By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
On the warm, humid afternoon of June 22, 2007, Liz Roehrich, a petite woman in her 40s, turned left into a predominantly black, middle-class neighborhood and parked her animal control truck in front of a gray house with a well-manicured lawn. Visible on a gate leading to the backyard was a black sign with orange letters reading "BEWARE OF DOGS."
Roehrich knocked on the front door. When it opened, she met Sam Denson, a tall, broad, 34-year-old former football player turned civil engineer. Roehrich explained that she was responding to a complaint lodged by a Boynton Beach city worker who'd been out cutting lawns and heard snarling pit bulls on the other side of a fence. An indignant Denson led her out back.
In the open, sandy backyard, Roehrich saw four male pit bulls chained to stakes along the wooden fence. Each dog was lean and muscular. All they had for shelter from the sweltering Florida sun were blue plastic barrels turned on their sides and the sparse shade of a few palm trees. The air reeked of animal waste. The scene reminded Roehrich, a 20-year veteran of animal control, of video she'd seen of recent dogfighting raids in Mississippi, Georgia, and Virginia.
"Do these dogs bite?" she asked, trying to feel out the situation.
"You know what kind of dogs bite," Roehrich recalls Denson saying.
Roehrich knew that, although dogs used for fighting are trained to rip an opponent's flesh from the bone, they rarely bite humans.
None of the dogs had registration or vaccination tags.
"How long have you had these dogs?" Roehrich asked.
"About two months," Denson said.
He explained that the dogs lacked tags because he'd vaccinated them himself. For the past ten years, he had co-owned a kennel, he told Roehrich. It was listed with the American Dog Breeder's Association, a registry that deals exclusively with pit bull-type dogs — some of which are "game dogs," a common euphemism for fighters.
Roehrich recognized the kennel's name: Camp 8 Kennels. Years earlier, during another investigation, she'd met the other two owners — a sanitation worker named Paul Green and Ricky Norfus, a 350-pound contractor known on the street as "Big Rick." She had long suspected they were dog fighters.
"What are the dogs' names?" Roehrich asked.
Denson said he hadn't given them names yet.
"You've had these dogs for two months and you haven't named them?" Roehrich shot back.
Then, apparently annoyed with the interrogation — and the citations Roehrich had issued him for chaining his dogs outside in the daytime — Denson complained that she was treating him like a thug.
"I have a college degree," he told the officer. Then he refused to sign the six tickets. He said he was going to call his city commissioner.
"You can call whoever you want," Roehrich told Denson. "If you refuse to sign, it's a second-degree misdemeanor and you're going to jail."
Denson signed the tickets, and Roehrich got in her truck and left. But she made it a point to stay in touch with him. She called him every so often and dropped by his house to check on the dogs. She had a hunch.
Then, out of nowhere, in late July, a tipster left an anonymous telephone message at the Palm Beach County Animal Control office. He said he'd seen Norfus fighting pit bulls on his property. He said he'd purchased fighting dogs from Norfus himself. He claimed to have firsthand knowledge that Norfus was even electrocuting dogs in his backyard.
Roehrich began a full investigation of all three Camp 8 Kennel owners. She spoke to family members. She talked to neighbors. The Boynton Beach Police Department set up video surveillance of Norfus' backyard and took aerial photos of all three men's households. Although the cameras never yielded footage of actual dogfighting, police saw clues often associated with the practice: more blue barrels, dogs kept apart, and a knotted rope hanging from a tree, used to strengthen dogs' jaws.
Just before 10 a.m. on Sunday, September 16, 2007, Boynton Beach police stormed the house of Green. He arrived home in the middle of the search to find a swarm of officers in his backyard and in his house, sorting through his closets. As he was taken into custody, Green complained, "Show me one dog I've fought! One dog!"
After arresting Green, officers moved in on Denson's house, around the corner. Then they rounded up Norfus, who lived with his mother in the same neighborhood. All were charged with animal baiting (fighting) and conspiracy, felonies that could land each man in prison for 15 years.
During their search, police found a "slat mill," a treadmill for dogs. It was new, a six-foot-tall, professionally manufactured structure of iron and finished wood. Powered by a motor, wooden slats moved under a dog's feet like a conveyor belt to build stamina and a lean physique. At the top of the contraption was a brace to secure a dog in place above the looping track. To police, it looked like some sort of torture device.
Police also found a set of plywood boards that fit together to form a pit. Nearby was a rolled-up carpet stained with blood. Other finds included a short wooden stick that was painted black and covered in bite marks (called a "breakstick," it is used to open a dog's clenched jaws) and a pole with a spring at one end and a cured animal hide attached (such "spring poles" are often used to train fighting dogs to get used to the feel of biting animal flesh).
