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July 10, 2009 - Raids Take Aim at Dogfighting Network

July 10, 2009 - Raids Take Aim at Dogfighting Network

Authorities seized more than 400 dogs early Wednesday in a multistate raid that animal welfare groups said dismantled the "largest dogfighting operation in U.S. history."

Some of the fights allegedly occurred about 100 miles northeast of Kansas City on a Harrison County, Mo., farm where thousands of dollars changed hands in bets and handlers killed dogs that underperformed.

Prosecutors in Kansas City, St. Louis, southern Illinois and eastern Texas announced federal charges Wednesday against 26 people, including seven indicted in Kansas City.

Acting U.S. Attorney Matt Whitworth said his office takes a hard line on "this so-called sport."

"Dogfighting inflicts serious injuries and death upon dogs that are bred and trained to be dangerously aggressive," Whitworth said. "Like many dog owners, I am appalled that such a cruel and inhumane activity occurs in our state."

The probe began in the spring of 2008 with a tip from the Humane Society of Missouri. That led to an undercover investigation by the Missouri Highway Patrol into illegal dogfighting near St. Louis. The investigation soon picked up speed -- and help from the FBI and the U.S. Department of Agriculture -- when troopers began picking up links to a web of other dogfighters in Nebraska, Iowa, Texas, Oklahoma, Illinois and Arkansas.

"We feel this is sending a strong and emphatic message to those involved in dogfighting that this will not be tolerated," said the society's president, Kathy Warnick.

Dogs seized in the raids Wednesday -- mostly pit bull terriers -- were turned over to representatives of the Humane Society and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which also are helping investigators gather forensic evidence against the defendants. The animals, which are being held at an undisclosed location away from other dogs, will receive medical evaluations and determinations of whether they can be rehabilitated.

If the animals cannot be placed with responsible new owners, euthanasia is a possibility, said Randall Lockwood, senior vice president for anti-cruelty field services for the ASPCA.

"Our role is to look at the animals as the victims," Lockwood said. "We'll be looking very carefully at each individual animal."

The ultimate disposition of the animals will be up to federal judges in each jurisdiction.

Taken together, the charges from the four federal jurisdictions paint a brutal picture of dogfighting. The dogs sometimes tore at each other for hours in a single bout in the 16-foot, carpeted fighting ring -- but the animals' greatest enemy might not be a canine opponent.

In charges filed in Kansas City, prosecutors described how defendant Cris E. Bottcher, 48, of Gilman City, Mo., allegedly used a .22-caliber rifle to shoot two dogs that had fought in April, "but did not perform to the handler's/owner's expectations."

At a Feb. 28 dogfight at Bottcher's farm, co-defendants Zachary R. Connelly, 32, of Ogden, Iowa, and Ryan J. Tasler, 32, of Woodward, Iowa, purportedly discussed how they disposed of dogs they had killed after fights.

"They said they burn their dogs in a barrel so if police come to their property all the police would see are holes burned in the ground," the indictment alleged.

The indictment alleged that Bottcher and co-defendant Rick P. Hihath, 55, of St. Joseph, spoke of killing dogs and throwing them in the river.

The indictment also alleged that conspirators denied "adequate and humane medical treatment" for wounds or injuries that the dogs had suffered in the fights.

Others charged in Kansas City were Jill D. Makstaller, 32, of Perry, Iowa; Julio Reyes, 28, of Tecumseh, Neb.; and Kevin P. Tasler, 51, of Jefferson, Iowa.

According to the Kansas City indictment, the conspirators bet thousands of dollars on the outcomes of at least three fights that occurred between late February and early May at Bottcher's 37-acre farm.

Hihath and Bottcher made initial appearances in federal court Wednesday afternoon. U.S. marshals will hold both until a formal detention hearing Friday, when Assistant U.S. Attorney Jane Brown said she will ask that they be jailed pending trial.

Neighbors in the sparsely populated rural area where Bottcher lives said they never noticed any unusual activity on the property.

One man said he knew Bottcher owned pit bulls and sometimes saw him exercising the dogs by having them run alongside a vehicle as he drove, but the man said he never saw any evidence that the dogs were being used in fights.

Several neighbors said they were shocked to hear the allegations about Bottcher, who works as a nurse at a hospital in Bethany, Mo., and has lived in the area for a number of years.

Harrison County Sheriff George Martz said his office had never received any complaints about suspicious activity at the farm.

The cases filed Wednesday are similar to those filed against former Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick, who was sentenced in December 2007 to 23 months in prison for his role in a dogfighting ring.

But that did little to cool interest in the blood sport, said Martin Mersereau, director of cruelty casework for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

"Dogfighting is more prevalent than most people could possibly fathom," Mersereau said. "For every Michael Vick there are hundreds, if not thousands, of backyard and alley dogfighters who enjoy nothing more than turning a cheap dollar on the blood of their dogs."

Defendants charged in the St. Louis case were accused of operating breeding facilities for pit bulls bearing names such as the Cannibal Kennel and the Hard Goodbye Kennel.

One St. Louis defendant, Robert Hackman, who operated the Shake Rattle and Roll Kennel, allegedly sold a pit bull in August 2008 for $1,500 and delivered with it a "substance that defendant Hackman identified as 'steroids' that could be administered" to the dog to prepare him for fighting.

Two months later, another defendant there, Jack Ruppel, operator of the Ozark Hillbillys Kennel, allegedly sold an unidentified party a steroid used to treat injuries sustained in dogfighting.

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