Crime & Courts

Dog food, pit bull scars lead to Columbia man’s conviction on dog-fighting charges

After seeing photos of pit bulls mauled in dog fights and other evidence, a federal jury took a little more than two hours Thursday to find a north Columbia man guilty of keeping pit bulls for animal fights.

Santerrio Smith, 31, who evidence showed had a pit bull named Cain — short for the pain-killing drug, Novacaine — will be sentenced at a later date by U.S. Judge Mary Lewis. Smith chose not to testify.

The trial shone a light into what is apparently a small but thriving black market dog fighting culture in the Midlands, a world in which dogs fight to the death, watched by gamblers who bet $10,000 or more.

“Many of us have have dogs. We have them as our pets, our companions, our best friends, our family members,” assistant U.S. Attorney Jane Taylor told the jury in a closing argument.

Pointing at Smith and her voice rising, Taylor continued, “But to this defendant, they are not pets, they are not companions, they are not best friends. These dogs existed for his entertainment, his financial gain and his ego.”

As Taylor spoke, photographs of two of the pit bulls seized in a 2017 raid by a joint law enforcement task force, including the FBI, the Richland County Sheriff’s Department, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Columbia Police Department, flashed on screens visible to the jury.

The dogs’ faces, chest and shoulders were covered with numerous marks identified earlier Thursday by veterinarian Cathy Anderson, a prosecution witness, as puncture wounds, gashes, scars and tears in flesh “consistent with” bites found in organized dog fighting.

The dogs were among eight seized on property just north of Columbia owned by Smith’s grandmother in the September 2017 raid. On the same day, the task force raided property owned by Smith’s brother, Dantrell Smith, where 15 pit bulls were seized, and Smith’s father, James Earl Green, where 21 pit bulls were seized. Smith’s brother and father recently pleaded guilty to keeping the dogs for an animal fighting venture.

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This pit bull was seized in 2017 during a raid that led to criminal charges against Santerrio Smith. Smith was found guilty of animal/dog fighting related charges Thursday. U.S. Attorney's Office

Other evidence included:

FBI wiretaps of Smith’s phone where he was heard talking about fighting pit bulls.

An American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals dog fighting expert, Terry Mills, who explained the secret dog fighting world and lingo to the jury.

A prior state conviction for dog fighting in 2014 for Smith in Richland County.

A witness, Elijah Davis, who testified the eight seized dogs on Smith’s grandmother’s property were Smith’s.

Prosecutors also introduced photos of cans of Retriever dog food they asserted were linked to the property where the dogs were seized. In a federal criminal case, prosecutors must prove a federal angle — in this case, that the dog food was part of interstate commerce.

To prove that, prosecutors put Tractor Supply store employee Daniel Helms on the stand who testified that the dog food was made out-of-state and brought into South Carolina, where it was likely sold at a Columbia area store.

“You can’t have a fight without a dog, and you can’t have a dog without dog food,” Taylor told the jury.

Smith’s attorney, Jack Swerling, argued unsuccessfully to the jury that that although Smith’s brother and father were “guilty as sin,” prosecutors had failed to link the dogs seized at Smith’s grandmother’s house to Smith.

“There’s a lot of smoke but smoke is not enough,” Swerling told the jury.

Possessing dogs for an animal fighting venture carries a five-year maximum prison sentence.

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