodwin said he has tracked Performance A.P.B.T. for about three years and estimated the magazine has about 500 subscribers internationally. Goodwin said that the magazine's Gainesville tie is a good indication that there is at least some dogfighting activity in the area.

Ads in the magazine promote "treadmill races," and Goodwin said he believes the term is used to mask dogfights. The latest issue contains a full-page ad for a treadmill race in Greensboro, N.C., scheduled for early June.

But Troiano said the assumption that treadmill racing is a cover for dogfighting is not enough to establish probable cause.

In its masthead, Performance A.P.B.T. states it is not responsible for its content, which is "pure fiction, hearsay, even rumors." Troiano said that disclaimer is one way the magazine has evaded publishing anything illegal. Troiano said he couldn't discuss Cunningham because of the ongoing investigation.

In 48 states, including Florida, dogfighting is a felony, as is promoting or advertising dogfighting in Florida.

State Attorney Bill Cervone said his office has processed plenty of animal cruelty cases in the past three years. Though no cases had been processed under the specific fighting statute in his judicial circuit, he said it was possible fighting cases were lumped under the general cruelty statute.

This year, 35 cases of animal cruelty and 11 cases of animal abandonment had been filed in the judicial circuit that includes Gainesville, he said. The figures were 42 and six, respectively, in 2006.

The invitation-only world of dogfighting is tough to penetrate, Troiano said, so law enforcement needs the help of the community in order to make arrests.

"It all comes down to someone coming forward to tell us about a crime that has occurred," he said.

Tips the office has received lately haven't turned up much, he said, but Troiano added that investigating an activity like dogfighting is a time-consuming process.

"It's frustrating," Troiano said. "We know (dogfighting is) out there."

The few reports of dogfights in North Central Florida signal that fights can happen anywhere, whether in an apartment near a college campus or in a rural neighborhood.

In April 2003, a bedroom of an apartment at Santa Fe Pointe Apartments near Santa Fe Community College was turned into a dogfighting arena before sheriff's deputies arrived, according to a Sheriff's Office incident report.

Beds in the room were stood up to let the dogs - two pit bulls - fight, according to the report. Deputies found a bloody PVC pipe that was used to pry the dogs apart along with a dog's toe nail, the report said. The suspects escaped and no arrests were made.

In 2005, 26 dogs were taken from an Olustee home after a Baker County sheriff's officer found fighting paraphernalia on the property, according to an incident report. Fifteen of the dogs had no access to food or water, the report said.

Dogfighting paraphernalia was confiscated, including a "contraption that was made to tie two separate dogs around the neck while they fought," according to the report. Some of the dogs had to be tranquilized because of their aggressive nature toward each other, the report said.

Carlos Hernandez Ford was arrested in the case and charged with 15 misdemeanor counts of animal cruelty, according to the Baker County Clerk of the Court's office. Ford failed to appear for his court date last year, and there is a warrant out for his arrest.

A person who lives in the area and agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity because of a safety concern, said the property was vacant a majority of the time. The only time he saw people there was when a large number of dogs were also present.

Neighbors talked about what went on at the property, and most believe it was a dogfighting operation, the source said.

Alachua County Animal Services Director Ray Sim said that, though he rarely sees dogs at the county shelter that look like they were used as fighting dogs, he doesn't doubt that dogfighting occurs in North Central Florida. Sim, who wasn't aware of the magazine, said he doesn't believe dogfighting is a rampant problem here.

"I think in reality there's a lot of overreaction to this," Sim said of the public's reaction to dogfighting.

However, if members of the community do spot signs of fighting - such as dogs on very thick, heavy chains; a tire hanging from a tree for dogs to latch onto; or training tools such as small treadmills - they should report that to Animal Services and the Sheriff's Office, Sim said.

Performance A.P.B.T. states that it "reserve(s) the right to discard, refuse to print, or edit any article, story, or advertisement that we feel inappropriate to print or can violate any state, federal, or local laws."

But, whether fictitious or otherwise, stories about dogfights make their way into the magazine.

This year's spring issue included an account of a dogfight in Mississippi in the 1940s. The story detailed the painful fight in which one dog, named Toney, suffered a broken shoulder and, barely able to move, continued to fight his opponent, Ted.

"For those who are not aware," the article read, "a broken bone is a rarity in dogfighting."

The fight lasted 1 hour and 40 minutes, and by the end, Toney was "inching along, both front legs completely useless."

Another story in the same issue is an account from Europe. After a 2-hour, 10-minute fight in Croatia, a dog named Redbull was badly injured.

"His face was destroyed, he had holes in his muzzle and his ears were almost all eaten off," the story read.

Michelle Dunlap said she has seen these kinds of wounds before.

Dunlap runs Phoenix Animal Rescue in Gainesville and said her property in LaCrosse was used as a fighting-dog breeding ground before she bought it a year and a half ago. She said she still gets people who come to the property looking for the breeders and who offer to buy her pet pit bulls.

One of the dogs that came through her shelter, Mahari, was found badly scarred on his face, and she believes it had been used as a fight dog.

Dunlap, like several other animal advocates, said she is upset about the limited attention she believes law enforcement has given the issue.

Police aren't "putting any emphasis on this," she said.

"It's very frustrating because (dogfighting is) out there," she said. "It's active. It can be combatted and it's not."

She also said she doesn't understand why Performance A.P.B.T. has been in print as long as it has.

"I do not get why it's still being published here," Dunlap said. "That just floors me."

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