A dramatic rise in illegal dogfighting overwhelms
authorities and strikes fear in some neighborhoods
Sunday, May 5, 2002
NEWS 01A By Kathy
Dispatch Staff Reporter
Backpacks slung from one shoulder, children jump from the yellow
school bus and run to their mothers for welcome-home hugs.
Once again, the cul-de-sac in a middle-class Grove City subdivision
seems safe -- an idyllic neighborhood for the 28 youngsters growing up there.
But for six months last winter on Ziner Court, fear hung in the
air, brought on by one resident: Timothy Elkins, who has been indicted in Franklin County Common Pleas Court on 21 counts
of dogfighting and is set to be arraigned May 20.
Elkins left Ziner Court abruptly after deputy sheriffs knocked
down his front door Feb. 22 and raided the home where, authorities say, he was raising, training and breeding more than 20
pit bulls with his girlfriend.
But the ominous influence that his presence exerted on the neighborhood
in the short time he lived there illustrates the reach that dogfighting-related activities can have in a community.
Although organized dogfighting is prohibited in all 50 states,
the Humane Society of the United States estimates the activity has increased 300 percent in the past 10 years. The estimates
are based on the society's database of dogfighters and on increases in the numbers of dogfights reported in the underground
publication Sporting Dog Journal.
Animal activists and law-enforcement officials say that pitting
dogs against one another in bloody fights has been on the upswing in Ohio. Other illegal activities often accompany it, especially
gambling and drug trafficking.
Ohio has a serious problem, said Sandy Rowland, director of the
Humane Society's Great Lakes region. Of the 20,000 names of dogfighters the society has collected and verified from across
the country, 583 live in Ohio, she said. She suspects more but said that Ohio law enforcement, for the most part, hasn't pursued
"The problem is getting worse and more ubiquitous," said Tom Skeldon,
dog warden in Lucas County in northwest Ohio.
Skeldon, perhaps the most zealous dog warden in the state when
it comes to dogfighting, said the practice "has traditionally been under-reported, under-prosecuted and has had very few convictions"
Statistics are scant for an illegal activity that stays largely
underground. Word of upcoming fights is passed among dog owners and gamblers, and the sight of an unfamiliar face near a fight
is enough to shut it down, with participants disappearing in a hurry.
Even law-enforcement officials hesitate to talk about ongoing investigations
for fear of tipping off those involved.
Still, officials have taken aim at stopping the practice and cracking
down on offenders:
* The Franklin County Sheriff's Office has searched seven properties
as part of a nine-month investigation into dogfighting. From those raids, 49 pit bulls have been confiscated, including 20
from Elkins' Ziner Court property. On March 29, a grand jury indicted him on 21 counts of dogfighting and one count of having
a criminal tool -- a dog treadmill.
* From 1995 to 2001, the number of criminal charges filed in Franklin
County Environmental Court for dog-related incidents such as failure to confine or insure vicious dogs skyrocketed from three
to 706. Often the same people who are convicted on these charges are suspected of being part of the world of dogfighting.
* In Licking County, Edward Carter of Columbus was sentenced to
three years of probation and prohibited from owning dogs for three years after pleading guilty in February to 15 counts of
* In March, pit bulls were confiscated from the properties of two
people suspected of dogfighting in Fairfield County. Last month, Clifford and Lori Browning of Stoutsville were found guilty
of failing to confine two pit bulls. Two of the dogs -- those deemed too dangerous to be returned to the Brownings -- are
scheduled to be euthanized, but a date has not been set because the owners are appealing the decision. The couple paid $1,000
to retrieve the other dogs.
* In Morrow County, a Marengo woman and an auxiliary deputy sheriff
were found guilty of dogfighting in 1998 in a case that involved 34 pit bulls. That case was one of the few where law-enforcement
officers raided a dog fight.
* Dogfighters have been charged in the past few months in Arkansas,
Georgia, Illinois, Mississippi, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and Washington.
* An Ohio task force examined the issue of dogfighting for nine
months and in mid-April proposed changes to strengthen state law and make the public more aware of the practice.
Signs of trouble
Although dogfighting has long existed in central Ohio, "in the
last five or six years, it's become really bad," said Kerry Manion, director of operations at the Capital Area Humane Society
and an animal-cruelty investigator for 18 years.
"I'm alarmed at how blatant it's becoming."
