Dogfighting a serious business in central Alabama

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) – Joe Denham doesn’t go to work without a pistol holstered to his hip. Most of the time he works alone, and not on a main highway where someone could see if he were being attacked.

“It’s scary here,” he said. “We’re off the (main) road. All you gotta do is drive up the gravel road, and you’re out of sight from everybody and everything.”

He isn’t keeping the graveyard shift at a gas station, guarding a drawer full of cash. He’s a part-time employee at the Bullock County Humane Society animal shelter.

Two weeks ago the shelter was broken into two nights in a row. In total, six dogs were stolen – two pit bulls and four mutts. Since then three of the dogs have been found in the Opelika area and a fourth was found 10 miles outside of Union Springs, but shelter director Jennifer Gallagher doesn’t think they were stolen randomly.

“I would say the break-ins were related to dogfighting,” Gallagher said. “The first night, female pit bulls were targeted. That’s typically for breeding purposes. The second night, mixed breeds, that’s bait dogs.”

Gallagher has become aware of the dogfighting culture in Bullock County after taking over the shelter seven months ago. And the more fellow animal activists she speaks with, the more she realizes the problem isn’t confined to Bullock County.

“It’s definitely a problem here,” said Claudia Rigsby who runs the Humane Society in Prattville.

Scott Hill retired this month from the Montgomery Humane Society as an officer and investigator for animal cruelty. During his 13 years on the job, he said he prosecuted roughly 100 dogfighting cases.

“There’s not a lot of national facts out there, surveys, records, that keep up with how many dogfights have been busted or how many trends there are, but it’s very prevalent in our county,” Hill said. “It’s very prevalent in Bullock County, Butler County, all the surrounding counties.”

It’s so prevalent that some Bullock County residents, such as Rebecca Atkins, can hear the snarls of dogfighting from her back door on most weekend nights.

“It’s been going on for about 10 years now,” Atkins said. “I hear, sounds like several dogs, fighting, going at it. I want to say 30 minutes to an hour later you hear a gunshot, like somebody unloading a gun like several rounds (presumably killing the losing dog). I feel so bad because I can hear them but I can’t do anything.”

Others, such as Tiffany Forshey, who works as an EMT in Bullock County, have stumbled upon abandoned dogfighting rings – crudely built plywood boxes standing about four-feet high.

“It looks like a boxing ring in a way,” Forshey said. “Blood all over the walls. We’ve found dead dog carcasses on the ground.”

But nights of dogfighting are never just about the fights themselves. There’s drugs, gambling, stolen property, firearms.

“What happens is these high-end drug dealers end up with a lot of excess cash, and they’ll spend it on big bets at these dogfights,” said John Goodwin, the director of animal cruelty policy at the U.S. Humane Society.

First Assistant U.S. Attorney for Montgomery County Clark Morris heard about high-rolling bets and deals firsthand when she prosecuted eight people involved in the second-largest dogfighting raid in U.S. history.

“One of our witnesses testified that he brought $340,000 in cash to a dogfight: $150,000 of that was to bet on a dogfight, and the rest of it was to buy five kilograms of cocaine,” Morris said.

And many times, children attend these fights where drug dealers blow their spare change. Children are so routinely brought to dogfights that in 2014 Congress added language to a federal law making it a felony to bring anyone under 16 to one.

While state laws are fairly tough on convicted dogfighters, (it’s a felony to even own a dog with the intent of fighting it, and fighters could receive up to 10 years in jail per count) the suggested federal penalties for dogfighting is shockingly low.

Federal sentencing guidelines suggest the sentences that federal judges should dole out for different crimes. For criminal dogfighting, the suggestion is anywhere from zero to 18 months, and only zero to six months for lesser counts.

Federal penalties don’t account for a range of crime, so someone who fought 100 dogs could get the same sentence as someone who fought one dog, Clark said.

For prosecutors to obtain longer sentences for dogfighters than the suggested penalty, they have to convince judges that the situation is so extraordinarily horrendous that the longer sentences are warranted.

In Clark’s case, District Judge W. Keith Watkins found that going outside of the federal suggestion was warranted. He handed down the largest sentence in any federal dogfighting case in the country, sentencing the kingpin to eight years.

Watkins also noted his disapproval of the federal suggestions for dogfighting in court.

“The sentencing guidelines, in my view, are wholly inadequate in dogfighting cases and are, in fact, in this Court’s opinion, irrational,” Watkins said.

Watkins also quoted a federal judge from North Carolina who saw a similar case and said, “I would say that other than the criminal dogfighters in America, every other person in America would be shocked beyond belief that you could do what (the defendant) did and come out with a federal sentence of zero to six months. No one could defend that, no judges, no legislators, no president, no one.”

Far outside the walls of a federal courtroom in the backwoods of Bullock County and elsewhere, the problem continues.

People such as Gallagher and Denham do what they can to alleviate the problem by not allowing anyone to adopt a pit bull without being thoroughly vetted first – a measure that’s caused backlash.

Both have received threats for neutering a stray pit bull, whose owner said was a champion fighter, and then not allowing the owner to reclaim the pit bull during the 17 days it was at the shelter.

“The threat was simply, ‘Somebody is going to pay for my dog,’ ” Gallagher said. Although it was a veiled threat, she took it seriously.

The threat against Denham was not so veiled. He was walking his lab two nights after the conversation with the pit bull’s owner, when he heard a car approaching.

“The next thing I know shots started ringing out. I could hear one bullet pass me and rip through the woods behind us. But they obviously weren’t shooting to hit anything. It was simply a warning,” Denham said.

He filed a police report, but Sheriff Raymond Rogers said there was no evidence to show a drive-by shooting took place.

Denham continues to work at the shelter, even though they’ve had to close down operations until they can install better security.

“Everybody picks their cause and you fight to eliminate it,” Denham said. “You’d like to stop it, but there’s reality. If you’re not at least trying to do something about it, it’ll do nothing but get worse and worse.”

___

Information from: Montgomery Advertiser, http://www.montgomeryadvertiser.com

(Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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