Dozens of Pit Bulls Torment Residents in West Park
Hell in South Florida is a taupe, one-story house where rusted chains dangle from trees and the smell of feces and decay is so strong it lures rats at night. On even the brightest of days, sunlight doesn't infiltrate its darkened chambers. And the baying of dogs — 34 pit bulls inside tight cages scattered throughout the house — saturates the streets of this somnolent enclave in West Park, a tiny town on the Broward/Miami-Dade border.
On a recent Tuesday afternoon, Ty Smith, a curly-haired neighbor in jean shorts and a black shirt, stands outside the cluttered home. The 42-year-old squints down the street at the intersection of Hallandale Beach Boulevard and SW 32nd Avenue and murmurs, "There he is. He's coming back now. That's him in the green van."
Moments later, a battered Ford Econoline van wobbles to a stop before the house, and three disheveled men clutching cans of Natural Ice beer climb out, led by the 66-year-old homeowner, Reno Yohai, a soft-spoken, mustached convicted child molester who walks with a slight limp. Three caged pit bulls out front bark and then watch Yohai glide past and step into the pungent darkness of his house. Inside, a dozen more dogs push their snouts against crates lining the hallway and howl. There is more canine wailing in the bedrooms and behind the house, conjuring an atmosphere somewhere between the pound and a 1940s horror film.
"I'm not quite sure how many dogs I have," Yohai sighs as he settles his slender frame atop a living room coffee table to stroke a hairless pit bull. He calls his house the "Warlock Kennels," and he has added to this collection for decades. "This has been 35 years in service of the pit bulls. Whatever I do, I do for the breed. I help out the pit bulls. This is a rescue."
That claim, however, is debatable. Since 2007, Yohai has become known to authorities as perhaps South Florida's worst dog owner. West Park has fined the five-time felon nearly $160,000 for code violations ranging from using his property as a junkyard to breeding pit bulls in a residential zone. In internal reports, inspectors have condemned his property as a "sanitary nuisance" and a "public nuisance." Neighbor after neighbor has also complained about Yohai's treatment of pit bulls, and police records show the cops have inspected his residence more than 80 times over the past three years to investigate, among other claims, allegations of animal cruelty.
"He keeps the dogs caged 24/7, and he just feeds them raw meat and raw chicken," Smith charges. "I've found a couple of dogs dead, and he just buries them in the backyard. He has 40 dogs buried there. He acts like he's a rescue, but really he's just hurting the dogs. Plus, he's a hoarder, and his house is just horrible. People can't sell their houses because of his."
Worse still, authorities have been powerless to act. No complaints of animal cruelty have been sustained, and despite Yohai's heinous actions in the past, cops have turned up no evidence of criminal malfeasance. In this case, county laws and regulations have done no good.
"We can't just take the man's animals," says Lisa Mendheim, a spokeswoman for Broward County Animal Care and Adoption, adding that West Park doesn't restrict the number of dogs a resident can own. "The dogs aren't starving or in danger, so we can't just go in there and say, 'We're taking the dogs.' "
West Park Mayor Eric Jones expresses frustration over Yohai's Warlock Kennels. The dog owner has been a problem for years, Jones says, but no one has a solution. "We cannot find anything illegal. If we had, we would have done something. I have no idea how many pit bulls he has. The neighbors say he has a lot, but we haven't been able to find out. Law enforcement hasn't either."
During a recent visit, New Times counted 34. And though the animals appear to be in good health, their situation is far from ideal. They are locked inside cages strewn among soiled bed mattresses, overturned cupboards, and discarded slabs of rotting wood. What's more, if public records are any guide, Yohai has lived much of his adult life in such fetid conditions — along with dozens and dozens of pit bulls.
Born in Havana in 1947, he came to the United States soon after and settled with his mother in a Manhattan apartment. His mom, he remembers, "was deathly afraid of dogs and cats" and neither allowed pets inside the cramped quarters nor for Yohai to visit homes with animals. The boy was lonely for more family. "My entire family was down in Florida, so after I graduated from the University of Bridgeport [Connecticut], we came down here to be with them."
