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.