An Asbury Park man who dumped his dead dog in a trash bin after a lost fight in Virginia was sentenced to a plea-bargained two years in federal prison Wednesday.
Mario Atkinson, 42, of Asbury Park was the fifth defendant to plead guilty in a multi-state dog fighting case that stretched from New Jersey to New Mexico. There's no parole in the federal prison system, which means he'll have to serve just about all of his sentence.
During his guilty plea last June, Atkinson told a judge that he dumped a pit bull of his who lost a $1,000 fight in Virginia after the dog died on the ride back to New Jersey.
Federal agents seized 18 pit bulls from him, some of whom "had scarring and injuries consistent with fighting," U.S. Attorney Craig Carpenito said.Some were found near dog-fighting equipment, including an electric treadmill "specially outfitted with side panels and a leash clip to force dogs to run on [it]," Carpenito said. "Agents also found blood splatters in three areas of Atkinson’s basement that tested positive for canine blood."
Four other defendants in the case previously pleaded guilty and received a combined total sentence of nine years and four months in federal prison.
During their guilty pleas, they admitted 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.
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, he said.
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.”)
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.
“Federal and local law enforcement agencies in New Jersey have ramped up their efforts recently to track down animal fighters and bring them to justice,” Carpenito said Wednesday. “We will continue to root out dog fighting in New Jersey and to work with our local and state partners to bring the offenders to justice.”
Nearly 100 dogs rescued as part of Operation Grand Champion were either surrendered or forfeited to the government, the U.S. attorney said, adding that the Humane Society assisted with their care.
The case was investigated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture - Office of Inspector General, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security - Homeland Security Investigations and the FBI, Carpenito said.
The plea deals and sentences were secured by Assistant U.S. Attorney Kathleen O’Leary of Carpenito's office and Trial Attorney Ethan Eddy of the Justice Department’s Environmental Crimes Section.
In addition to the prison term, U.S. District Judge Peter G. Sheridan sentenced Atkinson to three years of supervised release and fined him $1,000.
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