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.
"Do these dogs bite?" she asked, trying to feel out the situation.
"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.