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For most of history, dogfighting has been completely legal. In ancient Rome, dogs fought elephants in the Coliseum. Through the 1800s, "bullbaiting" — using packs of dogs to torment bulls to death for entertainment (and because the tenderized animals were said to be tastier) — was popular across Great Britain. From colonial days through the Civil War, dogfighting was common in the United States. Several states had formal rules and sanctioned referees. American railroad companies advertised special fares to big dogfights as late as 1881.
Roehrich has witnessed firsthand the evolution of dogfighting in South Florida. Though the region is better-known for cockfighting, Florida also has a colorful history of canine combat. Since the 1930s, most fighting was confined to spaces cleared in dark cane fields in the center of the state.
"But in the '90s, we started seeing an influx of dogfighting into urban areas," Roehrich says. "It just came right along with the gangs and the violence. The pit bull became a status symbol on the street. It was less about having a pet than having a weapon."
By 1998, it wasn't uncommon for two dog fighters to meet up on the street, each with a pocket full of cash, and go behind a building to "roll 'em." And it wasn't uncommon to find the abandoned bodies of pit bulls that dog men had deemed quitters dropped callously in Dumpsters or on the side of the road.
Back then, it was impossible to prosecute a dogfighter unless he was actually caught in the act (which happened from time to time). And even then, all the other participants at a fight — the men holding bets, the referees — could be charged with nothing more than a misdemeanor. Dogfighters could talk openly about their competitions — even with animal control officers — with no fear of reprisal.
Roehrich says it was around this time that she first met Paul Green and Ricky Norfus. In 2000, while investigating an unrelated case, she kept hearing about a rather rotund dog man with a good stock of pits. The man was known around Boynton as Big Rick. When she showed up at Big Rick's door, he was more than happy to show her his dogs, all housed in a raggedy structure behind his house marked with a sign that read "Camp 8 Kennels."
"Mr. Norfus was very cocky at that time," she says nearly a decade after the meeting, though she doesn't remember specifically what he said. "He made several allusions to his dogfighting activities. I never forgot that. I filed it away somewhere in my mind, waiting."
These men did not fit the description of the typical animal baiter. They had good jobs. They owned property in a neighborhood with a pleasant park where children play soccer until the streetlights come on. They were churchgoing family men who neighbors say are well-liked in their community.
Through their lawyers, all three men declined comment for this article. But their attorneys say Sam Denson, Paul Green, and Ricky Norfus grew up together and have long shared an interest in breeding and raising American bull terriers. In 1999, they started Camp 8 Kennels. The name was an allusion to the movie Life, an Eddie Murphy/Martin Lawrence comedy about a prison work camp.
Denson and Norfus were star football players in high school. Denson earned a scholarship to play at Northern Illinois University, where he was a standout strong safety. After college, he returned to Boynton Beach, got married, and had two daughters. At the time of his arrest, he had a good job with an engineering firm based in Tequesta. He coached the Boynton Beach Bulldogs, a youth football team. "Sam Denson is a doting father, a loving husband, and a pillar in the community," says his attorney, Mike Maher. "He is an extremely good human being."
Paul Green worked as a sanitation worker for Boynton Beach for 17 years and never received a major complaint. He was on a bowling team and coached teams for the Police Athletic League — a program organized by cops to keep kids out of trouble. "He's just your average blue-collar Joe in practically every way," says his attorney, Robert Pasch. "He's a quiet, blue-jeans-and-T-shirt-type guy who sold dogs as pets. He has steadfastly denied these allegations from the first moments of his arrest and has never wavered."
Green did have a criminal record, though. He pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault and weapons-possession charges and served probation in the late '90s. Norfus too has been on probation — for a drug possession charge in 2003. But nothing in their criminal histories pointed to dogfighting.
As far as police and the State Attorney's Office were concerned, though, the case would be the most compelling application of new dogfighting laws yet. In 2003, on suggestions from animal control officials across the state, the Florida Legislature passed new statutes on animal fighting. The new rules allowed for all participants at a dogfight — even spectators — to be charged with a felony. Language was added to specify that prosecutors do not need a witness to a fight to convict on dogfighting charges.