Four men admitted participating in an interstate dog-fighting network that stretched from New Jersey to New Mexico, federal authorities announced Friday.
Ring members told a federal judge in Trenton that they trafficked dogs with associates in New Jersey, Illinois, Indiana, New Mexico and elsewhere so that they could be used in fights – often to the death, New Jersey’s Acting U.S. Attorney William E. Fitzpatrick said.
“They also maintained fighting dogs and dog fighting equipment, such as treadmills, intravenous drug bags and lines, ‘breeding stands’ used to immobilize female dogs and chains weighing up to several pounds per linear foot,” Fitzpatrick said.
Federal agents investigating the network “found canine blood on the floor, walls, and ceiling of the basement of one defendant’s residence, indicating that the area was likely used as a dog-fighting pit,” the U.S. Attorney said.
“One of the defendants admitted that his dog died in his car on the way home after losing a dog fight,” he added.
Under the Animal Welfare Act, it is a federal crime to fight dogs or to possess, train, sell, buy, deliver, receive, or transport dogs intended for use in dog fighting.
It also violates state law in New Jersey, where a majority of the dogs used in the ring were rescued.
“Justice is being delivered in these cases,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey H. Wood of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division
Wood also praised The Humane Society of the United States for “partnering with us to provide hope of recovery for the abused animals."
The prosecutions stemmed from “Operation Grand Champion,” a coordinated effort across numerous federal judicial districts to stop organized dog-fighting.
(The phrase “Grand Champion” is used by dog fighters to refer to a dog with more than five “victories.”)
Nearly 100 dogs were rescued as part of Operation Grand Champion and either surrendered or forfeited to the government.
Four primary defendants accepted deals from the government in exchange for reduced prison sentences (NOTE: There’s no parole in the federal system).
Pleading guilty to conspiracy to transport, deliver and receive dogs intended for use in an animal-fighting venture:
• Frank Nichols, 40, of Millville, NJ, who also pleaded guilty Friday to being a convicted felon in possession of a firearm;
• Pedro Cuellar, 47, of Willow Springs, Illinois, who also pleaded guilty on Friday;
• Anthony “Monte” Gaines, 36, of Vineland, NJ – also known as “Whiteboy.”
A fourth defendant, Lydell “Sinn” Harris, 32, of Vineland, NJ, pleaded guilty Thursday to conspiracy to sponsor or exhibit a dog in an animal-fighting venture and a separate count of possessing a dog intended for use in an animal-fighting venture.
A fifth, Mario Atkinson, 42, of Asbury Park, pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Trenton in June to sponsoring or exhibiting a dog in an animal-fighting venture and possessing a dog intended for use in an animal-fighting venture.
Charges remain pending against four other defendants.
Sentencing for Nichols and Cuellar was scheduled for Nov. 29, for Gaines and Harris on Nov. 28 and for Atkinson on Oct. 3 – all by U.S. District Judge Anne E. Thompson in Trenton.
Handling the case for the government is Assistant U.S. Attorney Kathleen O’Leary of the District of New Jersey and Trial Attorney Ethan Eddy of the Justice Department’s Environmental Crimes Section.
The investigation by the U.S. Department of Agriculture - Office of Inspector General; the U.S. Department of Homeland Security - Homeland Security Investigations; and the FBI is ongoing, Fitzpatrick noted.
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