"The bad news is there was a dog fight," said Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd. "The good news is that there was only one fight before we arrived."
Four dogs were rescued on Saturday night when deputies raided a Haines City, Florida, location where a portable dog-fighting ring had been set up. Two were Pit Bulls and two are Pit Bull-mixed “cur” dogs. All appear to be between 3 and 6 years old, according to veterinarians at the Polk County Animal Control headquarters in Winter Haven, where they are receiving care.
More than 15 deputies swooped down on a secluded orange grove near 2780 Hughes Road, Haines City, at midnight, after receiving an anonymous tip about dog fighting in the area, The Republic reported.
When deputies arrived, "30 or more" people surrounding the fighting ring scattered, according to Carry Eleazer, spokesperson for the Polk County Sheriff’s Department.
At least eight managed to get to their cars and speed away, but 15 other vehicles were abandoned at the grove and seized.
Deputies captured Levern Gamble, 42, of 27900 SW 130th St., Naranja, in Dade County, as he was trying to escape the scene, according to an arrest report. Gamble admitted that he drove from the Miami area to watch the fight. He is now facing a third-degree felony charge of attending an animal fight.
Sheriff Grady Judd would not divulge whether the tipster was someone who was involved in the fight or someone who happened to see the fight evolving.
"We don't like to release any information that would risk giving away the identity of someone who gives us an anonymous tip," he said.
Sheriff Judd stated he is looking forward to charging all those responsible.
"It's not just people from this county," Judd said. "It's not unusual to see people come from all over the state and all over the Southeast. That's because Polk County is 2,000 square miles, there's a lot of secluded land. They thought they weren't going to be detected."
Detectives assigned to the Sheriff's Office agricultural crimes unit are in charge of the follow-up investigation. They are identifying the owners of each of the vehicles. Deputies found cell phones and money as well, he said.
"We aggressively pursue these cases," Judd told The Ledger. "We won't know how many we'll charge until we finish our investigation. One vehicle leads to one person who leads to another person. We'll do forensics on the cell phones we found. It's a reactive investigation; it'll take some time to pull together."
The wooded fighting ring was about 16 feet by 16 feet and had a carpet floor, according to an arrest report. A set of scales to weigh the dogs and a wash bucket to clean them before the fights were also found near the ring, according to the report.
(Note: Carpeting provides traction for the dogs’ feet during a fight and also keeps them from slipping in pools of blood. Each dog is washed by the owner/handler of the opposing dog to assure that there are no drugs on the skin or hair that might be ingested and affect the outcome of the match.)
Rings like the one that was set up last weekend are portable, Judd explained. The location of the animal fights isn't determined very long in advance, and they can be held in any secluded open area.
"It's not like there are a lot of permanent locations where we can watch an open field, or every orange grove," he said. "We try our best to infiltrate this underground network. Sometimes that's successful and sometimes it's not."
This is the first dog fight the Sheriff's Office has responded to this year, and the second since 2012.
"It is atrocious and outrageous behavior," said Sheriff Judd. "They train these dogs to fight. And many times they fight to their death."
John Goodwin, director of animal cruelty policy with The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), said dog fighting is alluring to people for two reasons: as a form of entertainment for spectators and a form of financial gain for gamblers and owners.
"It's also a gambling industry. Law enforcement just needs to show that the punishment is greater than the potential winnings...enforcing the animal fighting statutes shows that you will be punished for this," Goodwin said.
The dogs recovered from the scene by animal control will be available for the owner or owners to claim until Sunday, according to Sheriff’s spokesperson Eleazer. After that, they will remain in custody until the investigation is complete.
"Each dog is evaluated individually to see if they've been trained to fight and to be aggressive," Eleazer said. "There are rescue organizations, but legally we can't adopt out a dog that's been trained to fight."
FARM BILL PASSAGE WILL IMPACT ANIMAL FIGHTING
John Goodwin of HSUS said the Farm Bill, signed by President Barack Obama on Feb. 7, will help to curb animal fighting in the United States. The bill included a provision that makes attending an animal fight a federal offense, and also imposes additional penalties for bringing a child to an animal fight.
Attending an animal fight in Florida was already against the law, Goodwin said, but the bill will help in bigger raids involving many jurisdictions.
Up to a $5,000 reward is offered by The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) for information leading to the arrest and conviction of any person involved in illegal animal fighting. Call 877-TIP-HSUS (877-847-4787). Callers’ identities are protected.