Law enforcement officials say dogfighting is a growing problem in the Valley, spreading to more underground venues as gangs and gambling rings profit from the illegal blood sport.
And detectives said the venues have become more difficult to penetrate because of the attention surrounding football star Michael Vick for his involvement in dogfighting.
“It’s very secretive as far as trying to infiltrate it,” said Rob Simonson, a detective with the Animal Crimes Division of the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office. “They’re very cautious because it’s made the media so much with Michael Vick and the others. Right now, everyone is lying pretty low as far as how they do it.”
On Monday, Vick was sentenced to nearly two years in federal prison and is serving a suspension from the National Football League.
Dogfighting also gained notoriety in the Valley earlier this year when sheriff’s deputies raided the Cave Creek home of rapper DMX and found drugs, three dead dogs and 12 malnourished pit bulls on the property. The rapper, whose real name is Earl Simmons, has not been charged with any crime.
Meanwhile, Valley law enforcement officials said they have observed three levels of dogfighting: large organized fights that often involve gambling, smaller groups that are often gang-organized fights to settle a dispute, and random street encounters.
“We’re finding right now that there seems to be indications of a lot of trainers and possibly breeders as well in the East Valley,” Simonson said.
He said some telltale signs of dogfighting or training for the purpose of fighting could be a home with several outdoor kennels and a backyard modified with treadmills, ropes tied to tires or a meat-soaked leather pouch hanging from a tree.
Trainers typically use the ropes to strengthen the dog’s jaws, having the dog bite the leather or tire and then lifting them off the ground by the rope, so their clenched jaw is strengthened by supporting their own weight.
Simonson said he takes every call seriously, but often people will report that their neighbors have a pit bull and assume that they are participating in dogfighting without any evidence.
Dogfighting has been around for centuries, beginning when bulldogs were matched against bears or bulls in Europe. The activity was banned there in 1835. It took hold in the United States in the late 1800s, but it was difficult to obtain and conceal bears and bulls. So dogs were forced to fight each other.
Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio said he put together the animal cruelty division about five years ago in response to a case involving a group of young people in Ahwatukee Foothills who were killing cats and drinking their blood.
Arpaio said he recalled a serial killer in Phoenix that brags that he started by killing dogs and horses before he killed humans, an example of why it is so important to stop animal cruelty.
Investigators also said that two men who are charged with killing seven people in 2005 and 2006 started their Valley shooting spree by killing animals. Mesa residents Samuel Dieteman and Dale Hausner are awaiting their trials.
A larger problem is that dogfighting is often paired with other crimes, such as illegal gambling, illegal alcohol sales, rape and illegal drug use, said Kim Noetzel, spokeswoman for the Arizona Humane Society.
“It’s a brutal blood sport, and it has absolutely no place in a civilized society,” Noetzel said. “You’re dealing with gratuitous violence. You’re dealing with somebody who won’t hesitate to harm a person as well.”
The Humane Society of the U.S. has multiple staff members that do nothing but cover animal fighting issues. The organization is pushing for stiffer penalties for participating in or attending dogfights.
“The eruption of passion that we saw as a result of the Michael Vick case shows that Americans abhor dogfighting,” said John Goodwin of the Humane Society of the United States.
The Humane Society has implemented a program nationwide that offers a $5,000 reward for information that leads to the arrest and conviction of a person for involvement in dogfighting. Call (202) 452-1100.