South Florida dogfighting rages on despite tough laws
On the warm, humid afternoon of June 22, 2007, Liz Roehrich, a petite white woman in her 40s, turned left into a predominantly black, middle-class neighborhood and parked her animal control truck in front of a gray house with a well-manicured lawn. Visible on a gate leading to the back yard was a black sign with orange letters reading "Beware of Dogs."
Roehrich knocked on the front door. When it opened, she met Sam Denson, a tall, broad, black 34-year-old former football player turned civil engineer. Roehrich explained she was responding to a complaint lodged by a Boynton Beach city worker who'd been out cutting lawns and heard snarling pit bulls on the other side of a fence. An indignant Denson led her out back.
In the open, sandy back yard, Roehrich saw four male pit bulls chained to stakes along the wooden fence. Each dog was lean and muscular. All they had for shelter from the sweltering Florida sun were blue plastic barrels turned on their sides and the sparse shade of a few palm trees. The air reeked of animal waste. The scene reminded Roehrich, a 20-year veteran of animal control, of video she'd seen of recent dogfighting raids in Mississippi, Georgia, and Virginia.
South Florida dogfighting
"Do these dogs bite?" she asked, trying to feel out the situation.
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"You know what kind of dogs bite," Roehrich recalls Denson saying.
Roehrich knew that, although dogs used for fighting are trained to rip an opponent's flesh from the bone, they rarely bite humans.
None of the dogs had registration or vaccination tags.
"How long have you had these dogs?" Roehrich asked.
"About two months," Denson said. He explained he'd vaccinated the dogs himself. For the past ten years, he had co-owned an operation called Camp 8 Kennels.
Years earlier, during another investigation, she'd met the other two owners — a sanitation worker named Paul Green and Ricky Norfus, a 350-pound contractor known on the street as "Big Rick." She had long suspected they were dogfighters.
"What are the dogs' names?" Roehrich asked.
Denson said he hadn't given them names yet.
"You've had these dogs for two months and you haven't named them?" Roehrich shot back before issuing him six tickets.
Then, out of nowhere, in late July, a tipster left an anonymous telephone message at the Palm Beach County Animal Control office. He said he'd seen Norfus fighting pit bulls on his property. The man had purchased fighting dogs from Norfus himself. He claimed to have firsthand knowledge that Norfus was even electrocuting dogs in his back yard.
Roehrich began a full investigation of all three Camp 8 Kennel owners. Soon video cameras picked up clues often associated with dogfighting: more blue barrels, dogs kept apart, and a knotted rope hanging from a tree, used to strengthen dogs' jaws.
Just before 10 a.m. Sunday, September 16, 2007, Boynton Beach Police stormed Green's house. As he was taken into custody, Green complained, "Show me one dog I've fought! One dog!"
Then officers moved in on Denson's house, around the corner, and rounded up Norfus, who lived with his mother in the same neighborhood. All were charged with animal baiting (fighting) and conspiracy, felonies that could land each man in prison for 15 years.
During their search, police found a "slat mill," a treadmill for dogs. It was new, a six-foot-tall, professionally manufactured structure of iron and finished wood. Powered by a motor, wooden slats moved under a dog's feet like a conveyor belt to build stamina and a lean physique. At the top of the contraption was a brace to secure a dog in place above the looping track. To police, it looked like some sort of torture device.
Police also found a set of plywood boards that fit together to form a pit. Nearby was a rolled-up carpet stained with blood. Other finds included a short wooden stick that was painted black and covered in bite marks (called a "breakstick," used to open a dog's clenched jaw) and a pole with a spring at one end and a cured animal hide attached (such "spring poles" are often used to train fighting dogs to get used to the feel of biting animal flesh).
There were also canine IV drip lines, tourniquets, steroids, and handwritten instructions on how to run an IV.
In Denson's house, police found stacks of documents chronicling the lineage and breeding histories of the dogs. Some were listed as champions and grand champions that had won as many as five fights in a row.
In total, cops found 15 pit bulls in the three back yards. All were lean, with rippling muscles and strong jaws. Several had scars on their faces and front paws. Most were aggressive and pulled against their leads. Some were "spooks," nervous and hesitant to even leave their plastic housing. Police were careful to keep the dogs apart.
