Federal jurors needed six hours of deliberations to convict four men for their roles in a multi-state dog-fighting ring that stretched from New Jersey to New Mexico -- with various states in-between.
The quartet conspired to “sponsor and exhibit dogs in animal fighting ventures and to buy, sell, possess, train, transport, deliver and receive dogs for purposes of having the dogs participate in animal fighting ventures,” U.S. Attorney Craig Carpenito said Wednesday.
“Dog fighting is vicious and cruel,” Carpenito said. “And beyond the needless suffering it inflicts on animals, it exacts a toll on local animal shelters, humane organizations, and the taxpayers of New Jersey,”
The four defendants convicted Tuesday after a three-week trial in U.S. District Court in Trenton were the last prosecuted in the “Operation Grand Champion” investigation (The phrase “Grand Champion” is used by dog fighters to refer to a dog with more than five “victories”).
Earlier this year, five others who took guilty pleas in the case were sentenced to various federal prison terms (see below).
Ring members admitted in their pleas that they trafficked dogs with associates in New Jersey, Illinois, Indiana, New Mexico and elsewhere so that they could be used in fights – often to the death.
They also maintained fighting dogs and dog fighting equipment, such as treadmills, intravenous drug bags and lines, "breeding stands" used to immobilize female dogs and chains weighing up to several pounds per linear foot, Carpenito said.
Federal agents investigating the network “found canine blood on the floor, walls, and ceiling of the basement of one defendant’s residence, indicating that the area was likely used as a dog-fighting pit,” the U.S. attorney said.
“One of the defendants admitted that his dog died in his car on the way home after losing a dog fight,” he added.
Under the Animal Welfare Act, it is a federal crime to fight dogs or to possess, train, sell, buy, deliver, receive, or transport dogs intended for use in dog fighting.
It also violates state law in New Jersey, where a majority of the dogs used in the ring were rescued.
So far, Carpenito said, 123 dogs have been rescued as part of Operation Grand Champion and either surrendered or forfeited to the government.
Among those convicted Tuesday were Robert Arellano, 64, of Albuquerque, New Mexico, who Carpenito said sold and shipped two fighting dogs to Justin Love, 38, of Sewell, NJ, and conspirator Anthony “Monte” Gaines by air cargo in December 2014.
One of those dogs was later entered into a “roll” or test fight the next day and was seriously injured, he said.
Gaines also sent a fighting dog named “Bubbles” to Dajwan Ware, 45, of Fort Wayne, Indiana “in order to hide her from law enforcement after local authorities in New Jersey located Gaines’s dog fighting yard,” the U.S. attorney said.
Meanwhile, Robert A. Elliott Sr., 49, of Millville, NJ housed a fighting dog named “Fancy” on behalf of Gaines and conspirator Frank Nichols – along with a dozen fighting dogs of his own.
Sentenced earlier this year were:
- Nichols: 57 months;
- Gaines: 42 months;
- Mario Atkinson: 24 months;
- Lydell "Sinn" Harris: 17 months;
- Pedro Cuellar: 12 months.
Each must serve the entire sentence; there's no parole in the federal prison system.
U.S. District Judge Peter G. Sheridan scheduled Feb. 20 sentencings for the quartet convicted Tuesday.
Carpenito and Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey Clark of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division credited special agents of the U.S. Department of Agriculture – Office of Inspector General; the U.S. Department of Homeland Security – Homeland Security Investigations; and the FBI with the investigation leading to the guilty pleas and jury convictions.
Handling the case are Assistant U.S. Attorney Kathleen O’Leary of Carpenito’s office in Newark and Trial Attorney Ethan Eddy of the Justice Department’s Environmental Crimes Section.
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