As soon as he arrived, he took contract work tiling floors. And though that's been his primary source of income through the years, he's supported himself in other ways as well. In 1972, while maintaining what he calls "a spiritually and morally bankrupt lifestyle," he was charged in Miami court with a felony count of intent to sell marijuana. (Adjudication was withheld.)
Also around that time, he took in his first pit bulls. They captivated him. "And this was when Warlock came into my life," Yohai recalls. "My great dog."
One night soon after, in the early '80s, his mother broke her hip and moved into his Davie home. "I watched that dog melt 80 years of [my mom's] canine phobia," he says. "I saw Warlock come gently up to her and lay his head on her lap. And, slowly, she reached out and put her hand on his head. She became completely dependent on that dog for her security, and from then on, I've lived in service of the breed."
But in 1992, he lost contact with the animals. That year, he was arrested on charges of sexual battery of a minor. "It's not something I'm proud of," Yohai says. "It was one drunken night in my life 20 years ago."
The police report is more specific. According to an arrest affidavit filed into evidence that year, Yohai, who was then 45, lavished a 16-year-old girl with money and jewelry and encouraged her to become a stripper. "He took her into a bedroom and had her try on two teddy outfits to wear while dancing," the affidavit says. He then served her beer and marijuana, and he videotaped her dancing naked on the coffee table. He showed her footage of him having sex with another girl, who appeared to be 16 or 17. Afterward, the girl fell asleep, and she awoke to find Yohai "holding her shoulders down on the couch and kissing her on the face and mouth," the affidavit states.
What police found in Yohai's possession was horrifying: eight pit bulls, guns, cocaine, camera equipment, and roughly 100 explicit videotapes — two of which depicted dancing girls. The residence, also home to Yohai's 81-year-old "invalid" mother and an infant, reeked. "It was deplorable," police spokesperson Bonnie Wilbanks told the Sun-Sentinel at the time. "The odor was so bad that myself and my detectives went out from time to time to get fresh air."
Yohai served seven years in state prison, convicted of five felonies, including two counts of sexual battery of a minor and possession of cocaine.
Even locked away, however, he thought of pit bulls. And upon his release from Everglades Correctional Institution, he took up the collection once again. His mother had died. So had Warlock. "It took me a while to get back on my feet. But people in the pit bull community were ready to give me the dogs, and Warlock Kennels just happened." In the mid-2000s, after spending years aspiring to live in a larger place to house more dogs, he moved into his West Park home on a quiet street overlooking Lake Margaret.
Problems with neighbors began right away. Next door was Maritza Garcia, who's lived in a pristine yellow home for two decades. She remembers their first meeting. "He told us he was an animal rescue, and back then, it was even worse," she says. "He had a girlfriend, and she had 32 Chihuahuas — on top of his 30 pit bulls."
In 2007, the City of West Park began slapping Yohai with a daily fine for a bevy of code violations, including raising pit bulls in a residential zone and allowing his property to atrophy. The next year, Yohai told police that three men armed with shotguns had stormed his house and stolen 11 pit bulls.
Neighbors began calling the county Animal Control. "Multiple dogs die every month, and he abuses others," says nearby resident Brenda Paisao, who says she visits the house every day. "I saw one puppy pulled out of the cage, and the puppy broke its leg."
Adds one Animal Control expert who probed the home in 2012 and requested anonymity for this story: "Broward County has the shittiest pet laws, and the officers are limited in what they can do," she says. "The real reason Animal Control hasn't stepped in is because all of the pit bulls will be put down [if they're taken. The shelter doesn't] have space for the dogs."
That fact represents the only common ground between Yohai and his detractors. "I know we don't live in the best conditions, but it's all we can afford," he explains, claiming he wants to adopt out the dogs. "The animal activists try to stop me without offering any help. I'm trying to keep these dogs alive."
But what sort of life is it?
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