|Pima County sheriff's deputies seized at least 150 dogs and made six arrests Tuesday in raids across the metro area targeting dog breeders suspected of links to organized dogfighting operations across the country.|
Those arrested include Mahlon T. Patrick, 63, a man believed to be among the top three breeders of fighting dogs in the country, investigators said at a morning press conference.
Members of the Sheriff's Department SWAT unit made the arrest at a site near West Orange Grove and North Sandario roads, in the Picture Rocks area, just one-half mile from a Sheriff's Department substation. Deputies also arrested Emily E. Dennis, 63, on suspicion of animal cruelty.
Deputies found 110 dogs there, at least 10 of which required immediate medical attention for infections of their feet from standing in their own waste, along with other health problems.
Deputies also seized more than 50 weapons and a "rape stand" used for breeding dogs.
The dogs are being held as evidence in the case, which began last March when Chicago police stopped a van carrying several fighting dogs. Their investigation developed information leading to Tucson.
Around the same time, the Sheriff's Department received information from the Humane Society of the United States, which monitors dogfighting operations.
Investigators tracked dogfighting Web sites, chat rooms and underground magazines to develop evidence that the dog breeders, two of whom had kennel licenses, were involved in selling dogs for fights.
Pima County officials said the dogs will be kept at secure, undisclosed locations as the case proceeds. The animals needing medical care are being treated. The Pima Animal Care Center, which sent 10 animal-control officers on the raids, will evaluate each dog individually. Some may be eligible for adoption, but many will be euthanized.
Deputies found another 40 dogs at two other properties, one in Avra Valley and the other west of Sahuarita, near South Mission and West Helmet Peak roads.
In a coordinated move, the Tucson Police Department raided an East Side home where it arrested Robert C. Smith, 55, the owner of the Avra Valley property, and Terry Williams, 52. They also seized weapons, fight-training equipment and a large amount of cash.
Both Patrick and Smith have kennel licenses, officials said.
Deputies arrested Juan Verdin, 39, and his wife, Zenaida Verdin, 35, at a property on West Indian Kitchen Road, the one west of Sahuarita. The Verdins did not have a kennel license.
All were arrested on suspicion of animal cruelty and involvement in dogfighting. At least two other people are in custody.
At least 10 of the dogs showed signs of being fighting dogs. They had scars from old injuries on their faces, necks and front legs. One had signs of a broken jaw that healed poorly, and several were missing teeth.
Investigators said they had no information about dogfighting occurring in Pima County and believe these operations focused on breeding and training.
John Goodwin, manager of animal-fighting issues for the Humane Society of the United States, said almost all of the 40,000 people nationally involved in the "upper echelons" of dogfighting get their animals from sophisticated breeding operations, similar to what deputies believe they discovered Tuesday. These operations guarantee dogs descended from top fighters, dogs that can keep fighting for hours, even when severely injured.
At least one Pima County dog was featured in an underground dogfighting magazine, though investigators have yet to identify him among the 150 animals seized.
A fighting dog from a champion lineage can fetch up to $10,000, Goodwin said.
Goodwin said Tuesday's raids are likely to hamper dogfighting operations around the country as the supply of new fighting dogs shrinks.
Dogfighting experts from the Humane Society accompanied detectives as they walked through the property to help them identify evidence, including training equipment such as treadmills; antibiotics and other veterinary supplies; money-transfer receipts; and other financial records.
Sgt. Terry Parish, head of the Sheriff's Department's Community Problems Unit, which includes the Animal Abuse Task Force, said it will take several days for detectives to process all the evidence, and financial and computer records may lead them to other breeders or dogfighters.
"We had enough evidence to get the search warrants today," Parish said. "Now the hard part starts. Today's the day we take them to jail. Keeping them there is the hard part, and that's our detective work."
Parish said the breeding operations were not working together and may even have been competitors, but they may have moved in similar circles.
Parish said organized dogfighting has links to other criminal enterprises, including weapons, drugs and illegal gambling.
As of Tuesday afternoon, no drugs had been found on the four properties, but Parish said the quantity of weapons found on the West Orange Grove property indicates weapons may have been traded for dogs.
The Orange Grove property housed several trailers and a small barn for breeding, as well as rows and rows of kennels on concrete pads. There was a strong odor throughout the property, and many kennels were full of waste.
Many dogs jumped against the chain-link walls of their kennels and whimpered for human touch, while a few slinked away to the backs of their cages.
Many fighting dogs are friendly to people but cannot have contact with other dogs. Several very young puppies were in a cage together without their mother. Parish said the mother could not be left with her puppies because the dogs are trained to be so aggressive that the mothers might harm their own offspring. Dog milk was found in a refrigerator.
At the Avra Valley property, many of the dogs were chained outside, each in its own circle. Many of the dogs licked the hands of deputies and animal-control officers, and wagged their tails. The property, set amid a small neighborhood of mobile homes with tidy, landscaped yards, was clean.
Jay Sabatucci, a program manager with the Humane Society of the United States and an expert in dogfighting operations, accompanied investigators on the raid on the Avra Valley property. He said the operation was well-run, noting that most of the dogs were in good condition.
"This is their money, so they are well-cared-for here," he said. "The cruelty is in the fighting, not in how they are kept."
But one very timid neutered male with substantial scarring was kept in a cage covered by metal sheets that showed dents from the impact of BB pellets that investigators believe were fired at the cage to torment the animal.
Since Friday, the Humane Society of Southern Arizona, in Tucson, has accepted 19 dogs from Pima Animal Care to make room for animals seized in Tuesday's raids, and is prepared to take more. Pima Animal Care also modified 21 kennels at its shelter to house the dogs individually. However, most of the dogs will be kept at a remote site. The shelter houses 200 to 300 animals on any given day, often two to three dogs in a kennel, making it impossible to house another 150 dogs there safely.