Crime & Courts

Outlaw world of deadly pit bull fights comes to light at Richland trial

Pit bulls await transport after an early morning raid by authorities of a breeding operation in Kodak, about 10 miles north of Sevierville, Tenn., Tuesday, Oct. 21, 2014. The Knoxville News Sentinel said Mark Heatherly was charged with two counts of dog fighting while his wife Kimberly L. Heatherly and Jacob R. Heatherly were charged with conspiracy to commit dog fighting. All three were also charged with possession of marijuana and hydrocodone. The Mountain Press said 50 dogs were taken from the home, some needing medical treatment. (AP Photo/The Mountain Press, Curt Habraken)
Pit bulls await transport after an early morning raid by authorities of a breeding operation in Kodak, about 10 miles north of Sevierville, Tenn., Tuesday, Oct. 21, 2014. The Knoxville News Sentinel said Mark Heatherly was charged with two counts of dog fighting while his wife Kimberly L. Heatherly and Jacob R. Heatherly were charged with conspiracy to commit dog fighting. All three were also charged with possession of marijuana and hydrocodone. The Mountain Press said 50 dogs were taken from the home, some needing medical treatment. (AP Photo/The Mountain Press, Curt Habraken) AP

The man’s voice, laced with profanity and captured on FBI wiretaps, wafted through the federal courtroom in Columbia Monday.

“Get everything to wash with ... about two things of alcohol and two of milk.”

The man, according to federal prosecutors, was Santerrio “Terrio” Smith, 31, of north Columbia, on trial this week for the animal cruelty-related charge of raising pit bulls to participate in an animal fighting venture.

On Monday, the trial’s first day, prosecution witness Terry Mills, an animal blood sport expert with the American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, told the jury that various liquids, such as milk, are used by people who fight pit bulls to wash the animal down just before a fight takes place.

The “wash” ensures that the dogs’ owners have not applied chemicals to the dogs, such as nicotine liquid, that cause a normally aggressive dog to shy away from a fight, Mills testified under questioning by assistant U.S. Attorney Jane Taylor.

Mills, who once spent 18 months as an undercover agent posing as a dog fighter and attended 86 dog fights, gave the jury a primer on the secret world of raising pit bulls to fight and told jurors what happens during an actual fight.

Pit bull owners — called dog fighters — who raise dogs to fight to the death are in it for the money, Mills said, and can bet $10,000 that their dog will best another dog in a fight.

The losing dog generally “doesn’t make it out of the” fight area alive, Mills told the jury.

People who raise pit bulls — the dog of choice — are looking for the right “blood line” and will study the puppies in a litter to see which ones are the most aggressive. Various pit bulls have different natural tendencies: some lunge for the throat, some for the other dog’s muzzle and some for the chest, Mills testified.

Not every pit bull is naturally aggressive, and dog fighters don’t feed a peaceful dog — in effect starving it to death — because it doesn’t make them any money, Mills said.

Several months after being born, aggressive pit bulls are put on a chain in a yard where they can roam. As the pit bulls grow, the chains get heavier — up to 30 pounds or more, Mills testified. Aggressive pit bulls will turn their food and water bowls over, so dog fighters use bowls made out of concrete, Mills testified.

When a dog is 10 months to a year old, it is put with an older dog with no teeth or duct tape around its muzzle to see if it shows aggression. “They want to make sure he will fight, that he is game.”

From then on, the dog is taught to fight and given various muscle building and aerobic exercises to increase its strength and stamina for dog fights, Mills testified. Five to eight weeks before a fight, the dog goes into pre-fight training, building him or her up to optimum fighting performance.” Dog fighters do things like make the dog pull heavy tires to increase its strength and run on tread mills to increase endurance.

“I have seen dogs tied behind pickup trucks and the owner drives around and around and around,” Mills testified. All this time, the dog is fed a high protein diet, including raw meat.

A dog must be at or below an agreed-upon certain weight, say 43 pounds, or the fight will be called off and the dog’s owner will forfeit the money (usually half the bet) he has already put in the hands of a “trusted third party,” often the referee, Mills testified. That money is called “the keep,” he testified.

The fight’s location is not revealed to the people who will be the audience until the day of the fight to prevent law enforcement from showing up. “They are very very, fearful of law enforcement taking down the fights.”

Minutes before the fight, each dog owner washes the other owner’s dog with milk or water.

A winning dog becomes valuable, and its offspring are also valuable, Mills said.

Smith and more than a dozen other Richland County men were arrested in 2017 as part of a wide-ranging federal-state-local investigation into illegal drug activity. All, including Smith, have now been either found guilty by a jury or pleaded guilty to drug crimes.

During the investigation, FBI wiretaps turned up evidence that Smith and two others were involved in training pit bulls for illegal fight. The two others have pleaded guilty.

Dog fighting is a multi-million dollar, blood sport business illegal under state and federal law.

In opening statements to the jury Monday, assistant U.S. Attorney Chris Taylor said, “Lots of people keep dogs, maybe taking them to a park to chase a ball to have fun.”

But Smith’s dogs were being trained to fight and make money, said Taylor. “They wanted these dogs to be vicious and fight relentlessly.”

Smith’s attorney Jack Swerling told the jury that training dogs to fight is “despicable and appalling” but the dogs the jury will learn about belonged to his father and his brother. Swerling, whose co-counsel is Alissa Wilson, reminded the jury that if it has a “reasonable doubt” about Smith’s involvement, it cannot convict.

Before trial started, Judge Mary Lewis denied a prosecution move to show the jury photos of sets of dog bones found on the property where the prosecution contends Smith raised fighting dogs.

The trial continues Thursday. If found guilty, Smith could receive up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000.

Pit bull dog fighting has been a fixture in the Midlands over the years, most recently in 2018. Criminals can make so much money off pit bulls that in 2012, they broke into Columbia’s animal shelter twice in 2012 and stole 11 pit bulls.

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