Herald News (Passaic County, NJ)
October 1, 2007 Monday

Fights fueled by machismo, money, mayhem

By Heather Haddon


In a cold, windowless warehouse, 20 men clad in heavy jackets gathered around a makeshift fight ring, slugging down Budweiser from cans, following the action closely and calling out encouragement ? "Let's get 'em now! Go strong!"? before placing $100 bets.
The object of their attention: two pit bulls - growling, lunging, mauling each other's ears, necks and torsos with jaws locked so tightly that only wooden sticks could pry them open.

The video ended there. No serious injuries to either animal. Clearly, though, previous matches ended differently. Blood splotches covered all four walls of the wooden fighting pit.

Cpl. Al Peterson, a state animal cruelty investigator, doesn't know the source of the video confiscated in New Jersey. What he does know is that photos, magazines and other paraphernalia seized at dogfights throughout the state continue to mount.

"The calls are coming in like wildfire," said Peterson, a 38-year police veteran and expert in blood sports.

Dogfighting has captured public attention in recent weeks with several high-profile arrests, including that of former NFL quarterback Michael Vick. But animal blood sports ? dogfighting, cockfighting ? arrived in America more than a century ago. At the competitive level, such sports involve intense training and large investments. The payback: Participants wager millions of dollars on fights each year, investigators say.
Blood sports are felony crimes, punishable by steep fines and months in jail. They continue regardless. The allure, experts say, is the money, power and street fame one enjoys from owning a top dog.

Investigators' cases span the state: A makeshift dog training center on Paterson's Northside; sprawling, outdoor dog compounds tucked away in the New Jersey Pine Barrens; 20 pit bulls locked up in a Passaic garage.

On the professional level, highly organized fight clubs oversee betting pools worth tens of thousands of dollars in Newark and South Jersey, where Vick allegedly staged a fight. More commonly, teenagers spar their pit bulls in the streets of Paterson and fields behind John F. Kennedy High School. Youths locked up in the Passaic County Juvenile Detention Center boast about whose dog reigned, back home.
"They say, 'My dog is mean. My dog is better than yours,'" said Anthony Morales, a corrections officer. "They talk about what dog won, because it was the last one standing."

On the sidelines, area pit bull owners are coaxed into the fighting world through promises of big money and macho pride. Fighters have stolen pets in Passaic to use as rivals for training their dogs. Some who have witnessed the bloody fights harbor the trauma for years.

"It was terrifying. I started crying," recalled Jennifer Serrano, 18, of Clifton, who often saw fights while growing up in Newark. "I heard dogs squeak in pain. They had holes in their skin from the teeth."

The New Jersey Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals prosecutes 25 dogfighting cases a year, according to Matt Stanton, a spokesman. Many more go unnoticed. Last year, the SPCA opened a major crimes unit to address the gangs, drugs and criminal element often involved in such fights.

"We're just getting our arms around it," Stanton said.

The training
An estimated 40,000 people fight dogs competitively, with hundreds of thousands more sparring their dogs in the streets, according to the Humane Society of the United States. Organizers guard the big events with a secrecy that has intensified since the Vick case, Stanton said. Typically, attendees will congregate at one place, then caravan to other locations to discourage being followed to the main event.

In urban areas, fights take place in abandoned houses, warehouses and basements. The fall and winter months are preferred as they offer cooler, more comfortable conditions, according to Sgt. David Hunt, an Ohio police detective who trains officers on blood sports.
"We're coming on prime dogfighting season," Hunt said.

Throughout the year, aficionados follow the bloodlines of pit bulls through online chat rooms and photocopied underground magazines such as Your Friend and Mine, Face Your Dog and the Pit Bull Reporter.

"Georgia Girl was schooled from a very young age," wrote "Big Apple Bulldogs" in the July issue of Sporting Dog Journal. "Everything we put in front of her she put away quickly."

Dogs from champion blood lines fetch up to $2,000, according to Sergio Sanchez, a former breeder from West New York, who said he now condemns fighting. People buy puppies in the street for about $150, he said. Or they steal them.

Revered for their loyalty, pit bulls pose no harm if treated lovingly. But they become ferocious when abused or conditioned to fight. The dogs can wield hundreds of pounds of pressure in their jaws. Once a pit bull clamps its teeth, they lock down.

"I've seen a dog beaten in the head with a shovel when it wouldn't let go," said Todd Johnson, 46, of Paterson, who has known local fighters for years.

Johnson says his fighting friends condition their dogs for months, as is typical for serious owners. The animals carry heavy chain leashes to strengthen their necks. They bite down on tires suspended from ropes to toughen their jaws.

"They would hang there for, like an hour," Johnson said. "It's a death grip."

