When police raid a dog fight in progress, they can often obtain witnesses by offering to drop or reduce charges against spectators or minor participants in exchange for testimony against the ringleaders. But what if the only evidence found consists of some scarred and injured dogs and paraphernalia commonly but not certainly associated with dogfighting enterprises? A recent case from Ohio, Ohio v. Steward, L-14-1083, 2015 Ohio App. LEXIS 2989 (Ct.App. 2015), demonstrates how wounds on the dogs themselves can help establish that the dogs have been fighting, and may even provide a timeline for how recently they have been fighting.
Boarded Up House Filled with Pit Bulls and Dogfight Training Equipment
Boarded Up House Filled with Pit Bulls and Dogfight Training Equipment
Toledo police were dispatched to investigate a “suspicious person” at a partially boarded-up house on South Fearing Street in Toledo. When they entered the house they heard dogs barking and chains rattling. The officers found no person, suspicious or otherwise, but did find six dogs, each in a different room throughout the three floors of the house. A stack of mail for Carl Steward was found on the fireplace mantle, but there were no other indications that humans were living there. Rather, the sole occupants of the house were, according to the court, six pit bulls.
A large kennel in the living room held a female. Kennels are sometimes used by dog fighters to protect females. Another female was in the first floor bedroom and there was one dog in each of three second floor bedrooms. The floors of the bedrooms were covered with heavy plastic and wood chips and there was an eyebolt in the center of each bedroom to which the dog was connected by a heavy gauge chain. In the basement was a male whose collar was secured to an eyehook in the ceiling, again with heavy gauge chain. Sometimes dogs in training are suspended for sustained periods to build up neck muscles through flailing after being hoisted up by use of a spring pole.
All dogs had access to water and most to food. The dogs were seized and taken by the dog warden. None were aggressive towards people, though four were aggressive towards other dogs. Items seized in the home included:
- weighted dog vest
- 3 sections of cow hide
- horse leads
- 50-ft. aerial dog run
- dog treadmill
- injectable penicillin
- topical antibiotic ointment
- equine dewormer
- empty bottle of hydrogen peroxide
- empty box for an electronic hanging scale
These items are consistent with long-term care of successful fighters and breeders. Such expenses are not undertaken for an unsuccessful dog.
After the dogs had been seized, Carl Steward arrived at the dog warden’s facility and claimed ownership of the six dogs but was told that the dogs were evidence in a dogfighting investigation and that they would not be released to him. He told the employee of the facility that “you can’t prove it.” Steward was indicted on six counts of dogfighting.
A veterinarian employed by the dog warden testified that the female dog found in the living room (0165, to use the numbers given by the court and by us in our tabular summary below) was very thin and had old scars on her front legs that were too numerous to count. Her left rear leg had some scarring and she had fresh puncture wounds on her face and head. The first picture shows the head of one of the dogs. The tip of her tail was bleeding. Another female dog (0163) had a “moderate skin infection” covering her entire belly. Another female had a wound on her neck and half of one ear was missing while the other was ragged and torn. A fresh puncture wound at the base of one ear was in the veterinarian’s opinion only a few days old. Since dogfighters usually fight male dogs, the wounds on the females may have come from mating, not fighting. Wounds to tails can come from striking the bars of a kennel.
Yet another female dog’s front leg had a recent fracture and her right paw, which was swollen, had healed with an outward rotation. This dog (0164) had old scars on her head, face, feet, and legs and fresh wounds on her nose. A portion of her right ear was missing. Yet another female (0166) had numerous scars on her head, face, and neck and “several pieces” missing from her left ear. An injury to a leg was at least a month and a half old.