Two types exist: amateur and professional.
"Usually, the amateur type involves nothing but ego," said Dan
C. Knapp, director of the society. "Someone who wants to look mean and tough gets a pit bull and they fight them on a spontaneous
Columbus Police Officer Matthew Marlette sees many signs of that
kind of fighting in the Franklinton area.
"I've seen them where dogs have 20 pounds of chain around their
necks to strengthen them," he said, "and I've seen tires hanging in trees for the dogs to jump up and grab them to strengthen
Officers sometimes receive reports of street-level dogfighting
in empty lots, but the fights are over by the time police arrive, Marlette said.
Organized fighting is more clandestine -- yet so widespread that
U.S. dogfighting magazines such as the Sporting Dog Journal carry ads for breeders as far away as Russia, Sweden and Thailand.
Manion likens the secretive nature of dogfighting to the Ku Klux
Klan in past years.
Rowland said police usually hear about a dogfight from a disgruntled
One of the few fights busted by the national Humane Society came
to light in a call from a woman who said her husband was traveling to a fight in Michigan.
When he arrived at his hotel, he called and told his wife where
he was and that he would be led to the fight from there. She informed authorities, and they followed the caravan of participants
to the fight.
A 'family event'
Knapp, hired by the Capital Area Humane Society in December, became
familiar with professional dogfighting during his 15 years as director of a dog shelter and a humane society in California.
"Dogfighting is a family event," often held in a large warehouse,
he said. "Children watch, and there can be concession stands at one end, gambling somewhere else, and over in this corner
they'll be selling cocaine and crack."
According to the Franklin County prosecutor's office, no one has
been found guilty of dogfighting here in recent memory.
But it's a myth, say animal activists, that most dogfighting takes
place on rural back roads.
"Definitely, there's a larger problem here with dogfighting than
in other places," said Craig Turk, assistant director at the Franklin County Animal Shelter.
For nearly a year, the sheriff's special-investigations unit has
been tracking local dog breeders and fighters, trying to get on the inside of the closed society.
Prosecuting dogfighters is difficult because it's underground:
No one is admitted to a fight unless known to the organizers or accompanied by a known dogfighter, said Chief Deputy Steve
Martin, who's heading the investigation.
It took the department months to gather enough evidence to search
the homes of several suspected dog breeders and fighters. Only one of them -- Elkins -- has been indicted on dogfighting charges.
Franklin County deputy dog warden Erin Frost sees the sad results
of dogfighting: emaciated pit bulls chained to large cement blocks behind huge backyard fences without food or water, shivering
in their short-haired coats in winter and panting in the heat of summer.
"On chains on a cement slab -- that does not say pets to me," Frost
said. "Any breeder of a dog would not keep them in this manner."
That's what Frost, a warden for two years, saw Feb. 22 at Elkins'
Grove City home. A brown privacy fence surrounded the back yard of the house at the end of the street.
The dogs she found there had scars on their ears, faces and front
legs, she said.
"It seemed apparent they'd been fighting."
Nine were chained to concrete blocks; 11 others were in the basement
and garage. Another dog was found at the home of one of Elkins' relatives.
Dogs are "more like property" to dogfighters, Turk said. "A lot
of people use them as tools rather than pets."
Used up, tossed out
Amy Jennings said she and other Franklin County deputy wardens
come across dogs used for fighting about once a week. They pick up about 150 pit bulls a month.
The dogs are "just tossed" when they're too injured or otherwise
no longer good for fighting, she said.
Most pit bulls used for fighting are found in poorer neighborhoods
but occasionally in more affluent areas, as with the Elkins case, she said.
Often along with the dogs, Jennings finds trash cans full of vitamins,
"doggie drugs" and fighting equipment:
* Treadmills, either homemade or purchased, are used to strengthen
dogs for battle. A dog is hooked into the treadmill with a harness and forced to run on its revolving belt.
* A cat mill resembles a maypole. Two stiff wires run off either
side of the pole. The dog is attached to the end of one wire. A cat or other small animal is strapped to the end of the other,
and the dog chases it around the pole. After training, the dog often is allowed to maul its prey.
* A fighting pit is generally 14 to 24 feet square with a border
of wood about 2 feet high. That's where the dogs face off and fight, surrounded by owners and spectators.
