By Terrence McCoy
By Scott Fishman
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Allie Conti
By New Times Staff
By Ryan Pfeffer
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Kyle Swenson
Although prosecutors didn't have any witnesses that would testify they saw Norfus, Green, and Denson fight dogs, the evidence — the pit, the treadmill, the drugs — seemed overwhelming. The case, they thought, would be a cinch.
After a year and a half of delays, the trial finally began on January 12, 2009, on the 11th floor of the immaculate Palm Beach County Courthouse.
Assistant State Attorney Destinie Baker presented the state's evidence against Green, Norfus, and Denson to a six-person jury, four men and two women. She showed them the steroids and the staple gun, the old issues of Sporting Dog Journal, and the breeding papers. Cops had confiscated business cards from pit bull breeders around the country; one card had a tiny stenciled image of pit bulls locked in combat, each dog's jaw attached to the other's throat. The jury saw the photos on Denson's cell phone of two scarred pit bulls breeding, as well as the cured animal hide and the breakstick, covered in bite marks. With the help of Roehrich, Baker struggled to assemble the 12-by-12-foot plywood pit, complete with bloody carpet, in the middle of the courtroom.
One by one, Baker introduced the jury to photos of the 15 dogs taken into custody during the raids. "These are the victims in the case," she explained. Some, she said, had been bred to kill. Others were used for bait. Two dogs in particular, a male and a female, had severe facial scarring. The male's name was Pain. The female, a spry, aggressive dog with a coat the color of corn flakes, was named Coffee. Coffee's nostrils were gashed; thin pink lines crossed in every direction across her jowls and her front paws.
Jurors did not, however, see the arc welder found inside Norfus' house. There was no flesh or fur on the machine to link it to any animals, it wasn't found near any of the dogs, and Norfus is a contractor whose job could reasonably call for such a device, so the court ruled it inadmissible.
Roehrich testified that all the items were telltale signs of dogfighting, the kind she'd been trained repeatedly to sniff out and had seen dozens of times in her career. "Anyone who knows anything about dogfighting looks at these items and knows in one second these guys were fighting dogs," she insisted.
Dr. Fran Chiulli, a Palm Beach County veterinarian who'd examined the dogs, testified that they were aggressive toward other animals and had scarring "consistent with dogfighting." Under cross examination, however, Chiulli admitted she had no formal training or experience dealing with dogfighting.
Defense attorneys suggested to the jury that Roehrich had a personal reason for initiating the bust. In 2007, officials in Boynton Beach had been on the verge of axing the animal control department for budgetary reasons and turning related responsibilities over to the county. Roehrich's job could have been eliminated in the process. It was about then that this entire investigation got under way, Green's attorney, Robert Pasche, told the jury. "Liz Roehrich is credited with bringing down this ring, when there is no ring," Pasche said. "Then all of a sudden, Boynton Beach animal control is off the chopping block."
Dean Willbur Jr., the attorney representing Norfus, added that the state's claims required a giant leap in common sense. "Our clients live three-quarters of a mile from the Boynton Beach Police Station," Willbur said. "Their neighborhood is about seven blocks from Boynton Beach animal control. [Prosecutors] say they fought dogs for almost ten years and no police officers ever saw anything? They don't have anybody to testify that they saw a dogfight or heard a dogfight," Willbur told the jury. "They don't even have someone who can say they saw anybody transporting dogs for the purposes of dogfighting."
All of the paraphernalia the state claimed was for dogfighting is perfectly legal, the defense argued. "If you find someone fighting dogs, are you going to find the possibility that they have treadmills? The answer is yes," Willbur would say after the trial. "Are you going to find the possibility that they have tethers for the dogs to hold onto with their teeth? The answer is yes. There's no doubt about that. But conversely, can you find people with treadmills and tethers and other implements that these defendants have that don't fight dogs? The answer is yes to that also."
Each item had a perfectly sound explanation, Willbur told the jury. The treadmill and spring pole were used for giving the pit bulls standard exercise. The breakstick was simply a safety precaution. The medicines and staple gun were used to take care of the dogs, of course. And the scratches on the dogs' faces and legs came from years of wrestling chainlink fences.
Oh, and that bloody pit? "It's actually a whelping pen," Willbur said, "where young dogs are placed after they're born so they won't crawl out and so the other dogs won't hurt the young pups." The blood on the carpet was from afterbirth and the bleeding associated with whelping, he said, and besides, the rug didn't even fit the pen the way the state set it up in court.