On the three properties, cops found hardcore medical supplies for the dogs: IV drip lines, tourniquets, steroids, and handwritten instructions on how to run an IV. There were dozens of injectable medications, as well as a bottle of a mysterious, syrupy red liquid with a handmade label that read "SHOT BALL." Bandages, bottles of hydrogen peroxide, and a surgical staple gun were also confiscated as evidence.
In Denson's house, police found stacks of documents chronicling the lineage and breeding histories of the dogs. Each page was carefully written out by hand and documented several generations. Some of the dogs were listed as "ch" and "grch." In the world of dogfighting, a champion is a dog who's won three straight fights; a grand champion has won five in a row.
On Denson's cell phone were pictures of some of the dogs breeding. Under his bed was a stack of old dogfighting magazines full of ads for champion fighting dogs. Police also discovered an old-school, green varsity-style jacket with the words Sporting Club embroidered across the back.
In total, police found 15 pit bulls in the three backyards. All were lean, with rippling muscles and strong jaws. Several had scars on their faces and front paws. Most were aggressive and pulled against their leads. Some were "spooks," nervous and hesitant to even leave their plastic housing. Police were careful to keep the dogs apart.
Then came the stunner: From inside Norfus' mother's house, police removed an arc welder, an industrial piece of electrical machinery often used to melt metal. This one was blue, with a power supply and wires attached to clamps. Just weeks before the Boynton Beach raid, then-Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick had admitted to using the same type of machine to electrocute pit bulls on his farm in Virginia. He would hook one clamp to a dog's cheek and the other to its ass, then hit the juice. It's generally the quickest, quietest way to execute a dog.
At a news conference the day after the raid, police boasted about the bust. Roehrich told reporters she believed that the three men were "responsible for the death of hundreds of dogs over the last decade." Television cameras zoomed in on the medieval-looking tools and the pit bulls with scars covering their trim bodies. Headlines the next morning proclaimed the end of a "major dogfighting ring"; newspapers ran photos of the Camp 8 Kennels sign and the arc welder.
What seemed like a straightforward case, however, would ultimately evolve into an expensive and drawn-out legal quagmire. While police bragged about busting one of the most organized dogfighting operations they'd seen in years, the defendants, popular men in their neighborhood, claimed that the whole case was an overhyped publicity grab orchestrated by a renegade animal control officer desperate to save her job.
Either way, the conflict would serve as a test case for Florida's new laws targeting the clandestine world of dogfighting.
If she's not driving the animal control truck through the neighborhoods of Boynton Beach or dealing with the boxes of puppies left at the office or removing wild animals from backyards where they don't belong, Liz Roehrich is generally sitting behind her desk in a small, freestanding cinder-block building behind the parking lot of Bud's Chicken and Seafood on Boynton Beach Boulevard. Her uniform is crisp. Her paperwork is stacked neatly in front of her. A long Camel No. 9 burns in the ashtray. An array of dog and cat photos covers the walls.
As a little girl growing up in south Ohio, Roehrich played with toy dogs and walked her neighbors' pets, but her father never let her have a canine of her own. From as far back as she can remember, though, her life has been dedicated to animals. "I would rescue injured bunnies in the neighborhood," she says, a hint of her middle-America country roots in her accent. Called by the chance to live by the beach and work with animals, Roehrich moved from Ohio to Florida in the mid-'80s, not long after she finished high school. She started at a Humane Society and after six years moved to animal control. "I found my niche, what I want to do to make a difference in society," she says.
Pet owners in the neighborhoods she patrols know her as a kind woman with a desire to help animals, a no-bullshit code enforcer, and, when provoked, a relentless competitor who absolutely refuses to lose and will hold a grudge.
She's also a hardscrabble single mother of a teenaged girl. When she's not in uniform, Roehrich is wearing flip-flops or cowboy boots. And despite working for the city, she'd generally prefer Uncle Sam keep to himself. "I'm not a big fan of the government telling me what to do," she says.
Neither is she a fan of broad laws that target specific breeds, like statutes passed in Miami-Dade County that ban all pit bulls. As a matter of fact, Roehrich boasts that she owns the most lethal breed of dog in the world: the Fila Brasileiro, largely considered the best guard dog alive. For 17 years, she's owned at least one of the 150-pound, loyal monsters — "bred to hunt jaguars in South America," as she likes to say with a smile.
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.
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.
