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Dogfighting a growing, secret problem in NE Ohio (photos)

September 9, 2018

Dogfighting a growing, secret problem in NE Ohio (photos)

CLEVELAND, Ohio – Tonight, even now, somewhere in Northeast Ohio dozens of people may be standing around a makeshift, wooden ring watching as two dogs rip and tear at flesh and bone in a fight to the death.

The winners will do it again, sometime, someplace, until they die or are too injured to fight again.

Sean Smith, a detective with Cleveland’s vice unit, started investigating dogfighting in the city about five years ago and said it is a growing problem.

“They go on all over the city every weekend,” he said. “They are like boxing matches, the money gets bigger every time a dog wins. People come into the city from all over for them.”

To the frustration of police and animal control agents, the time and place will be a closely guarded secret.

“Unless someone tells us, we won’t know about it,” said Tim Harland, who has been a humane officer for the Humane Society of Summit County for 25 years. “It’s a very private group of people, they communicate in code. Even if someone finds a fight, they won’t let you near it unless they already know you.”

Doghtfighters are a secret society

Because of the secret nature of dogfighting, arrests are rare. More often, a person is charged with animal cruelty or animal neglect, since those charges can more easily be proven in court.

Smith said in all the years of investigating these cases, he never was able to catch one in progress.

“We always find out afterward, sometimes very soon afterwards,” he said. “In one case, we found a group of about a dozen pit bulls chained with heavy chains in a yard in Cleveland. They looked like they were all recently fought, with injuries and cuts. One dog was bleeding heavily from bites on the face that must have been given very recently.”

He said two years ago, an informant called police about a dogfight going on in a basement on Cleveland’s South Side.

“Patrol officers went and as they arrived, the people scattered in all directions,” Smith said. “We found the dogs in the basement, covered in blood. The suspects separated the most injured dogs in another room where the rug was soaked in blood and injured dogs just laid.”

Smith said he was not happy when the prosecutor made a deal with the man who was running the dogfighting ring.

“I opposed it, but he was fined $300 after pleading guilty to attempted injury of animals,” Smith said. “He did not get the five dogs back, but getting dogs is no problem for these people.”

Dogfighting impacts everyone

And the effects of dogfighting: scarred animals, often pit bulls or pit bull mixed breeds, frequently escape or are released onto the streets; stolen family pets used as “bait” to work the dogs into a killing frenzy, and animal adoption shelters filled to overflowing with pit bull mixed dogs. 

Even though dogfighting is illegal in all 50 states, the Humane Society of the United States estimates that 40,000 people nationally follow organized dogfighting and an additional 100,000 “attend less organized fights in streets, alleys and hideaways.”

Law enforcement officials said a $10,000 prize for the winning dog is common and additionally, tens of thousands of dollars are bet on the dogs by spectators.

Sharon Harvey, president of the Cleveland Animal Protective League, said most of the dogfighting that occurs in the Cleveland area is smaller and less organized than larger, more sophisticated, operations elsewhere in the state.

“We don’t get the top tier fighting operations in the city,” said Joe Dellanno, the organization’s chief humane officer. “Here, it’s smaller fights starting with one person challenging another on the street about whose dog is toughest.”

Still, Cleveland detective Smith said the city gets some pretty large fights.

“We’ve actually seen people come in from as far away as Mexico to fight their dogs,” Smith said.

According to the Cuyahoga County Clerk of Court’s records, Smith’s most recent dogfighting case was the May 15 arrest of Robert Cook, 34, of Cleveland on 13 felony counts of dogfighting. Cook’s case is working its way through the court system. Smith declined to discuss details about the case. Cook’s attorney declined to comment.

Dellanno said because the fights are kept secret, the APL only received eight complaints of dogfighting so far this year, and none panned out. 

Jeff Kocian, executive director of the Northeast Ohio SPCA in Parma, and others from area humane groups said the proof of the existence of canine fight clubs is in the victims.

“We, all the shelters, see dogs who are scarred or killed from dogfights,” he said. “The city and county shelters are always getting pit bulls that are all scarred up. It’s obvious that the scars are caused by fighting, these are not the kind of scars a dog gets from a typical fight with one dog.

Dogfighting losers end up in trash

“There are dogs left in the trash, dogs that were killed in the fights. Public shelters end up with dogs too old to fight or unable to reproduce and they are simply dumped.”

Harland said that several years ago they found a mass grave of dogs in Akron. He said the dogs, all bearing massive scarring from fights, were dumped down an embankment. Smith said dead dogs are sometimes found on Train Avenue on Cleveland’s West Side, an area he called “a dumping ground for everything.”

Why do people enjoy watching dogs fight?

The most severe penalty for running, or even attending, a dogfight is up to five years in prison or fines of up to $10,000. So why would people risk arrest, fines and jail to watch dogs fight one another? And why do they enjoy it?

“Hard to say why people would enjoy watching animals fight,” said Harland. “We know that not only men go, but sometimes women and even children. Maybe they have seen other family members go to it and they don’t think anything of it. They are unaffected by the dog’s death. At the one we busted in 2014 in Akron, they even had a concession stand selling food. To them it was a social event.”

Forty-seven people were arrested in that raid, and police seized $52,000 cash. The organizer, Alvin Banks of Akron, was sentenced to two years in prison.

Northeast Ohio investigators said when a dogfighting ring is busted they almost always find evidence of other crimes.

“People who run dogfights are very cautious, it’s a clandestine operation that often involves narcotics as well, sometimes guns as well,” said Dave Hunt, who investigated animal fighting cases as part of the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office for more than 20 years. He currently works at the Ohio Department of Agriculture and assists law enforcement investigations statewide.

“Dogfighting is the sport of drug dealers. On the day of a fight, they will call interested people by phone and tell them to meet in a parking lot at 11 p.m. At that time, the people would be met and caravan to the place where the fight will occur.

“They are not affected by the deaths, they don’t see dogs as companion animals,” he said. “The fighting dogs are a form of entertainment.”

Fighting dogs get new lives

Dogs rescued from the fighting operations often find their way to shelters and can be be adopted.

“They are often friendly, loyal and lovable to people,” said Jeffrey Holland, a Sharon Center animal welfare attorney who has prosecuted many cases of dogfighting in Ohio. He noted that the animals are not trained to attack people.

“But, they are often not good around other pets like dogs, cats or rabbits,” he said. “They have been trained to kill those other animals, and it’s hard to break them of that. Someone who adopts one of these dogs must never forget that.”

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