Monday, March 7, 2011

Monroe County dog-fighting scene: Blood everywhere, dozens arrested

By Elisha Anderson and Gina Damron, Detroit Free Press

It was a bloody dog-fighting scene inside the home on Ida Maybee in Raisinville Township.
There was a fighting ring in the garage and 18 people were crammed into the small Monroe County home when members of the Monroe County Sheriff's Office's Special Response Team raided the house.
"There was blood everywhere," Monroe County Sheriff Det. Sgt. Heath Velliquette told the Free Press today.
Some scattered. Another eight people were caught outside the home, some in barns, in nearby woods and walking along roads.
In total, at least 25 men and women are jailed, accused of participating in a dog fight. Those arrested are from Michigan, Georgia, Missouri, Indiana and Ohio. The Michigan residents are from Detroit, Ypsilanti, Belleville and possibly Allen Park, Velliquette said.
He said one handgun was recovered at the scene. Police also seized a dog training treadmill, the ring in the garage, cocaine, marijuana and more than $40,000.
Five dogs were also recovered early Sunday morning. More dogs were recovered that evening. Some were pit bulls, Velliquette said.
The raid on the home came after the U.S. Department of Agriculture got a tip that dog fighting was being conducted.
"We took van loads of people out of there," Kemp said. They worked with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, State Police, Michigan Humane Society and Monroe County Animal Control.
The homeowners learned what happened from a former neighbor by phone Sunday.
"We're animal lovers. It just made us sick when we heard," said Jerry Bugg of Cincinnati.
He and his wife, Barbara, have lived away from the home for more than five years and haven't been there in six months.
Bugg rented it to a woman with two teenage daughters about 18 months ago.
She could not be reached for comment Sunday. Bugg said he got a text message from her Sunday night saying she was out of town at the time of the bust.
Bugg said his tenant's boyfriend had a pit bull, but the boyfriend wasn't on the lease. He said he plans to work with police.
Next-door neighbor Barbara Weber, 71, said: "I just felt that there was a lot of activity there, but I wrote it off."

Update March 12, 2011 - The following article is from Detroit Free Press:

Another arrest made in Monroe County dogfighting case

A 27th person has been charged in connection with a dogfight in the garage of a rural Monroe County home last weekend.
Russell Huff, 28, of Belleville, was arraigned this afternoon on a charge of both attending and participating in a dogfight, a Monroe County Jail official said. He is being held there on $50,000 cash or surety bond.
Authorities say Huff is among those involved in a dogfight in Raisinville Township that left two pit bulls dead March 6. Police raided a rented home on Ida Maybee Road and said they found a dogfighting pit in the garage, drugs, money and a handgun. The raid was prompted by a tip made to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Police described the scene of the dogfight as bloody and said spectators paid a cover charge between $25 and $50 to get in.
Most of those charged are from Michigan: Nine men from Detroit, two men from Ypsilanti and one man each from Allen Park, New Boston, Pontiac, Highland Park, Belleville and Hillsdale. There also were four men from Ft. Wayne, Ind.; a man and a woman from Conyers, Ga.; and one man each from Indianapolis, Fremont, Ind., and Lockland, Ohio. They range in age from 23 to 55.
The 26 people arraigned earlier will have preliminary hearings March 17.
Huff will appear for a formal arraignment on Monday. If convicted, he faces up to four years in prison.

Update April 29, 2011 - The following article is by Danielle Portteus, Monroe News:

Dogs spared — for now

The Monroe Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has been given one week to create a plan to adopt out the dogs involved in an alleged dog-fighting operation.

