WILMINGTON — A horrific tale of animal cruelty recently revealed by federal authorities included possibly the tiniest slivver of positivity.
A Kent County man sentenced to seven years and four months in federal prison Tuesday allegedly conspired to train and breed American pit bull terriers for regional fights and as far as Tennessee, the U.S. Department of Justice announced.
If there’s any good from the case, however small and far from outweighing the reported atrocities, Delaware Animal Care and Control Capt. Sherri Warburton said the conviction of Dawan E. Nelson, 33, of Houston, at least shines a public light on the potential severity of dogfighting enterprises in Delaware.
State officials refused to disclose numbers regarding recent arrests, but Capt. Warburton said, “We still have people investigating. Within the last year we have made arrests.”
Added J. Kevin Usilton, executive director of Camden-based First State Animal Center and SPCA, whose location cared for approximately 70 canines in the aftermath of the arrest: “This was a major operation for our shelter, and we are happy to have a sentence reflect the serious nature of dogfighting in our state and on a federal level.
“We appreciated the support we received to make this a success.”
Nelson pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court to dogfighting, cocaine dealing and firearm possession by a convicted felon. As a result, he received an 88-month prison sentence rendered by Judge Sue L. Robinson.
According to charging documents, Nelson began a “D-Boyz Kennels” operation around 2011. His goal was to sponsor pit bulls in dogfighting operations. Eventually, charges alleged, the venture was facilitated in Felton, Houston, Frederica and Wilmington.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office alleged Nelson owned and operated a kennel and participated in dogfighting competitions in the District of Columbia and other states including Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Tennessee.
A search of Mr. Nelson’s home on Gun and Rod Club Road by Delaware State Police and Delaware Animal Care and Control officers on Jan. 8, 2013, yielded 33 kilograms of cocaine, two loaded semi-automatic pistols and 67 American terrier pit bulls, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
In announcing the sentencing, U.S. Attorney for the District of Delaware Charles M. Oberly III said many of the located dogs were scarred from fighting. Investigation found some dogs that lost fighting matches were killed by gunshot or suffocation, he said.
Dogs, supplies seized
In court documents, the Department of Justice charged that 21 dogs were scarred on their muzzles, chests, legs and other body parts, and six puppies were seized.
Medical supplies used to treat injuries were seized, including disposable skin staplers, suture removal instruments, sodium chloride intravenous drip bags, intravenous catheters, syringes and needles, antibiotic medications and a gallon of iodine, federal prosecutors said in court papers.
Also located at the residence were weighted collars, weighted sleds, breaking sticks and spring poles, Mr. Oberly said.
According to the DOJ in court papers, breeding operation equipment included “a dog ovulator detector, and a ‘rape’ stand’ (a device in which a female dog, which is too aggressive to submit to males for breeding, is strapped down with her head held in place by a restraint).”
Training and conditioning items found included breaking and parting sticks used to pry open fighting dogs’ mouths during a fight, the prosecution said in papers, dietary supplements, steroids, a sled with barbell weights and tow chain, treadmills and spring pole devices which dogs bite and are suspended off the ground until relaxing their bites.
Documents alleged that a .40 caliber semi-automatic pistol was used by a co-defendant to destroy a pit bill which lost a match.
According to federal prosecutors in court papers, the venture debuted in 2011 from a home Nelson rented in Felton. In January 2012, documents said, Nelson used cash to buy an 11-acre land plot and home near Houston. The site allegedly was used for kennels and dog houses for approximately 70 pit bulls behind a stockade fence in the rear of the property.
Also on the premises were a shed and house trailer with stored equipment and supplies used for Nelson’s dogfighting venture, papers said. In a wooded area behind the property, a small dogfighting ring was used for canine brawling, according to federal prosecutors.
Traveling to fights
At some point in 2011, papers alleged, Nelson took a pit bull from Delaware to Tennessee to match it in a fight. According to prosecutors, the dog lost the fight and Nelson lost a wager.
Before an audience of approximately 20 in early 2012, authorities alleged, two approximate half-hour fights were hosted in Nelson’s living room to judge the dogs’ performance. Some spectators came from Maryland and New Jersey, papers said.
Around Feb. 20, 2012, Nelson allegedly agreed to allow his pit bull named “King” to breed with a female canine from Pennsylvania, with the promise of two puppies from any litter, which could be used in the dogfighting operation, papers said.
In the same month, according to documents, a 15-month-old female pit bull named “Termite“ allegedly arrived from Missouri and took four minutes to cause profuse bleeding from the muzzle of another combatant before the match was stopped.
Nelson allegedly won $500 for wagering on his brindle-colored male pit bull, which won a 28-minute fight while biting the chest, throat, muzzle and rear of his canine foe, papers said.
A losing pit bull was killed by a co-conspirator and then hung from a tree after quitting 15 minutes into a fight against a pit bull named “Junior,” according to documents.
In another fight around August 2012, prosecutors alleged, two dogs fought for roughly three minutes before a match was stopped on the fear that one would be killed.
According to the Department of Justice, Nelson paid approximately $500 to acquire a pit bull from Georgia in the summer of 2012 for its breeding prowess.
