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."