During a civil hearing Wednesday in Monroe County District Court, Judge John Collins, a visiting judge from Washtenaw County, delayed acting on a petition from the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office to have the dogs euthanized.
Trina Stillwagon, president of the nonprofit advocate society, said her group will visit Monroe County Animal Control Monday morning to see the four pit bulls, two males and two females, that were seized from a Raisinville Township home on March 6.
Ms. Stillwagon said Judge Collins has allowed her group to have access so the dogs can be evaluated.
“We have to create a financial plan and determine the needs of the animals and if they can be adopted out,” she said.
The group is working with Pit Bull Education Rescue of Belleville to evaluate the dogs and find foster homes if the animals can be rehabilitated.
“We have been waiting two months to have access to these dogs,” Ms. Stillwagon said. “I am actually excited about this decision and hope we can slow things down.”
Linda Benson, director of animal control, said she cannot comment on the dogs lodged at the facility.
“It’s all in the hands of the court,” she said. “They are all being taken care of the same way the other dogs here have been.”
The Monroe Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals is seeking donations to care for the dogs as well as other animals, Ms. Stillwagon said.
The group has 12 donations bins scattered throughout Monroe County as well seeking donations.
Ms. Stillwagon has seen three of the four pit bulls. Another pit bull died shortly after it was seized. A Pomeranian and a bull dog also were seized from the home and are lodged at Animal Control.
“These dogs are not fighting dogs,” Ms. Stillwagon said. “They are victims of cruelty and neglect. Our goal all along was to see them and help them get adopted out.”
The group will be back in court Wednesday afternoon to present its financial plan.

Update May 14, 2011 - The following article is from WTVG:

Man pleads guilty in Monroe dog fighting case

Kevin Forbes pleaded guilty to a felony charge of participating in a dog fight. Investigators say he was the referee who monitored the fight that left two pit bulls dead.
Twenty-six others were arrested in connection with the dog fight.
As for the dogs, they are now in the hands of The Buster Foundation and the Monroe SPCA and are being evaluated.


Update June 16, 2011 - The following article is by Ray Kisonas, Monroe News:

Pit bulls’ future remains unresolved 

The case of who should possess four pit bull terriers remains unresolved with another court hearing scheduled to determine if both sides can agree on choosing a veterinarian.
Monroe County officials and the lawyer representing dog rescuers are scheduled to meet again Friday morning after they failed to settle on a licensed veterinarian so the dogs can be evaluated.
“You can’t agree on a common veterinarian?” First District Judge Jack Vitale asked Wednesday in court.
During that hearing, which became testy at times, the judge made several decisions on motions but did not rule where the dogs should be permanently housed or if they should be euthanized.
The dogs had been held on the property of the Buster Foundation in Belleville, a pit bull rescue operation. Monroe County Assistant Prosecutor Michael C. Brown said in court that he is concerned the dogs have been sent to foster care for animals not licensed by the Department of Agriculture.
“The most concerning thing is these dogs are living with evaluators in neighborhoods with children,” Mr. Brown argued in court. “They are endangering the public.”
But Tracy Thomas, a Plymouth attorney representing the dog rescue organizations, said the dogs are not in neighborhoods with children. He said they are now at Currey’s Family Pet Care of Romulus. They previously were being held at the Buster Foundation’s property in Belleville.
Before the judge makes his final decision, he said the dogs must be evaluated to see if they are a danger to society and should be put down or if they can be adopted. Mr. Thomas has maintained that those procedures already have been completed.
“They already have been thoroughly evaluated,” he said. 
In one of the motions filed in the case, he sought reimbursement of costs and fees from Mr. Brown personally.
“This is preposterous,” Mr. Brown told the judge. “This request is outrageous.”
The judge denied that motion and Mr. Thomas said after the meeting that he was not seeking reimbursement fees.
At one point Judge Vitale scolded members of the audience for speaking during the hearing and questioned their decision of posting photographs of the dogs on a website when there is a gag order against publicity. In a previous hearing, visiting Judge John Collins ruled that photographs or videos of the dogs could not be released to the media.
“Don’t you think this violates the spirit of Judge Collins’ order?” Judge Vitale asked about the website photos.
“No,” Mr. .Thomas replied.
The judge ruled animal control should have access to the dogs, but he held off a final decision regarding their fate. That decision will be made later.
Mr. Brown has maintained that the dogs must be euthanized because they are dangerous. Additionally, he said, there is concern that the county could be held liable if the dogs injure someone.
Asked if he thought the legal battle was worth the effort, Mr. Brown said it was necessary.
“It’s my duty to protect the public,” he said after the hearing.

