Secret court-approved wiretaps on alleged Columbia cocaine dealers’ cellphones prompted FBI agents to bust a large Lexington County facility used for training pit bulls to fight, authorities said Friday.
Some 48 pit bulls, many emaciated, have been seized by the FBI and a national response team from the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, according to those involved and documents in the case.
The animals, who lived outside tied to chains, were in a wooded area outside Gaston in rural Lexington County, according to officials.
On Friday afternoon, a 12-person national emergency animal response team directed by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was on the scene, assisting the FBI with the final stages of taking about a dozen remaining animals into custody, an ASPCA official said.
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Agents and local law enforcement executed another warrant at the Gaston address earlier this month. On Oct. 1, agents seized 35 dogs, along with drugs, guns, and cash, according to the U.S. Attorney’s office in Columbia.
The site is occupied by a man identified in an FBI affidavit by agent Brian Jones as Eric Dean “Big E” Smith, 41, of Gaston, who was indicted Friday for cocaine trafficking. Smith’s lawyer, Debbie Barbier of Columbia, declined comment late Friday.
Smith was “heavily involved in breeding dogs for the purpose of dogfighting,” according to an FBI criminal complaint in the case. “Intercepts and physical surveillance have revealed that Smith stores cocaine and over 30 dogs at (his) residence.”
According to excerpts of FBI wiretaps made public Friday, Smith had as many as 35 dogs at the site on Sept. 16, when he took them to a veterinarian’s office in West Columbia to get rabies shots. Smith is heard complaining that the Lexington County Animal Control office cited him for not giving his animals rabies shots.
On another call, Smith tells an unidentified man that fighting dogs in South Carolina aren’t as good in organized dogfights as dogs bred in other states. In the same call, Smith says he will sell one of his dogs for $2,000.
The Gaston dogfight operation was discovered during an ongoing FBI, state and local investigation into a Columbia area gang cocaine operation tied to the Bloods street gang, according to federal court records and sources familiar with the investigation.
Besides Smith, others indicted as a result of the wiretaps are: Gerald Montez “Bird” Burris, 46; Amos “Famous Amos” Donnell Jones, 34; Stephoni “Steezy” Vernard Sumter, 28; Tony L. Gunter, 36; Travis “Hip” Santale Sulton, 31; Dion W. Jones, 31; and Travis Leon “Jit” Gilbert; 27. The dogfighting investigation continues, authorities said.
“We are on the scene at the request of the U.S. Attorney’s Office and FBI to assist with the dog-fighting investigation,” Tim Rickey, vice president of the ASPCA’s field investigations office in New York City, said Friday in a telephone interview.
“Our team was here to assist with collecting animal dogfighting evidence, to help process the crime scene, and the collection and removal of the animals,” Rickey said. The dogs will be taken to shelters at an undisclosed location and evaluated by some 30 other people, he said.
Rickey said dogs at the site, about one-half mile off Meadowfield Road, had scars and injuries associated with dogfighting. The dogs were found chained and anchored to car axles, with trash barrels being used as makeshift shelters, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Adult dogs and puppies were found severely emaciated and dehydrated, and the remains of deceased dogs were also discovered on the premises, along with dogfighting paraphernalia.
Dogfighting, a multi-million dollar, blood-sport business, is illegal under federal and state law.
On Friday, 24 defendants made initial appearances in federal court in Columbia to face charges of conspiracy to traffic cocaine and crack cocaine and supply the illegal drugs to street gangs, according to a press release from the U.S. Attorney’s office.
The defendants were arrested over the past two days by a federal, state and local authorities, including the Columbia Violent Gangs Task Force.
“It should come as no surprise that gangs, drug dealing, and violence often go hand in hand,” Columbia Police Chief Skip Holbrook in a news release. “However, gangs are often involved in other organized criminal activity. In this case, that criminal activity is dogfighting.”
The FBI, the Richland County Sheriff’s Department, SLED and the Columbia Police Department participated.
In recent years, the FBI and the task force have made numerous high profile round-ups of Columbia cocaine dealers. But cocaine dealers continue to flourish in the area.
According to one wiretap made public Friday, Smith told an unidentified caller that he was selling three to four kilograms of cocaine every week. Smith said he paid $42,000 per kilogram, and was able to sell the cocaine for $1,300 an ounce.
There are 35.2 ounces in every kilogram, so Smith could sell a kilo for about $45,760 – making a profit of some $3,700 per kilo.