New Trial to Begin in Boynton Beach Dogfighting Case

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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.

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Michael J. Mooney