Update June 28, 2011 - The following article is by Ray Kisonas, Monroe News:

Pit bulls in Monroe await decision

By court order, the four pit bulls seized in March during an alleged dog-fighting operation have been returned to Monroe County Animal Control pens on S. Raisinville Rd.

The dogs, which were being kept at a kennel in Romulus, have been the center of a courtroom battle between Monroe County law enforcement officials and two animal rescue organizations that have been trying to save them from being euthanized.
But as lawyers file motions and argue legal opinions, many other pit bulls that are not in the middle of a court fight are being euthanized. On Friday, when the four dogs were returned to the kennels on Raisinville Rd., six other pit bull terriers being held at the kennels that have not been the center of a legal battle were put down.
While the fighting four still might be euthanized — a decision on their fate could come later this week — officials with animal control acknowledge that 52 other pit bulls have been euthanized this year since January and no one came to their aid.
"Nobody wanted them," said Director Linda Benson.
Beth R. Wickwire, an Ann Arbor attorney representing the Monroe Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (MSPCA), said that the four dogs seized during the raid are no more important than any other animals.
Ms. Wickwire said that the court case simply was not expected to become so complicated. She added that the SPCA and the Buster Foundation, a pit bull rescue group, are trying to finish what was started.
"Our interest is to help as many animals as we can," Ms. Wickwire said. "We frankly did not anticipate such a lengthy court process. We're surprised it's gone on this long. But we want to see it through."
"In my opinion, they only have interest in high publicity dogs," he said. "There have been (many) dogs put down since this case began. They were not around then."
Ms. Wickwire denied that the organizations are trying to save the four as a publicity stunt.
"Both organizations have worked with hundreds of animals with no recognition," she said. "We certainly are not interested in this because it is high-profile. It certainly has not been a fundraising endeavor."
The dozens of pit bulls that were put down since the beginning of the year were euthanized under state guidelines and regulations. Ms. Benson said that animals brought to the shelter without identification can be put down after four business days. Animals with identification or a collar can be put down if no one claims them after seven business days.
They often are held longer to allow owners time to retrieve their pets. But there is not enough room to keep all animals for lengthy amounts of time, she said.
"We don't judge dogs by their breed; we judge dogs by their behavior," Ms. Benson said. "These two organizations never expressed any interest in any of the others."
Ms. Wickwire said that it's impossible to save all dogs, but the organizations are trying to save as many animals as possible. And since they committed themselves to the four, she and another attorney, who are both working pro bono, will fight for their cause until the end.
"We're interested in all animals we can help," she said. "They're all special to us.

Update June 29, 2011 - The following article is by Mark Reiter, Toledo Blade:

