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.