BEACON PHOTO/ELI WITEK Brenda Williams, with Seminole County Animal Services, holds up the prop dog used in faux dogfighting crime scenes. The scene was arranged by animal-abuse experts to train animal-services officers, law-enforcement officers, and state prosecutors on how to gather evidence in animal-fighting criminal cases.

Representatives of a host of organizations gathered Feb. 4 to attend an animal-fighting workshop aimed to teach law enforcement, animal-control officers, and other professionals how to gather evidence for criminal cases.

Five mock crime scenes, including a dogfighting pit and a cockfighting ring, were staged at the Volusia County Fire Training Center. Fifty-four people participated, representing some 14 organizations. There were prosecutors from three judicial circuits, federal agents, veterinarians, and animal-control officers.

“Animal fighting operates in the darkened underbelly of the criminal world,” Volusia County Animal Services Director Adam Leath, who organized the event, said. “It coincides with other violent crime, including attempted murder, murder, guns in the hands of violent felons, drugs, and prostitution, including child prostitution.”

BEACON PHOTO/ELI WITEK
KILLING DEVICE — Volusia County Animal Services Director Adam Leath holds a handmade electrocution device, used to kill dogs quietly. “It’s an insult to their ego when the dog loses. If the dog doesn’t win, they’ll kill it,” Leath said. “Especially in urban areas, gunshots are too loud.”

But the prevalence of animal fighting is difficult to gauge, Leath said.

“Animal fighting continues to persist, because these groups have convinced society that they don’t exist,” he said.

In Volusia County in 2021, three search warrants were issued for dogfighting cases, and four for cockfighting. The cases are currently working their way through the court system, Leath said.

Often an animal-fighting ring is uncovered only during the investigation of other crimes.

To demonstrate the ins and outs of the legal process and how the crime may be stumbled upon, Leath and other experts came up with backstories for each mock scene. They also provided the participants, who were split into different groups, with mock warrants.

HONOR AMONG THIEVES — Volusia County Animal Services Director Adam Leath shows coins used to tip the scales by criminals involved in cockfighting. The roosters are weighed before a bout to ensure fairness, but, as seen here, the rules are not strictly adhered to.

In the case of a faux dogfighting pit, the backstory was that, during a routine traffic stop, a law enforcement officer noticed a dog with visible injuries in the back seat. Under questioning, the driver spilled the beans on locations where dogfighting occurred. A search warrant was issued, and law enforcement and animal control officers responded to the scene.

In each of the five scenes, actual evidence collected in previous cases was used, including the homemade paraphernalia employed. A broken handle of a hammer may in fact be a “breaking stick,” a tool used to pry open a dog’s jaws during a fight, and a treadmill could be evidence of a training tool.

“All of these items taken together — what item can’t I explain?” Leath said.

BEACON PHOTO/ELI WITEK
PARAPHERNALIA — Some of the paraphernalia used in cockfighting. The mostly handmade pieces, called “gaffs” or “knives” depending on the type, are attached to the legs of a rooster in a brutal fight to the death. The pieces are all actual evidence collected at crime scenes.

Animal fighting, which requires breeding, training and fighting, all done in secret, is a business, the experts said.

“It’s not uncommon to see $100,000 purses in a fight,” Leath said.

State Attorney for the 7th Judicial Circuit R.J. Larizza, who stopped by the training to speak to the participants, said those involved in animal fighting can often also be charged with crimes related to moving large amounts of money surreptitiously.

“We have to be smart and creative about how we handle these groups,” Larizza said. “Hopefully, we’ll put them in jail — not just on a misdemeanor, but on racketeering and structuring charges.”

If the public has any knowledge of, or hears about, animal fighting, they can report anonymously via Crime Stoppers at 1-888-277-8477, or by calling Volusia County Animal Services at 386-248-1790.

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