One of Nelson’s pit bulls lost three teeth during a triumphant fight in the summer of 2012 and was not used again, papers said.
Nelson allegedly lost a $2,000 wager when his brindle-colored pit bull dropped in an approximately 30-minute fight in Wilmington in October 2012, the prosecution said.
‘Depravity, torture, execution’
After sentencing, Mr. Oberly said in a news release, “Depravity associated with dogfighting, including the torture and execution of dogs, deserves punishment associated with such cruelty.”
State officials concurred, and DACC Capt. Warburton said, “This successful prosecution at the federal level sends a message that dogfighting is illegal and will not be tolerated in Delaware.”
Investigating agencies included Delaware State Police, the Drug Enforcement Administration, Delaware Animal Care and Control and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Edmond Falgowski prosecuted the case.
The operation was discovered as Delaware State Police executed a search warrant regarding drugs in January 2013, officials said.
The DACC was notified by State Police after the dogs were found, and Kent County supervisor Lt. Dave Hulse said he arrived and “was in total shock.”
Also that day, the Port Authority in Philadelphia notified DACC of a dog treadmill that had passed through on the way to a Kent County address, Lt. Hulse said.
Officers were at the site for 22 hours investigating and removing the dogs, which were taken to the First State Animal Center and SPCA. Lt. Hulse said he and another Kent officer were involved, along with three Sussex County officers.
Also, DACC said the First State Animal Center provided a veterinary technician at the scene and participated in transporting all the dogs to the shelter.
Lt. Hulse said about 70 dogs were removed, including pit bulls, 10 American bully show dogs and two German shepherds.
The trained pit bills proved challenging to shelter, Lt. Hulse said, since they couldn’t be housed in sight of each other due to their aggressive fighting tendencies against opponents. Also, the German shepherds were trained in German commands for protection, limiting communication possibilities.
The show dogs were worth from $3,000 to $5,000 a puppy, Lt. Hulse said.
Some adoptions, births
Three pregnant pit bulls gave birth within a week or so, producing eight to 12 puppy litters that went up for adoption, DACC said. Five of the older pit bulls were later adopted, officials said.
The adopted dogs are now “doing really great,” said Mr. Usilton, who described all the abused dogs as previously being kept outside chained to doghouses.
“They were extremely animal aggressive,” Mr. Usilton said. “They were all evaluated on an individual bases by an expert behaviorist who determined that most would not fit into a family adoptive home.”
The DACC said other people were arrested in connection with the venture on drugs and illegal gun charges in an investigative trail stretching as far as Texas.
The federal Humane Society of the United States evaluated the dogs, and many were humanely euthanized after being held for 60 days and then more under Delaware law, authorities said. In 2014, the cruelty holds law was reduced to 30 days.
DACC Capt. Warburton said the time caring for the dogs weighed on officers and the SPCA staff as they were euthanized through injections and later incinerated.
“It was very hard on the shelter staff who were the people who had cared for and watered these dogs for a significant time,” Capt. Warburton said.
Capt. Warburton followed with, “We do this job because we love animals and it breaks your heart because you know what their future is.”
Twenty-eight dogs were evaluated by the HSUS for scarring on their bodies, DACC said.
As caring for the influx continued, DACC and the SPCA were further challenged by a gag order that made reaching out for help from other shelters impossible, DACC said.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture also was involved during that time, officials said.
The case unfolds
According to DACC, Nelson had a warrant out by the Seaford Police Department on a witness tampering investigation when the alleged dogfighting venture was mentioned, which led to federal scrutiny for the interstate connection.
State authorities said they were involved and apprised by federal authorities during the entire case, and have continued to communicate with the agencies since.
“We’re still connected with the USDA and HSUS and have a strong working relationship with them as a result of the initial investigation,” Lt. Hulse said.
The operation in Houston was significantly larger than an alleged one on West Denneys Road in Dover seven to eight years ago that involved 20 to 25 dogs, DACC said.
That case also involved marijuana, and state officials said it is typical that other criminal activity is associated with dogfighting.
“When it comes to dogfighting it’s almost guaranteed that drugs, guns and illegal gambling are involved,” said Lt. Hulse, noting that prostitution and a variety of other unlawful activity may be part of the network.
“Dogfighting is entertainment that brings any criminal element to the situation.”
Typically, DACC said, participants show little remorse when dogfighting arrests are made.
“They know when they get caught that it’s part of the game,” Capt. Warburton said.
The dogfighting culture is cloaked in secrecy in a tight underground network, Lt. Hulse said, and “it’s hard to get them to talk.”
Participants consider the dogs business inventory that can be quickly discarded once outliving their usefulness, DACC said.
“Their dogs aren’t pets; they are equipment,” Capt. Warburton said. “There’s a personal (emotional) removal from them, and if (the dogs) aren’t making money they get rid of them.”
Delaware is seen as a central location for dogfighting ventures and gatherings, with its proximity to New York, Philadelphia, North and South Carolina, and Baltimore, among other high interest areas, DACC said.
HSUS offers up to $5,000 in rewards for information leading to dogfighting arrests.
Anyone with concerns or suspicions of possible animal cruelty can call the DACC at 698-3006. More information is available at www.deacc.org.