Longform

New Trial to Begin in Boynton Beach Dogfighting Case

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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."

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Michael J. Mooney