The men brought them home as puppies, wrapped heavy chains and harnesses around the dogs’ necks and made them pull weights to build up muscles. They beat the dogs with rusty pipes, cut their ears back and made them lunge at other dogs until only one stood.
Owners shot, electrocuted, hanged or drowned the animals if they didn’t win.
These are allegations Baltimore prosecutors laid out Monday at a news conference announcing the indictments of 22 men investigators say took part in a vast dogfighting ring that operated in basements and back yards across the Baltimore area.
“It’s a cruel world,” Baltimore police Lt. Col. Sean Miller said. “The connectivity to violent crime and violence is apparent.”
Armed with search warrants, Baltimore police on Wednesday raided 15 city rowhouses and other properties, two Baltimore County locations and a compound in West Virginia. Over the course of the year-long investigation, Baltimore police say, officers seized 225 dogs, 50 puppies and 20 guns. They charged 14 men with dogfighting conspiracy, aggravated cruelty related to dogfighting, animal abuse and neglect.
Items police seized included treadmills specially made for dogs, chains, harnesses, steroids, bloodstained dogfighting rings, plastic bite sticks to pry apart dogs’ jaws, scales and “rape stands.”
The stands, prosecutors wrote in the indictment, force unwilling female dogs’ hind legs apart so they can be mounted by males and bred.
The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals says it’s impossible to determine the number of people involved in dogfighting across the nation but estimate it’s in the tens of thousands.
“While organized dog fighting activity seemed to decline in the 1990s, many law enforcement and animal-control officials feel that it has rebounded in recent years,” the ASPCA says on its Web site. “Street fighting has reportedly continued to grow as a significant component of urban crime.”
Thiru Vignarajah, Major Crimes Unit chief for the Baltimore state’s attorney’s office, called the Baltimore-area operation an “unforgiving underworld” in which dogs were trained to fight for entertainment and financial gain. Purses sometimes surpassed $100,000, he said.
Nearly all the men indicted have criminal histories, prosecutors said. Eight have been convicted of violent crimes, and one of the suspects has a previous murder conviction, they said.
“Because there is a link between animal abuse and human violence, it is important that these crimes be taken seriously, which is exactly what the [police] did,” said Katie Flory, chair of the mayor’s Anti-Animal Abuse Commission.
Attempts to reach relatives of several defendants were unsuccessful. Most did not have lawyers listed in online court records.
Many of the dogs listed in the 15-page indictment were named Jax, Tara, Chibs, Opie, Gemma and Lyla — names of characters from the television show “Sons of Anarchy,” a series about an outlaw motorcycle gang.
Local shelters are housing 85 of the dogs seized, and police did not know their status, including how many could be put up for adoption and how many might be euthanized. Baltimore County’s Animal Services shelter received six of the dogs, which are on administrative hold pending the legal case and cannot be adopted, said Ellen Kobler, Baltimore County government spokeswoman.
“Each and every dog is assessed individually by a professional,” Baltimore police spokesman Lt. Eric Kowalczyk said. “Every effort is made to rehabilitate and place them for adoption. As a general rule, many dogs, including all puppies and young dogs, do end up in loving families as a result of their effort.”
In the nation’s most notable case of dogfighting, NFL quarterback Michael Vick spent 21 months in prison after a dogfighting ring he operated on his property in Virginia was broken up in 2007. Jim Gorant chronicled the case and the lives of the dogs in the months afterward in his book “The Lost Dogs.”
He said authorities involved in the case expected to save only a few of the dogs, but in the end found homes for 47 of 51 seized.
“Some are living today in houses with infants and little babies, so some are fine,” Gorant said. “You didn’t just have to euthanize them in groups like they did in the past.”
He said dogfighting is a crime that “cuts across all demographic boundaries, styles of life and economic classes.” Gorant said many of the men involved are drawn into the activity as children, such as Vick, who saw his first dogfight at 8.
Baltimore prosecutors say a tip led them to the ring, and they traced it back to April 2013, when cars with Maryland plates were located at the scene of a Roanoke Rapids, N.C., dogfighting bust.
In June 2013, they found several scarred pit bulls chained up in the 3400 block of Old Frederick Avenue with no access to water. As the months went on, investigators began to piece together members of the ring, discovering injured and neglected dogs, as well as dogfighting training equipment, steroids and surgical supplies, at various homes.
They saw heavy chains and tires attached to chains in the 5000 block of Baltimore National Pike, and they found four pit bull puppies and a bloodstained ring in the 2800 block of West Lafayette Avenue in West Baltimore, the indictment said.
When a dog belonging to one of the members got loose in October and attacked another of his dogs, the owner sought medical advice from another member, who told him what to administer. The dog died of its injuries, the indictment said.
On a table Monday at Baltimore police headquarters was some of the evidence police seized, including a pedigree sheet tracing bloodlines and dirty bottles of ointments, including hydrocortisone spray.
“I am a strong believer that there is no dog bred to do this,” Miller said.
Nearby, two poster boards were filled with pictures of the dogs — mostly pit bull mixes. Some sat behind the cages of dog carriers or wire crates that were stacked in windowless rooms with concrete and exposed walls. Handguns and shotguns police had seized sat nearby.
Baltimore Sun reporter Jessica Anderson contributed to this article.