Fate of dogs seized from Monroe County fighting ring to be decided

Four “pit bulls” seized in a dog fighting operation in Raisinville Township were removed from a Wayne County kennel after Monroe County authorities learned the facility was unlicensed.
Monroe County Animal Control took the dogs — Dusty, Razzel, Monroe, and Riley — last Friday from Currey’s Family Pet Care in Romulus after District Judge Jack Vitale ordered the animals to be returned to the animal control shelter on South Raisinville Road.
A visiting judge from Washtenaw County substituting for Judge Vitale put the dogs in the custody of rescue groups Buster Foundation and Monroe Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals on May 9.
The dogs have been the center of a civil complaint filed by the sheriff’s office, which is asking for permission from the judge to have the dogs killed.
State and local authorities took the dogs as evidence during the March 6 raid of the Ida Maybee Road home of Pamela Cole, where officers broke up the championship match between two prizefighting dogs.
The county prosecutor asked Judge Vitale to order Currey’s Family Pet Care to surrender the dogs because of allegations the kennel was neither licensed by the state Department of Agriculture or Wayne County.
The owner, Patrick Currey, was cited in Wayne County District Court. He faces a hearing July 15 on three citations each of having unlicensed domestic animals and not having a kennel license.
Michael Brown, an assistant county prosecutor, has maintained that the dogs lack any useful purpose and are a threat to public safety.
“Our position has not changed,” Mr. Brown said.
Attorneys representing Buster Foundation and the Monroe Society, have argued otherwise, insisting that the animals were not used for fighting and have suitable temperament for adoption.
A hearing in the civil lawsuit is scheduled for Friday when Judge Vitale could decide the fate of the dogs.
A veterinarian who specializes in animal behavior was approved by the judge to evaluate the dogs.
Mr. Brown said Dr. Katherine Houpt, a veterinarian who specializes in animal behavior and is professor emeritus at Cornell University, examined the dogs at the animal control shelter on Monday and will testify Friday.
“We are waiting for a report from our expert to see what she has to say,” Mr. Brown said.
Beth Wickwire, a lawyer representing Buster Foundation and the Monroe society, said her clients had the dogs evaluated by four people and they too will testify at the hearing. She declined to provide the conclusions or findings.
“We are looking forward to Friday. We are finally glad the dogs have been evaluated. We are hopeful for a good outcome for the dogs,” she said.

Update July 14, 2011 - The following article is by Ray Kisonas, Monroe News:

Judge orders three pit bulls euthanized

In the next several weeks attorneys will decide whether to appeal a Monroe judge's ruling that calls for three of the four pit bulls seized in an alleged dog-fighting operation to be euthanized.

First District Judge Jack Vitale made his decision Wednesday in a legal saga that has lasted for months as two sides fought over who should possess the four pit bulls and whether they should be put down.
In issuing his order, Judge Vitale determined that three of the dogs posed a threat to public safety and lacked a useful purpose.
"This is a highly charged and emotional issue," Judge Vitale said in court. "It has drawn a lot of attention. If I'm going to err on this case, I'm going to err on the side of caution."
For the next 21 days, the four dogs will remain at Monroe County Animal Control. Tracy Thomas, a Plymouth attorney representing the Buster Foundation of Belleville, said he has not yet decided if he will file an appeal with Monroe County Circuit Court.
"It's hugely disappointing," Mr. Thomas said after the decision. "We don't agree with his ruling."
Monroe County Assistant Prosecutor Michael Brown had the opposite reaction.
"The county is pleased with the judge's decision," he said. "We believe the public is safer."
"We saved one dog," he said. "If only for that, it was worth it. Sometimes you've got to draw the line."
The case became a complicated legal issue in April when members of the Monroe chapter of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals wanted to take possession of the four dogs. A visiting judge allowed it but he later disqualified himself from the case.
Then Judge Vitale decided the dogs should be kept at animal control, so they were returned. The final phase of the legal battle involved the dogs' fates. That took three days spread over several weeks and many hours of testimony before Judge Vitale made his decision Wednesday.
"I never had a problem with pit bulls," he said in court. "I've owned dogs, cats, fish, gerbils and snakes. I like animals. But I can't let my personal feelings get involved."
A key factor in his decision was the testimony of Dr. Katherine Houpt, one of two witnesses for the prosecution. Dr. Houpt was educated at Cornell University and is a leading expert in animal behavior and veterinary medicine. Judge Vitale said he was highly impressed with her credentials and background.
She was paid more than $1,000 to testify, but Mr. Brown said his 120 hours on the case will not be billed to the county. The prosecutor's office represented the county and the sheriff's office, Mr. Brown said.
The one dog being saved has been named Razzle.
Judge Vitale said once 21 days have passed, the dog will be the responsibility of the Buster Foundation and can be adopted if the organization chooses. At the end of his decision, the judge told Mr. Thomas that the foundation is welcome to adopt dozens of other pit bulls being kept at Animal Control.
"We've got about 50 other pit bulls we'd like you to have," the judge said.

