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Losing Fight 

In February, police conducted what some thought would be the largest dogfighting bust in state history -- until District Attorney Eddie Jordan's office declined to pursue charges. Animal rights experts are now asking: if a blood-stained pit and a scarred

Laura Maloney had never seen anything quite like the scene at the trucking company. Dozens of cars were parked, some with their motors still running, some with radios left on or doors flung open. Music blared from a portable stereo. Guns, cell phones, pagers and keys lay scattered on the ground where their owners had dropped them. In the center of it all, generator-powered electric floodlights were trained onto a square wooden pit. It was about 12 feet by 12 feet, surrounded by chairs, the inside carpeted and marked with tape lines dividing off two corners, and spattered all around with fresh blood.

"It was clearly a professional dog ring," says Maloney, the executive director of the Louisiana Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA).

Earlier that Saturday, Feb. 1, the property owner, Donald Beaman of Slidell, called 911 to alert the New Orleans Police Department that strangers were again on his land, which is located on a desolate stretch of eastern New Orleans. Beaman says a neighbor had previously seen people "having a party" at the trucking company at night, and had called him that evening to tell him the trespassers were back. "They had evidently used our place before," says Beaman, owner of the Transway Select trucking company. When cruisers from the NOPD's 7th District made their way down a remote gravel road on 4301 Highland Ave., they found several people gathered behind the shield of some empty tractor-trailers. Everybody ran.

By 8 p.m., Maloney and other SPCA officers showed up, and the police had rounded up several muddy, scratched-up people in the surrounding swampland. Others had managed to get away, many with pit bull terriers, says Maloney.

Maloney and the SPCA's chief humane officer, Kathryn Destreza, helped the police identify how items found at the scene would typically be used in an organized dogfight -- which generally involves pit bull terriers trained to fight to the death. There were two washtubs filled with soapy water and sponges, the type used to wash off dogs before a fight to ensure that owners don't cheat by applying caustic agents to the animals' skin. Other items included a hanging scale, used to weigh dogs before a match. Vaseline, vinegar, baking soda and an IV starter kit and solution, used to treat injured dogs afterwards. A plastic "break stick" used to separate dogs during a fight.

More overt clues that people may have been betting on an illegal dogfight included more than $5,000 in cash, a scarred-up pit bull, leashes, pet collars and dog kennels. And, of course, the bloodstained pit.

Sixteen people were arrested and charged with dogfighting, flight from an officer and criminal trespass. "It was amazing," says Maloney, who assumed this was a solid case. Because dogfighters operate under a tight veil of secrecy, the arrests on Feb. 1 and the evidence seized amounted to what police considered the largest dogfighting bust in state history. Maloney says those involved were elated. "We felt all the evidence was there."

The New Orleans District Attorney's office didn't find the evidence so compelling. George Bourgeois, the assistant district attorney and former NOPD chief who screens evidence for trial, decided in late April that because there were no eyewitnesses willing to admit they had been present at a dogfight, there wasn't enough evidence to pursue those charges. He dropped all of the charges -- including the counts of trespassing and flight from an officer.

Maloney was stunned when she heard the news weeks later from a reporter calling her office for comment. "I want to understand why this wasn't evidence," she says incredulously. "A dog with scars on its face and legs? A syringe with medicine? Scales, washtubs, old and fresh blood? The pit?"

BOURGEOIS SAYS HE CANNOT DISCUSS THE CASE. District Attorney Eddie Jordan could not be reached for comment, but has planned a July 8 meeting with Maloney and with NOPD Lt. Heather Kouts, the police department's liaison with the SPCA.

Property owner Donald Beaman says he heard about the dropped charges on the news and couldn't figure out why the other counts were also refused. "They were on private property. They should have been charged with something," he says. "Now they can go free to do this on someone else's property."

Owning or fighting dogs is a felony and being present at such an event is a misdemeanor, making dogfighting laws in Louisiana among the strictest in the nation. The state law relative to dogfighting, RS:14:102.5, makes it a felony to possess or own "a dog exhibiting injuries or alterations consistent with dogfighting ... together with evidence that the dog has been used or is intended for use in dogfighting."