Then came the stunner: From inside Norfus's mother's house, police removed an arc welder, an industrial piece of electrical machinery often used to melt metal. This one was blue, with a power supply and wires attached to clamps. Just weeks before the Boynton Beach raid, then-Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick had admitted to using the same type of machine to electrocute pit bulls on his farm in Virginia. He would hook one clamp to a dog's cheek and another to its ass, and then hit the juice. It's generally the quickest, quietest way to execute a dog.
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."
"Mr. Norfus was very cocky at that time," she says nearly a decade after the meeting, though she doesn't remember specifically what he said. "He made several allusions to his dogfighting activities. I never forgot that. I filed it away somewhere in my mind, waiting."
These men did not fit the description of the typical animal baiter. They had good jobs. They owned property in a neighborhood with a pleasant park where children play soccer until the streetlights come on. They were churchgoing family men who neighbors say are well liked in their community.
Through their lawyers, all three men declined to comment for this article. But their attorneys say Sam Denson, Paul Green, and Ricky Norfus grew up together and have long shared an interest in breeding and raising American bull terriers. In 1999, they started Camp 8 Kennels. The name was an allusion to the movie Life, an Eddie Murphy/Martin Lawrence comedy about a prison work camp.
Denson and Norfus were star football players in high school. Denson earned a scholarship to play at Northern Illinois University, where he was a standout strong safety. After college, he returned to Boynton Beach, got married, and had two daughters. At the time of his arrest, he had a good job with an engineering firm based in Tequesta. He coached the Boynton Beach Bulldogs, a youth football team. "Sam Denson is a doting father, a loving husband, and a pillar in the community," says his attorney, Mike Maher. "He is an extremely good human being."
Paul Green worked as a sanitation employee for Boynton Beach for 17 years and never received a major complaint. He was on a bowling team and coached teams for the Police Athletic League, a program organized by cops to keep kids out of trouble. "He's just your average blue-collar joe in practically every way," says his attorney, Robert Pasch. "He's a quiet, blue-jeans-and-T-shirt-type guy who sold dogs as pets. He has steadfastly denied these allegations from the first moments of his arrest and has never wavered."
Green did have a criminal record, though. He pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault and weapons-possession charges and served probation in the late '90s. Norfus too has been on probation — for a drug possession charge in 2003. But nothing in their criminal histories pointed to dogfighting.
As far as police and the State Attorney's Office were concerned, though, the case would be the most compelling application of new dogfighting laws yet. In 2003, on suggestions from animal control officials across the state, the Florida Legislature passed new statutes on animal fighting. The new rules allowed for all participants at a dogfight — even spectators — to be charged with a felony. Language was added to specify that prosecutors do not need a witness to a fight to convict on dogfighting charges.
Although prosecutors didn't have any witnesses that would testify they saw Norfus, Green, and Denson fight dogs, the evidence — the pit, the treadmill, the drugs — seemed overwhelming. The case, they thought, would be a cinch.
After a year and a half of delays, the trial finally began January 12, 2009, on the 11th floor of the immaculate Palm Beach County Courthouse.
Assistant State Attorney Destinie Baker presented the state's evidence against Green, Norfus, and Denson to a six-person jury, four men and two women. She showed them the steroids and the staple gun, the old issues of Sporting Dog Journal, and the breeding papers. Cops had confiscated business cards from pit bull breeders around the nation. The jury saw the photos on Denson's cell phone of two scarred pit bulls breeding, as well as the cured animal hide and the breakstick, covered in bite marks. With the help of Roehrich, Baker struggled to assemble the 12-by-12-foot plywood pit, complete with bloody carpet, in the middle of the courtroom.
One by one, Baker introduced the jury to photos of the 15 dogs taken into custody during the raids. "These are the victims in the case," she explained. Some, she said, had been bred to kill. Others were used for bait. Two dogs in particular, a male and a female, had severe facial scarring. The male's name was Pain. The female, a spry, aggressive dog with a coat the color of corn flakes, was named Coffee. Coffee's nostrils were gashed; thin pink lines crossed in every direction across her jowls and front paws.
