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
Dean Willbur Jr., the attorney representing Norfus, argued that all the paraphernalia the state claimed was for dogfighting is perfectly legal. Each item had a perfectly sound explanation, Willbur told the jury. The treadmill and spring pole were used for giving the pit bulls standard exercise. The breakstick was simply a safety precaution. The medicines and staple gun were used to take care of the dogs, of course. And the scratches on the dogs' faces and legs came from years of wrestling chainlink fences.
Oh, and that bloody pit? "It's actually a whelping pen," Willbur said. The blood on the carpet was from afterbirth and the bleeding associated with whelping, he said, and besides, the rug didn't even fit the pen the way the state set it up in court.
Willbur also suggested that race might have played a part in the case. "I don't think it's coincidental that the Michael Vick case came up, with all the publicity around that, then this arrest occurs with as little evidence as they have as far as actual dogfighting, and we have three black defendants."
Then the defense attorneys called a vet of their own. Dr. Dale Porcher, from West Palm Beach, breeds Staffordshire bull terriers — a close cousin of the pit bull — and competes in the American Kennel Club show circuit.
Porcher testified it was not out of the question for breeders of nonfighting show dogs, like his, to have the equipment found in the raids. He told the jury that every responsible pit bull owner should have a breakstick in case these powerful dogs latch on to something. And several breeds of dog legitimately work out on treadmills, Porcher explained. "Just because you have a heavy bag hung up in your garage doesn't mean you're a prizefighter," he said after the trial.
Porcher feared his business would suffer when people in the community saw his name associated with the defense team in a dogfighting case but said he testified because he saw this case as a possible precursor to breed-specific legislation. "I owed it to the people who have pit bull-type dogs and don't fight them," he would say afterward, "which is 99.99 percent of them."
The trial lasted five days. Then the fate of Denson, Green, and Norfus was in the hands of the jury. Deliberations began on a Friday afternoon.
T wo months after Green, Denson, and Norfus were arrested in Boynton, Miami's own test of Florida's new pit bull legislation played out in a desolate field miles southwest of downtown.
Twenty minutes past midnight November 17, 2007, heavy police boots crunched softly across gravel as officers in dark clothes circled an empty lot ringed with royal palms just off Krome Avenue.
There were no streetlights on the darkened corner, and the agents' soft footsteps were lost in a symphony of guffawing, clapping, snarling, and howling.
In the yard, lit by harsh floodlights, dozens of men surrounded a small plywood ring under a white tent. The lead detective, a veteran named Mercedes Sabina, stole a glance inside. Two muscular pit bulls rolled across the earth, tearing at flesh and howling in pain.
The men cheered. Sabina gave a signal. As the cops rushed the ring, guns drawn, men ran in every direction into the night.
By the end of the operation, Sabina and her team had busted the most brutal dogfighting ring in recent Miami history. They arrested eight men, including Juan Carlos Olivero, a party rental business owner who had planned and unwittingly led police to the dogfight.
It's the only dogfighting case closed by Miami-Dade Police in at least the past three years, but cops and prosecutors say that speaks more to the difficulty in taking down dogfighters than to any lack of pit bull brutality in the Magic City. "This was an extremely complex investigation," says Susan Dannelly, the Miami-Dade assistant state attorney who took Olivero's case to trial. "It's not the kind of case that's easy to solve or prosecute."
After an anonymous tip, Sabina's team began watching Olivero months before the bust. Unlike the Boynton Beach defendants, the six-foot-tall, 255-pound Cuban-American had a long rap sheet, including 15 felony convictions, including counts of battery, burglary, and stalking. With his swollen cheeks, a hard stare, and a heavy brow, the 32-year-old looked like a heavy in a Michael Mann flick.
All the surveillance paid off November 17, when cops followed him right to the fight. After the bust, Olivero claimed to be an unwitting party planner who had simply provided a tent for the dogfight. But when police searched his home, they found four battered fighting dogs tethered in the yard.
All four of Olivero's dogs were put down, and police also had to kill three dogs used in the fight — including the night's loser, who was found bleeding to death in a tiny cage near the ring.
"You can't underestimate the brutality inflicted on these animals," says Sgt. Nicole Donnelly, who works in the Miami-Dade Police Department's Special Investigations Division, which handles dogfighting cases.
Unlike the Boynton Beach case, Miami-Dade Police witnessed a dogfight firsthand. There was little doubt Olivero had planned the blood sport.