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A gruesome legacy

Modern dogfighting involves about 40,000 entrepreneurs, who make a living off pain and blood.

By ANDREW MEACHAM
Published August 11, 2006


[Times photos: Skip O'Rourke]
When a couple bought 3 acres off U.S. 301 in Thonotosassa, a walk in the woods would yield a strange sight: two skeletons of pit bulls. Authorities had removed the skulls as evidence and charged the previous property owner with animal cruelty, breeding fighting dogs and cultivating marijuana.

Through breeding, the American pit bullterrier has emerged as the most feared fighting dog. This one was taken in at Animal Services near Brandon.

More than a dozen dogs were taken from a Thonotosassa property, which was dotted by cages, syringes, tethers and video cameras.

Hillsborough County has seen more cases of dogfighting in recent years, and in the past 20 the hobby has evolved into an organized sport, with dog owners signing contracts and fighting for purses, says Dennis McCullough of Animal Services.
TIMES SPECIAL REPORT
Kennel trash

THONOTOSASSA

After the dogs have been weighed, their handlers take them to opposite corners inside a plywood ring. Each handler wedges his pit bull between his knees and grabs a handful of fur at the scruff of the neck.

The fight is the culmination of months or even years of training. Many of the onlookers have wagered serious money on the outcome.

The referee gives the command and the dogs turn to face each other. Then the handlers let go.

* * *

Organized dogfighting is illegal, but it's happening with increasing frequency in recent years.

Occasionally it makes the news, as when a famous athlete or rapper is arrested for it. More often, this underground industry operates without detection. Authorities often don't know what to look for. No one except the dogfighters and their fans, it seems, can even believe it is going on.

Though statistics are hard to come by, Hillsborough authorities who scarcely knew of dogfighting a few years ago have made several arrests since 2004 and have four cases pending.

On raids, animal control and sheriff's officers find discarded dog carcasses and veterinary supplies. They find pit bulls, often malnourished and with infected wounds. They find magazines like Pit Bull Reporter, full of fighting lore and updates on dogfighting legislation.

Mike and Jemimah Ruhala stumbled into this world in June. The software engineers, renting in Tampa, married a year ago and were looking for a peaceful place away from everything.

The couple bought 3 acres on Muddy Water Trail, half a mile of narrow dirt road off U.S. 301 in Thonotosassa.

The place seemed ideal. They had neighbors, but nearly all of them seemed blocks away. Mike Ruhala, 27, started remodeling a mobile home on the property while the couple saved to build a house.

The property seemed like a good buy, so at first they tried to overlook what they found out there. For one thing, there were syringes lying around. Mike thought the previous owner must have been a methamphetamine addict.

Cages cluttered the property. A rusted cable ran between two pine trees 4 feet off the ground. A tire lay in the weeds near a frayed rope looped around a tree branch.

Ruhala was walking in the woods behind his home when he found the skeleton, a broad-backed spine and rib cage attached to one slightly bowed leg.

He figured it was a wild boar. Then he saw a skeleton just like the first one. Neither had a skull. He would later learn that authorities had found the remains of these pit bulls and had removed the skulls.

Acting on a tip from neighbors, county Animal Services and sheriff's officers raided the property in February, confiscating more than 100 marijuana plants, guns and more than a dozen dogs.

John Dudley Henderson nicknamed "Steroid John," according to arrest records was charged with animal cruelty, breeding fighting dogs and cultivating marijuana. Henderson, 39, has a police record dating back 20 years for theft, narcotics and battery.

Dennis Sturdevant, 47, who lives near the former Henderson property, said everyone in the neighborhood knew of Henderson's pit bulls, which were kept in cages or on tethers in the yard. "Anything within 100 yards, those dogs would start going off."

Neither Henderson nor his lawyer, Paul Carr, could be reached for comment.

The case resembles several others in recent years, said Dennis McCullough, a field manager for Animal Services.

* * *

Dogfighting in Hillsborough County has grown in 20 years from a hobby to an organized sport, with dog owners signing contracts and fighting for purses, McCullough said. Dogfighting busts often lead to arrests for gambling and drugs as well.

