By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Swenson
At a news conference the day after the raid, Roehrich told reporters she believed the three men were "responsible for the death of hundreds of dogs over the last decade." Television cameras zoomed in on the medieval-looking tools, and headlines the next morning proclaimed the end of a "major dogfighting ring."
What seemed like a straightforward case, however, would ultimately evolve into an expensive and drawn-out legal quagmire. The defendants, popular men in their neighborhood, claimed the whole case was an overhyped publicity grab orchestrated by a renegade animal control officer desperate to save her job.
Either way, the conflict would serve as a test case for Florida's new laws targeting the clandestine world of dogfighting — laws that in Miami ended in a guilty plea and ten-year jail sentence for a man named Juan Carlos Olivero.
If she's not driving the animal control truck through the neighborhoods of Boynton Beach or dealing with the boxes of puppies left at the office or removing wild animals from back yards where they don't belong, Liz Roehrich is generally sitting behind her desk in a small, freestanding cinder-block building behind the parking lot of Bud's Chicken and Seafood on Boynton Beach Boulevard. Her uniform is crisp. Her paperwork is stacked neatly in front of her. A long Camel No. 9 burns in the ashtray. An array of dog and cat photos covers the walls.
As a little girl growing up in south Ohio, Roehrich played with toy dogs and walked her neighbors' pets, but her father never let her have a canine of her own. From as far back as she can remember, though, her life has been dedicated to animals. "I would rescue injured bunnies in the neighborhood," she says, a hint of her middle-America country roots in her accent. Called by the chance to live near the beach and work with animals, Roehrich moved from Ohio to Florida in the mid-'80s, not long after she finished high school. She started at a Humane Society and after six years moved to animal control. "I found my niche, what I want to do to make a difference in society," she says.
Pet owners in the neighborhoods she patrols know her as a kind woman with a desire to help animals, a no-bullshit code enforcer, and, when provoked, a relentless competitor who absolutely refuses to lose and will hold a grudge.
She's also a hardscrabble single mother of a teenage girl. When she's not in uniform, Roehrich wears flip-flops or cowboy boots. And despite working for the city, she'd generally prefer Uncle Sam keep to himself. "I'm not a big fan of the government telling me what to do," she says.
Neither is she a fan of broad laws that target specific breeds, such as statutes passed in Miami-Dade County that ban all pit bulls. As a matter of fact, Roehrich boasts she owns the most lethal breed of dog in the world: the Fila Brasileiro, largely considered the best guard dog alive. For 17 years, she's owned at least one of the 150-pound, loyal monsters — "bred to hunt jaguars in South America," as she likes to say with a smile.
For most of history, dogfighting has been completely legal. In ancient Rome, dogs fought elephants in the Coliseum. Through the 1800s, "bullbaiting" — using packs of dogs to torment bulls to death for entertainment (and because the tenderized animals were said to be tastier) — was popular across Great Britain. From colonial days through the Civil War, dogfighting was common in the United States. Several states had formal rules and sanctioned referees. American railroad companies advertised special fares to big dogfights as late as 1881.
Roehrich has witnessed firsthand the evolution of dogfighting in South Florida. Though the region is better known for cockfighting, Florida also has a colorful history of canine combat. Since the 1930s, most fighting was confined to spaces cleared in dark cane fields in the center of the state.
"But in the '90s, we started seeing an influx of dogfighting into urban areas," Roehrich says. "It just came right along with the gangs and the violence. The pit bull became a status symbol on the street. It was less about having a pet than having a weapon."
By 1998, it wasn't uncommon for two dogfighters to meet on the street, each with a pocketful of cash, and go behind a building to "roll 'em." And it wasn't uncommon to find the abandoned bodies of pit bulls that dog men had deemed quitters dropped callously in dumpsters or on the side of the road.
Back then, it was impossible to prosecute a dogfighter unless he was actually caught in the act (which happened from time to time). And even then, all the other participants at a fight — the men holding bets, the referees — could be charged with nothing more than a misdemeanor. Dogfighters could talk openly about their competitions — even with animal control officers — with no fear of reprisal.
Roehrich says it was around this time when she first met Paul Green and Ricky Norfus. In 2000, while investigating an unrelated case, she kept hearing about a rather rotund dog man with a good stock of pits. The man was known around Boynton as Big Rick. When she showed up at Big Rick's door, he was more than happy to show her his dogs, all housed in a raggedy structure behind his house marked with a sign that read "Camp 8 Kennels."