Update July 27, 2011 - The following article is by Ray Kisonas, Monroe News:

Group says it will appeal order to euthanize pit bulls

Advocates for the four pit bulls involved in a months-long court fight over their fate say they plan to appeal a judge’s ruling to have three of the dogs euthanized.

Since a judge ordered the three dogs to be put down earlier this month, there have been other developments:
- A court witness for the prosecution who testified that the three dogs were dangerous has been harassed by more than 1,500 negative e-mails. An online petition also is being circulated to have the witness recant her testimony.
- Assistant Monroe County Prosecutor Michael Brown has filed a petition in court to have two organizations remove from their Web sites pictures and videos of the dogs, claiming they are in violation of a court order.
- Cost to keep the four dogs housed at the publicly funded Monroe County Animal Control shelter has exceeded $7,000.
- Each dog has a Facebook page dedicated to it.
At a Tuesday hearing, First District Judge Jack Vitale officially entered his July 13 order to have the three dogs — named Dusty, Monroe and Reilly — euthanized. The fourth, Razzle, was determined to be safe to adopt.
Members of the Buster Foundation of Belleville, a pit bull rescue organization, and the Monroe Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals have until Aug. 15 to file an appeal, something they plan to do.
Mr. Brown, the assistant prosecutor, said he is looking into possible criminal charges against those who have sent profane and harassing e-mails to his witness, an animal behavioral expert.
Dr. Katherine Houpt, who lives in Gaylord and has an extensive background in animal behavior, testified for the prosecution that she tested the dogs and found the three to be dangerous. In March, all four dogs were removed from a Raisinville Township home where a dog-fighting ring was suspected of operating.
Since her testimony, Dr. Houpt reportedly has been bombarded with more than a thousand e-mails, many of which were profane, Mr. Brown said. He has contacted the county prosecutor where Dr. Houpt lives to see if witness intimidation charges are possible.
“They’re trying to harass her,” Mr. Brown said. “I think it’s extremely disturbing.”
A petition seeking Dr. Houpt to recant her testimony can be found on the Buster Foundation Web site, which also includes videos and photos of the four dogs. But Jon Svoboda, the organization’s president, said while he disagrees with Dr. Houpt’s assessment, he does not support harassing her. There is no indication that the Buster Foundation is involved with the negative e-mails.
“I really don’t condone that type of harassment,” Mr. Svoboda said. “That is never a solution. It would be inappropriate in any situation.”
A link to Dr. Houpt’s resume, which includes her home phone number and e-mail address, is available through a website that can be opened through one of the dog Facebook pages. There are many negative comments against Dr. Houpt, including those calling her incompetent, an idiot and delusional.
“It’s clear the purpose of the Web site is to intimidate her,” Mr. Brown said. “I’ve never seen the intimidation of a witness like this before.”
All four dogs remain in the shelter until the appellate process has been completed. Linda Benson, director of Animal Control, said the dogs have been kept there for 117 days at a standard rate of $15 each day for each dog, which totals about $7,000.
Ms. Benson said allowing the case to continue is doing a disservice to the dogs by keeping them in a cage instead of being euthanized humanely.
“I think it’s inhumane to keep them locked up like this,” she said. “I think it’s wrong.”
But Ms. Stillwagon feels quite differently. She and others feel the dogs are gentle, loveable and deserve a chance to be saved and adopted.

Update July 29, 2011 - The following article is by Ray Kisonas, Monroe News:

Rally draws dog supporters and lovers

Clutching signs that read "Free Them All," "We Will Fight For Their Life" and "Stop Wasting Taxpayers Money," a group of animal lovers spent the majority of Thursday at the Custer statue drumming up support for three condemned pit bulls.