Willbur also suggested that race may have played a part in the case. "I don't think it's coincidental that the Michael Vick case came up, with all the publicity around that, then this arrest occurs with as little evidence as they have as far as actual dogfighting, and we have three black defendants."
Then the defense attorneys called a vet of their own. Dr. Dale Porcher, from West Palm Beach, breeds Staffordshire bull terriers — a close cousin of the pit bull — and competes in the American Kennel Club show circuit. He has shown his dogs at the Westminster Kennel Club dog show in Madison Square Garden, the Super Bowl of dog shows. He was, defense attorneys told the jury, "possibly the most qualified veterinarian on pit bulls in the country."
Porcher testified that he had never met the defendants but that it was not out of the question for breeders of nonfighting show dogs, like his, to have the equipment found in the raids. He told the jury that every responsible pit bull owner should have a breakstick or some other plan in case these powerful dogs should happen to latch on to something. And several breeds of dog legitimately work out on treadmills, Porcher explained. "Just because you have a heavy bag hung up in your garage doesn't mean you're a prizefighter," he said after the trial.
Porcher feared his business would suffer when people in the community saw his name associated with the defense team in a dogfighting case but said he testified because he saw this case as a possible precursor to breed-specific legislation. "I owed it to the people who have pit bull-type dogs and don't fight them," he would say afterward, "which is 99.99 percent of them."
The trial lasted five days. Then the fate of Denson, Green, and Norfus was in the hands of the jury. Deliberations began on a Friday afternoon.
Liz Roehrich attended most of the trial but also had to tend to the constant calls, the bottomless pit of paperwork, and all the animals passing through her office.
She was worried when the jury did not quickly return a verdict Monday morning. (Despite the drama of Hollywood, more than 90 percent of criminal trials end with a guilty verdict.) That Tuesday, she was sitting at her desk, smoking a Camel No. 9, when she got a call. The jury was back. When she put the phone down, the usually talkative Roehrich was speechless.
After three days of deliberation, the foreperson told Circuit Judge Krista Marx that the jury could not reach a verdict. They couldn't agree on whom to believe. Two wanted to convict. Four wanted to acquit. They were hopelessly deadlocked.
A new trial is now set for December. This time, the state plans to call even more experts to convince the jury that they're looking at dogfighting paraphernalia.
Defense attorneys point out that the state's case is still weak without witnesses. Willbur equates the new statutes to laws that deal with head shops and drug paraphernalia: It's legal to make, buy, or sell a glass pipe that could potentially be used for illegal narcotics because it could also be used for, say, tobacco. "It's what the user does with it that makes it illegal, not the bong itself," Willbur says.
Two years with charges hanging over their heads seems to have taken a toll on the defendants. Paul Green had to move out of the neighborhood where he's lived his entire life. "Boynton Beach is a small town," says his attorney, Pasche. "Everybody is everybody's cousin. Dogfighting has been a scarlet letter." Furthermore, with felony charges pending, Green was suspended without pay from the sanitation job he'd held for 17 years. "To have that kind of stigma wrongfully associated, it has absolutely affected every part of every day of his life. All for a case that ultimately came back deadlocked."
On a Sunday morning in late September of this year — nearly two years to the day since the raids — Liz Roehrich was driving around the neighborhood where this whole thing started. She passed the house where Green used to live. Then Ricky Norfus' mother's house, down the street. Then Sam Denson's house, which has been painted orange since the arrests. Though there don't appear to be any pit bulls on the property, there is still a "Beware of Dog" sign on the fence.
She says that since the very public arrests, the problems with dogfighting in Boynton Beach are essentially gone. "This is a result of good, solid police work we started doing in the '90s and neighborhoods taking responsibility," she said. "No matter what they like to say, we didn't start investigating when Michael Vick got arrested."
Of all the personal accusations in this case, Roehrich, who is white, says the one that bothers her the most is Willbur's suggestion that she is racist. "I don't have a prejudiced bone in my body!" she declares.
Willbur maintains that his client and his friends never fought any dogs. "As a matter of fact," he says, "the only people we can see hurting any dogs in this case at all was the City of Boynton Beach, because they euthanized every one of them." In December 2007, three months after the dogs were seized, a county veterinarian put down all 15 dogs.
But in one way, their legacy lives on. A breeding chart found in Denson's pickup truck showed that, just days before the raid, Coffee, the badly scarred female, had been bred with Pain, the male with scars on his face and paws. Nearly two months after the arrests, Coffee gave birth to a litter of adorable young pit bulls. There was no problem adopting out all six. They were soft, sprawling, cuddly little pups; and according to their breeding documents, they're all the progeny of champions.