A few examples:

Animal Services in 2004 arrested Gregory Lamar Powe, then 32, of Temple Terrace, and accused him of confining more than 20 dogs without food or water. They found undernourished dogs - one badly injured - living in filthy backyard pens and in a bedroom. They also found dogfighting videos, veterinary medications, gambling paperwork and breeding publications like the Pit Bull Tribune.

Also in 2004, a South Tampa raid at the home of Rikky Alan Johnson, then 33, netted no dogs but animal fighting equipment, including a ring soaked in "large areas of blood," according to Tampa police.

Another 2004 South Tampa raid, this time for cockfighting, resulted in the arrest of Benigno Canales, 63, and dozens of bystanders on animal fighting charges. Spectators paid $15 for admission and could buy beer, liquor, hot dogs and popcorn inside, investigators said.

"Canales was probably making more on concessions than he was on the fight," McCullough said. Officers also found trailers on the premises for prostitution, he said.

* * *

The reports of increased arrests locally reflect a national trend, said Merritt Clifton, editor of Animal People magazine in Clinton, Wash., and a student of dogfighting since the 1970s.

Clifton said national newspaper archives show a surge beginning in the 1990s but spiking after 2001, when more people began to equate safety with owning a dangerous dog.

Among Web sites devoted to dogfighting, many advertise dogs with thinly veiled references to fight records, said Chris Sanford, an animal fighting investigator for the Humane Society, which counted 2,000 such sites in the last two years.

Sites like sporting-dog.com and gamedogs.com offer a virtual shopping mall for dog breeders, sometimes referencing "champions" that have won three or more fights.

By monitoring news accounts and the Internet, the Humane Society estimates that there are 40,000 dogfighters in the country.

Experts describe three levels of dogfighting, from the most organized and well funded to street drug sellers who want to enhance their mystique.

At the top are organized professionals whose livelihood comes from breeding, selling and fighting dogs, which in the United States are almost invariably pit bulls.

They travel across the country for "contract" fights, with purses that can run into tens of thousands of dollars. The fights are supervised by a referee and involve regular breaks similar to a boxing match.

A midlevel, the "hobbyists" own up to half a dozen dogs, which cost less than elite dogs - say, $1,000 - and compete for purses of about the same amount.

Street fighting is the least organized level, experts say.

"These street guys are spontaneous," said Eric Sakach, the Humane Society's West Coast regional director. "They will acquire a dog and walk it in a very public fashion. They see another person walking his dogs, and words are exchanged."

Dogfighting made national news with the arrests of the rapper DMX in 1999, and the 2004 arrests of New York Giants running back LaShon Johnson and Portland Trail Blazer Qyntel Woods.

Dogfighting stems from the days of riverboats and rowdy sailors on leave and continues to mix drinking, gambling and violence. Through selective breeding, the American pit bullterrier has emerged as the most feared fighting dog, despite an average weight of only 30 to 40 pounds. Its jaws can exert more than 300 pounds of pressure per square inch.

"The thing that makes pit bulls so dangerous is that they are reactive dogs," said Animal People's Merritt. "If a rat terrier grabs you, it's cute but all it does is shred your sock. If a pit bull does that, you need an amputation."

Though dogs can die in the ring, the biggest threat to their safety may come from disgruntled owners.

"We have seen them shot, tossed in the river, thrown in Dumpsters or just thrown in the trash," said Ken Vetzel, a Hillsborough County Animal Services investigator. "These are not pets by any means."

On that dirt road in Thonotosassa, since the Ruhalas discovered the cages, syringes and remnants of exercise equipment, they're living with a reality they never knew existed. They expect to move into their mobile home soon.

Though they have no connection with the previous owner, Mike Ruhala feels unsettled by the legacy he has inherited. So he and Jemimah are planning a small and informal ceremony.

They want to bury the two skeletons in the woods.

"We want to kind of atone for the things that have gone on here."

Andrew Meacham can be reached at 661-2431 or ameacham@sptimes.com.

 

[Last modified August 10, 2006, 08:41:44]


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