A male dog (0161) had scarring on his face, neck, back leg, forelimbs, and chest. The dog’s ears had ragged edges and recent wounds on his nose and ears. Wounds on the top of his head “were puncture wounds about the size of a tooth.” This dog, the only fully nourished dog in the group, was probably the favored fighter. The veterinarian concluded that the wounds on five of the six the dogs were consistent with those that result from dogfighting. The second picture shows some of the injuries to the ears and limbs of several of the dogs. The chart shows the data provided by the appellate court regarding the dogs and their injuries.
|Wounds to ears and limbs (courtesy J. Lyle)|
Carl Steward, testifying on his own behalf, said that he had acquired all the dogs in the three months prior to his arrest and that some of them had been roaming around the neighborhood and the rest were given to him. He stated that he kept the dogs separated because he “did not want anything to happen when he was gone.” He used chains because he thought some of the dogs might chew their way out of crates. He said he had purchased the medications from a farm supply store and that he had purchased the treadmill to train dog 0161, the male, for treadmill races. He used the weighted vest to help the dogs “burn off energy.” The hides he described as dog toys. He said he did not have enough money to take the dogs to a veterinarian so had obtained the medications from a local feed store.
Steward denied the dogs ever fought while he owned them. He said he had never asked any of the people who gave him the dogs if they had been involved in dogfighting. He denied any involvement in dogfighting and said he had never even seen such a fight. He disputed the testimony that some of the wounds found on the dogs were recent. There also seems to be evidence that Steward was using the house as a breeding and training location, which might indicate that some of his income came from supplying fighting dogs to others.
Conviction and Appeal
Steward had waived his right to a jury trial. The trial judge found Steward guilty on five counts of dogfighting, but not guilty as to dog 0163 (the likely breeding female). He was sentenced to five years of community control, 100 hours of community service, and ordered to pay $12,030 to the Lucas County Dog Warden in restitution. Steward appealed, claiming the conviction was not supported by legally sufficient evidence, against the weight of the evidence, and that the restitution award was made in error.
|Summary of dogs and their wounds in Ohio v. Seward (LEP)|
Each dog was kept in a separate room on three levels of a home in a manner, identified by the dogfighting expert, consistent with an urban dogfighting operation. Appellant was in possession of equipment commonly used to train dogs for dogfighting, e.g., a treadmill, animal hides, a weighted vest and numerous over-the-counter medicines and antibiotics. Both the warden's veterinarian and the dogfighting expert testified that the injuries found on five of the six dogs were indicative of recent dogfighting activities.
Thus, contrary to the defendant’s claims, the appellate court could not say that the trial court’s findings were against the weight of the evidence. Nevertheless, the appellate court determined that the trial judge had erred in ordering restitution in the amount of $12,030, as the dog warden was not a victim.
A report in the Toledo newspaper, The Blade, stated that the first six months of the community control sentence was spent by Steward at the Corrections Center of Northwest Ohio near Stryker, followed by six months at the Correctional Treatment Facility in Toledo, followed by three months in the county’s Work Release Program and three months of electronic monitoring. The dog warden was to evaluate the dogs and determine whether they could be placed or would have to be destroyed. The dog warden said she was open to working with the Lucas County Pit Crew, a pit bull adoption and dog rescue organization, which could help place the dogs. An individual from that organization advised us that four of the dogs were placed with families, but two had to be put down.
The case demonstrates the hurdles police and prosecutors face in establishing a connection between a wounded and suffering dog and a dogfighting enterprise. The evidence here depended on the analysis of the wounds by a veterinarian and an expert on dogfighting. The fact that the wounds were recent was important, given that there was no evidence that the defendant had the dogs longer than the three months that he claimed to have had them in the house. The appellate court referred to no evidence of actual dog fights involving the dogs or Steward himself. Nevertheless, the circumstantial evidence and the wound forensics were enough to secure a conviction, with at least some jail time, though more evidence of actual participation in dog fights could perhaps have produced a stiffer sentence.
One could argue that the police should have broadened the dragnet by staking out the house and waiting for Steward to make a delivery or take a dog to a fight, but that would have prolonged the suffering of the dogs.
This blog was written by John Ensminger and L.E. Papet. Thanks to Julie Lyle, Director of Lucas County Canine Care & Control, Toledo, Ohio for photographs of the dogs.