Cruel sport hides in the shadows

Officials say they see evidence of dogfighting in Anne Arundel, but finding proof is difficult

September 16, 2007|By Justin Fenton | Justin Fenton,Sun reporter

The arrests of two Severna Park residents on dogfighting charges were unusual, but officials say they were not the first signs that the blood sport takes place in Anne Arundel County.

Animal control officers occasionally pick up strays suffering from injuries, scars and other marks typical of dogfights, but when ownership is not clear, police are not called to investigate, said Glenn Johnson, an Anne Arundel animal control officer and investigator.

More definite evidence is rare: The last dogfighting arrests in the county were in 2005, when two Annapolis men were charged. Several years ago, authorities said they found a secluded dogfighting operation in a wooded section off Forest Drive.

"It's like the narcotics trade - it's hidden, it's underground," said Lt. James Richey, commander of the county's Animal Control Division. "To get information to make arrests can be difficult."

This month, a tipster alerted police to possible dogfighting at a secluded property on Glenns Road in Severna Park. An officer conducted surveillance for two days before authorities raided a home Sept. 7, seizing five pit bulls and training equipment such as a treadmill and ropes used to strengthen jaw muscles - associated with training dogs for fights.

Authorities said Kevin Jay Green, 44, and Kathleen Marie Bell, 37, were being held at the Jennifer Road Detention Center on charges of maintaining a dogfighting operation, cruelty to animals and arranging or conducting dogfights. They also face numerous charges, police said, related to drugs that were seized from the home.

The highly publicized arrest of Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick has brought new attention to dogfighting from law enforcement officials and civilians. Vick pleaded guilty last month to bankrolling an interstate dogfighting operation, and he admitted participating in the killing of pit bulls.

"We have seen a surge in dogfighting arrests since then," said John Goodwin, manager of animal-fighting issues for the Humane Society of the United States. He tracks the number of dogfighting cases nationwide and counted eight in August 2006. Last month, there were 40 cases.

An unofficial database maintained at www.petabuse.com shows just a handful of such arrests in recent years in Maryland, with incidents reported in Baltimore and Fort Washington.

Dogfighting is a felony in 48 states and the District of Columbia, and federal law also makes it a crime. In Maryland, participating in a dogfight is punishable by up to three years in jail and a $5,000 fine. Possessing a fighting dog is a felony that carries a fine of up to $5,000.

In March 2005, animal control officers who had been called to a home in the 1600 block of Clay Hill Road in St. Margarets were greeted by a white pit bull covered with wounds and bleeding from the mouth, head, chest and legs, according to news reports. Six other dogs, all but one of which had wounds, were taken from the property.

A year later, two men pleaded guilty to animal cruelty. Dogfighting charges against them were dropped, although they each received the maximum 90-day sentence for animal cruelty, court records show.

Before one of the Annapolis men pleaded guilty to the cruelty charges, his attorney said police rushed to judgment that organized fights were taking place. Prosecutors said it can be difficult to prove how the dogs were injured.

"You might have evidence or what you believe to be evidence, but you can't always prove how that injury took place - in a dogfighting match or a fight between two dogs," said Kristin Riggin, a spokeswoman for the Anne Arundel County state's attorney's office. "That obviously is a hurdle the state must face."

In the Severna Park case, police did not observe dogfighting but saw men constructing 3 1/2 -foot-high fence pieces and taking a dog that appeared to be dead away from a wooded area. A tipster had overheard men yelling "Kill 'em!" and "Break his leg!" and heard dogs growling and barking. When police moved in, they seized five pit bulls, including a puppy. Three of the dogs had injuries consistent with dogfighting.

Pit bulls are not typically offered for adoption, and because the Severna Park dogs have either been used as aggressors or "bait dogs" - the dogs that are attacked - they might be euthanized, Johnson said.

Not all of the animals' scars are visible, Johnson said.

"Generally, the guys who raise these dogs take good care of them," he said. The recently seized dogs "are healthy, they look great. They all had good weight, good muscle tone. ... But any that may have been involved in the fighting, you can't trust their nature after that."

Several of the dogs kept at the animal control kennel in Millersville last week had scars on their faces. One sat quietly in the back of his cage with his ears back, while another licked the hand of a visitor. Another, a pit bull nicknamed Bull by the officers, showed no signs of injury and jumped and barked wildly, flashing his teeth.

Tests will be conducted before a pit bull rescue organization is contacted to determine the dogs' fate.

"Most of these rescues are very reluctant - and rightfully so - to take a chance on a dog trained for fighting," said Richey, the animal control commander.

For the younger dogs, Johnson said, "you just cross your fingers and hope they turn out."

justin.fenton@baltsun.com

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