More than a dozen supporters rallied at N. Monroe St. and W. Elm Ave., enticing passing motorists to honk their horns in support and many did.
"I love animals!" yelled one woman behind the wheel of a van heading north.
The rally was intended to persuade the community that those who love animals should be outraged at the circumstances involving the pit bulls that were seized from an Ida-Maybee Rd. house by police during an alleged dog-fighting operation in March.
Most legal matters involving the pit bulls — the justice system, Monroe County Animal Control, the judge overseeing the case, the prosecution and its star witness — were under attack by the protestors.
Many mentioned the video available on websites that shows the evaluation methods used by Dr. Katherine Houpt, who testified in court earlier this month that three of the dogs should be put down because they are dangerous and offer no use to the public.
"I think it's sad and it's sick," said Michelle Touchtone of Roseville, who came to Monroe with her mother, Lynn. They are members of the organization Providing for Paws, which sponsored the rally.
Maris Day of Dundee said she came to the rally because she simply loves animals.
William Bellottie of Detroit is a member of the Detroit Bully Crew, a pit bull rescue operation. He acknowledged some pit bulls used in fighting can't be saved, but the Monroe four weren't used in fights. He owns "Tank," a gentle pit that lost a leg in one of the many illegal battles that are held in Michigan and across the United States.
"Can every dog be rehabilitated? Absolutely not," Mr. Bellottie said. "But I believe these dogs should be given a second chance. And it's not just these three dogs. It's an epidemic. It's not just Monroe."
Margaret Svoboda of the Buster Foundation said her organization based in Belleville is willing to take all of the dogs. She criticized the video where at one point a fake hand attached to a stick was used during the testing of the dog named Dusty.
Trina Stillwagon, a Monroe County resident and a member of the Monroe Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), said she was pleased with the turnout and support given to the dogs.
She said she was dumbfounded that the county continues to fight over the issue and spend money in the process. So far it has cost more than $7,000 to house the four dogs at animal control and Ms. Stillwagon said they would take the dogs right now if it were allowed.
She says another rally is being planned before the Aug. 9 Monroe County Board of Commissioners meeting.
"I'm happy anytime we can bring attention to animal welfare," Ms. Stillwagon said. "All they have to do is release them to us and it won't cost the taxpayers a penny. I'll drive over there right now."

Update October 21, 2011 - The following article is by Michelle Swartz, Monroe News:

Ruling to euthanize pit bulls overturned

Monroe County Circuit Judge Joseph A. Costello Jr. overturned a decision to euthanize three dogs involved in an alleged dog-fighting operation.

On Thursday, Judge Costello overturned First District Judge Jack Vitale’s decision to euthanize the pit bulls. He cited that the dogs do not pose a threat to public safety.
The three dogs — Dusty, Reilly and Monroe — will remain in the custody of Monroe County at Monroe County Animal Control until the court decides on a permanent home for the dogs.
The dogs were seized during a March raid on a suspected dog-fighting operation on Ida-Maybee Rd.
Earlier, the district court determined the dogs were too dangerous to the community and should be euthanized. At that time, members of Buster Foundation Pit Bull Education and Rescue of Belleville and the Monroe Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (MSPCA) filed an appeal.
Trina Stillwagon, president of MSPCA, is pleased with Judge Costello’s decision.
“He clearly spent a great amount of time looking into this case and had a great sense of what this case was all about. He made his decision based on fact and law,” she said. “The law was applied and applied correctly. This is a big victory for dogs throughout Michigan who are victims of cruelty.”
The Buster Foundation is seeking custody.
“We hope to take custody very soon because they have been locked up in cages since June 27,” she said. “If we get custody, we will re-assess their needs, have them examined by a veterinarian and proceed from there.”

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