Owners also give a hodgepodge of performance boosters - from codeine and amphetamines to chewing tobacco, which, slathered on an animal's chest, imparts a leathery resistance.

"Everybody uses steroids," wrote "The Gator Boys" in the June issue of the International Dog Journal. "If they say they don't use steroids, they are full of (expletive)!"

Money and glory
All the effort shows once the dogs face off in ringed pits. In the confiscated warehouse video, beige and black pit bulls mauled each other for more than half an hour. They instinctively tore at each other's throats. Only the two animal handlers could stop the action, wiping away blood with wet rags before another round began.

"Get 'em!" shouted one man, wearing a black baseball cap and drinking a Miller High Life. "I've got $100 on the black dog."
Betting pools typically start at around $10,000 and grow to $100,000, investigators say. Attendees also make side wagers.

"It's really big money," said Johnson, the Paterson resident. "The most thrill people get out of it is on payday."

After an event, owners often leave weak animals to die, but rehabilitate proven winners. Hunt, the Ohio investigator, has found sutures, staple guns and blood transfusion needles at fights: the tools of makeshift veterinarians.

"It's like a miniature ER," Hunt said.

Because of the money at stake, investigators say, thieves often target pit bulls. In August, for example, intruders stole three fighting dogs from the Paterson shelter. Police had recently confiscated the dogs from a man running a makeshift dog training center in his Northside house.
Michael Coleman, 26, was charged with three counts of animal cruelty and narcotics possession. Paterson Animal Control Officer John DeCando would not comment if they suspect Coleman took the pit bulls.

For street fighters, dogfighting represents more than money. It stokes a sense of power and aggression often craved by teenagers. These owners tend to abuse their animals and have gang aspirations, investigators say.

"I would literally see young guys pushing and kicking the dogs around," said Serrano, the former Newark resident. "It's like a video game to them."

Robert Torres, 18, knows teens who have turned their dogs into fighters. He often feels pressure from peers to do the same while walking his pet pit bull in local parks.

"They'll say, 'You can get paid. I can take you to a place and set you up,'" said Torres, of Clifton. "It's like a slap in the face."

Staying underground

In New Jersey, convictions for dogfighting and cockfighting can bring fines of up to $1,000 and a six-month prison term, per count. In the wake of the Vick case, New Jersey lawmakers have proposed increasing fines significantly.

The penalties help, Peterson said, but do only so much to deter sophisticated organizers who listen to police scanners, pay off neighbors and run background checks on attendees.

"People don't wake up one day and decide to do dogfighting," said Peterson, who is hot on the trail of numerous fight organizers in North Jersey. "We're talking about organized street crime."

Investigations take months to conduct and require as much effort as drug busts, officers say. Local police departments usually hand them off to the state SPCA team of 85 officers. But the SPCA, a nonprofit organization, can only do so much, Stanton said.

So blood sports continue undeterred. Pit bulls - including those maimed in fights - now constitute between 30 percent and 50 percent of shelter populations, up from 2 percent 15 years ago, according to national Humane Society statistics. "Everywhere I walk, there are two pit bulls in the street, going at it," said Sanchez, the breeder. "No matter what we say, there's still going to be underground fighting."


August: Paterson police seized three pit bulls and two treadmills used for training in a Manchester Avenue home. The dogs were taken to the city animal shelter. Two weeks later, intruders stole them after cutting open their cage.

August: State police charged a Salem County woman with dogfighting after her landlord discovered a fighting pit bull and an injured dog in her basement.

February: State police discovered 20 pit bulls at a Dayton Avenue home in Passaic. The pit bulls were living in crates and cages in the garage. The dogs had injuries suggesting they had been fighting. Investigators are still pursuing the case.

April, 2006: Four people from Maurice River in Cumberland County were arrested after police discovered 38 pit bulls, an alligator and dogfighting paraphernalia on their property.

- Source: New Jersey SPCA, Paterson Animal Control, the Passaic Municipal Court


What are blood sports?
Blood sports like dogfighting and cockfighting involve pitting two animals against each other in a pen or on the street. Spectators often gamble on the events.

Where do they take place?
In urban areas, fights are typically held in warehouses, basements and abandoned buildings.

Are blood sports illegal?
Dogfighting and cockfighting are felony crimes in New Jersey. Each criminal conviction can carry up to six months of jail time and fines of up to $1,000.

What should someone do if they suspect dogfighting?
Call the New Jersey SPCA at 800-582-5979 or file a complaint online at www.njspca.org/ report-abuse.htm Do not try to confront the person. Blood sports often attract people involved in other criminal activities.
- Source: SPCA, the Humane Society of the United States

Reach Heather Haddon at 973-569-7121 or haddon@northjersey.com