A duplex that Elkins recently owned at 2368 S. 5th St. on the South
Side had a fighting pit in the basement, according to a family living in one side of the house in March. In the side and back
yards, pit bulls had been chained to posts cemented into the ground, said the renter, who identified himself only as Mark.
"We heard that plenty of people used to come and watch the dogfights
here on Saturday and Sunday nights," he said.
"We found four dead dogs on the property and there were six live
ones here when we moved in. They were skinny, skinny, skinny. You could see their bones."
On the unoccupied side of the double, something akin to a large
aquarium on legs stood in the front room. Mark said it was a breeding container, used because pit bulls often have to be held
while breeding so they don't tear each other apart.
A pile of papers Mark found in the house included charts of dog
lineages, detailed directions on how to prepare a dog for a fight, receipts for the purchases and sales of pit bulls, snapshots
of pit bulls, and information from Web sites about steroids.
By late April, both sides of the double were vacant, but the yard
remained littered with dog equipment -- fat metal chains, plywood doghouses with chewed doors, scattered metal dog bowls,
white-plastic barrel doghouses. The remains of a 5-foot privacy fence were stacked in a corner, and a sign on the door of
one unit ordered trespassers to stay away.
Connie Cordial knows well the effect that pit-bull breeders can
have on a neighborhood.
For nearly two years, pit bulls barked day and night next door
to her house in the Riverbend subdivision on the West Side. Worse than the barking was the snarling and snapping when dogs
escaped their cages and attacked one another in spontaneous fights.
"You could hear the dog screams all over the neighborhood," Cordial
said. "Fights would break out, and there'd be blood everywhere. I'd just shake all over when it would start."
The dogs -- as many as 15 at a time -- lived in the back yard next
to her house on Ripplebrook Road. Her neighbor's son and girlfriend, Demetri Jackson and Latisha Britton, bred and sold the
dogs for $250 each from January 2000 until October 2001.
Although Cordial and other neighbors repeatedly complained about
the dogs to police and the Humane Society, nothing happened until another neighbor videotaped five of the pit bulls ganging
up on a weaker dog and mauling it. When police came to investigate, they found the dog in a crate, nearly dead and covered
with blood. The dog had died by the next morning.
Jackson and Britton were found guilty of animal cruelty in Environmental
Court and ordered to clean up the yard, then move. Britton had previously been found guilty of 32 other dog-related charges
in the court, including failure to confine, insure and license pit bulls.
Pit bulls as neighbors
On Ziner Court, fear set in after Elkins moved in with Christel
Chenoweth, who owned the house with her estranged husband, Max.
Elkins and his pit bulls showed up around October 2001.
Neighbors say that one of Max and Christel's three towheaded young
daughters would proudly walk one of the pit-bull puppies around the cul-de-sac on a leash. Once the Ziner Court mothers realized
that the pup was a pit bull, they warned their children to run inside when any of the dogs came out.
"You just knew something weird was up," neighbor Jessica Morin
said. "We all knew they were selling pit-bull puppies. Several neighbors called the dog warden."
Rumors spread from neighbor to neighbor about the goings-on at
the Elkins house. Cars filled with people stopped at the house at all hours of the day and night, neighbors said. A passenger
would hop out, run to the door, collect something, then jump back in the car.
On Feb. 22, armed SWAT officers moved in, knocking down the front
door and searching the house, yard and garage. Animal-control officers filled five vans with Elkins' pit bulls, including
two pregnant females. Deputies took out a long list of items, including a canine treadmill, canine vaccine, syringes, a computer
and 11 DVDs about dogs.
In the midst of the raid, the yellow school bus pulled up and dropped
off the children of Ziner Court.
Eventually, Elkins and Chenoweth were brought out of the house
in handcuffs. They were later released; investigators would not say why.
Days later, Elkins disappeared from the house. Within a few weeks,
Chenoweth, who worked as an exotic dancer, also had moved out, leaving the house empty except for a small cat that lurks around
the front door.
In April, Elkins was sent to federal prison for a year on a counterfeiting
charge unrelated to dogfighting. Neighbors said Chenoweth is living with a sister, and her children are with their father.
"We're awfully glad that it's over," said Emma Ingram, who lives
with her son and his family in one of the neighboring houses.
"Neighborhood children play outside all the time, and I was so
afraid. Anything can set a pit bull off."