The SPCA's veterinary clinic determined that the injuries on the pit bull seized Feb. 1 were consistent with dogfighting. Since dogs that have been trained to fight are considered a danger to the community, and shelters will not adopt them out, the animal was euthanized.

Among those arrested that night was Cleveland Harris Jr., then 42. Harris had told police that he had not been involved in a dogfight on Feb. 1, but had been on the property earlier that day doing work for Beaman. He said he had come back to retrieve his truck that night, and happened upon the gathering. Beaman told police that he hadn't asked Harris to work for him that day.

Later that month, the police and SPCA obtained a search warrant and raided Harris' house in eastern New Orleans, seizing 19 pit bull terriers, an animal treadmill (often used among dogfighters to get the animals into fighting shape), breaking sticks, dogfighting publications, and other items including homemade videotapes of dogfights in action. All the pit bulls were euthanized, except a puppy too young to be trained to fight. That case is still pending; Harris could not be reached for comment.

A FEW DAYS AFTER JORDAN'S OFFICE REFUSED the charges against the 16 people, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) came down to Gretna to hold a regional conference on dogfighting for law enforcement agents. The conference had long been planned, but it coincided with the news about the dropped charges. Some of the speakers referred to the recent event as an unfortunate example of what can happen when prosecutors don't know about the type of evidence that points to dogfighting.

At the conference, HSUS West Coast Regional Director and animal fighting expert Eric Sakach spoke to an audience of about 80 police officers, animal control officers and other agents, including a representative from Jordan's office. He showed a slide depicting the type of pit found Feb. 1. "If you go into a fight after the fact and if you see a box built like this with carpet on the floor, and these lines" -- he pointed to white lines marking off the corners of the pit -- "you can see this is an arena, and tell the jury how it's used. It's all circumstantial, but you can make for a compelling case." He shows more slides: of scales, breaking sticks, washtubs, a wooden pit smeared with blood. "This is where logic comes into play," he says. "By themselves, these things might not mean anything. But all together, this means dogfighting."

The New Orleans Police Department -- whose officers had worked through the night to chase fleeing suspects through the swamps, make arrests, seize evidence and impound 22 vehicles -- would not comment on the incident and the dropped charges. They did agree to discuss the dogfighting conference, attended by several NOPD officers. "It was pretty helpful," says Officer Linda Howard of the 4th District in Algiers. "They told us the different things to look for and how to handle the investigation."

Another speaker at the conference, Det. David Hunt of the Franklin County Sheriff's Office in Columbus, Ohio, told the audience about the types of additional arrests and seizures that are often made by officers pursuing charges of dogfighting. "Peripheral crimes associated with dogfighting are narcotics, gambling and firearms," said Hunt, who began going after dogfighters in February of 2001 and quickly learned that if he could get a search warrant for suspicion of dogfighting, he would often find evidence of other criminal activity. "These are the little perks I got out of dogfighting cases," he said, ticking off examples of things he's seized in dogfighters' homes: large quantities of narcotics, cash, illegal firearms. "We're getting more bang for our buck. If I can get two arrests for the price of one, I'm going to."

That kind of situation illustrates why law enforcement agents need to vigorously pursue dogfighting cases, according to HSUS regional coordinator Jay Sabatucci. "We'd love to see dogfighters go to jail like the criminals they are," he says.

"These guys are very well-organized and they're dangerous. They want you to think they're just your good-ole-boy neighbor, but they'll kill you," he says. "You can get thousands of dollars at fights; there's always drugs, there's always gambling, and one of the things we're trying to convince the police is that they can get into other crime situations because these are violent, dangerous people."

Maloney says that despite the recent setback, she's optimistic that the NOPD, SPCA and district attorney's office will eventually be able to coordinate with one another to ensure successful prosecutions of dogfighting. The NOPD and Louisiana State Police have both assigned officers to act as liaisons with the SPCA, she says, and she's looking forward to this week's planned meeting with Jordan. "Better communication," she says, "would be a good thing."

click to enlarge DONN YOUNG


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