Jurors did not, however, see the arc welder found inside Norfus's house. There was no flesh or fur on the machine to link it to any animals, it wasn't found near any of the dogs, and Norfus is a contractor whose job could reasonably call for such a device, so the court ruled it inadmissible.
Roehrich testified that all the items were telltale signs of dogfighting. "Anyone who knows anything about dogfighting looks at these items and knows in one second these guys were fighting dogs," she insisted.
Defense attorneys suggested to the jury that Roehrich had a personal reason for initiating the bust. In 2007, officials in Boynton Beach had been on the verge of axing the animal control department for budgetary reasons. Roehrich's job could have been eliminated in the process. It was about then when this entire investigation got under way, Green's attorney, Robert Pasche, told the jury. "Liz Roehrich is credited with bringing down this ring, when there is no ring," Pasche said. "Then all of a sudden, Boynton Beach animal control is off the chopping block."
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.
This past February, Olivero admitted as much — pleading guilty to fighting or baiting of animals. Circuit Judge Reemberto Diaz slammed him with a ten-year sentence. Olivero wept in the courtroom.
One other defendant earned a three-year term for attending the fight. Six others picked up fines and probation.
"Hopefully it served as a warning that you can't torture dogs like this without serving serious time," Dannelly says. "But I think it's still happening out there."
In Boynton Beach, Liz Roehrich attended most of the trial but also had to tend to the constant calls, the bottomless pit of paperwork, and all the animals passing through her office.
She was worried when the jury did not quickly return a verdict Monday morning. That Tuesday, she was sitting at her desk, smoking a Camel No. 9, when she got a call. The jury was back. When she put the phone down, the usually talkative Roehrich was speechless.
After three days of deliberation, the foreperson told Circuit Judge Krista Marx that the jury could not reach a verdict. They couldn't agree on whom to believe. Two wanted to convict. Four wanted to acquit. They were hopelessly deadlocked.
A new trial is set for December. This time, the state plans to call even more experts to convince members of the jury they're looking at dogfighting paraphernalia.
Defense attorneys point out that, unlike the Olivero case in Miami, the state's case against the three men is hampered without witnesses.
Two years with charges hanging over their heads seems to have taken a toll on the defendants. Paul Green had to move out of the neighborhood where he has lived his entire life. "Boynton Beach is a small town," says his attorney, Pasche. "Everybody is everybody's cousin. Dogfighting has been a scarlet letter." With felony charges pending, Green was suspended without pay from the sanitation job he'd held for 17 years. "To have that kind of stigma wrongfully associated, it has absolutely affected every part of every day of his life. All for a case that ultimately came back deadlocked."
On a Sunday morning this past September — nearly two years to the day since the raids — Liz Roehrich was driving around the neighborhood where the whole thing began. She passed the house where Green used to live. Then Ricky Norfus's mother's house, down the street. Then Sam Denson's house, which has been painted orange since the arrests. Though no pit bulls appear to be on the property, a "Beware of Dog" sign still hangs on the fence.
She says that since the very public arrests, the problems with dogfighting in Boynton Beach are essentially gone. "This is a result of good, solid police work we started doing in the '90s and neighborhoods taking responsibility," she explains. "No matter what they like to say, we didn't start investigating when Michael Vick got arrested."
Of all the personal accusations in this case, Roehrich says the one that bothers her most was Willbur's suggestion she is racist. "I don't have a prejudiced bone in my body!"
Willbur maintains that his client and his friends never fought dogs. "As a matter of fact," he says, "the only people we can see hurting any dogs in this case at all was the City of Boynton Beach, because they euthanized every one of them." In December 2007, three months after the dogs were seized, a county veterinarian put down all 15 dogs.
But in one way, their legacy lives on. A breeding chart found in Denson's pickup truck showed that, just days before the raid, Coffee, the badly scarred female, had been bred with Pain, the male with scars on his face and paws. Nearly two months after the arrests, Coffee gave birth to a litter of adorable young pit bulls. There was no problem adopting out all six. They were soft, sprawling, cuddly little pups. And according to their breeding documents, they're all the progeny of champions.
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