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TRENTON, N.J. – Four men have admitted their respective roles in an interstate dog fighting network spanning from New Mexico to New Jersey, Acting U.S. Attorney William E. Fitzpatrick, District of New Jersey, and Acting Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey H. Wood of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division, announced today.
The four defendants, arrested and charged as part of a coordinated effort across numerous federal judicial districts to combat organized dog fighting, pleaded guilty before U.S. District Judge Mary L. Cooper in Trenton federal court:
Frank Nichols, 40, of Millville, New Jersey, pleaded guilty today to one felony count of conspiracy to transport, deliver and receive dogs intended for use in an animal fighting venture, and one felony count of possessing a stolen firearm subsequent to a felony conviction.
Pedro Cuellar, 47, of Willow Springs, Illinois, pleaded guilty today to one felony count of conspiracy to transport, deliver, and receive dogs intended for use in an animal fighting venture.
Anthony “Monte” Gaines, 36, of Vineland, New Jersey, a/k/a “Whiteboy,” pleaded guilty yesterday to two felony counts of conspiracy to buy, sell, receive, transport, deliver, and possess dogs intended for use in an animal fighting venture, and one felony count of possessing a dog intended for use in an animal fighting venture.
Lydell Harris, 32, of Vineland, New Jersey, a/k/a “Sinn,” pleaded guilty yesterday to one felony count of conspiracy to sponsor or exhibit a dog in an animal fighting venture, and one felony count of possessing a dog intended for use in an animal fighting venture.
A fifth defendant, Mario Atkinson, 42, of Asbury Park, New Jersey, pleaded guilty on June 15, 2017, before U.S. District Judge Anne E. Thompson in Trenton federal court to one count of sponsoring or exhibiting a dog in an animal fighting venture, and one count of possessing a dog intended for use in an animal fighting venture. Nichols and Harris pleaded guilty to indictments. Gaines, Cuellar, and Atkinson pleaded guilty to informations. Charges remain pending against four defendants.
According to court documents filed in these cases and statements made in court:
From October 2015 through June 1, 2016, the defendants who pleaded guilty and their co-defendants and associates participated in dog fights – including to the death – and trafficked in dogs with other dog fighters in New Jersey, Indiana, Illinois, New Mexico, and elsewhere so that those dogs could be used in fights. They also maintained fighting dogs and dog fighting equipment, such as treadmills, intravenous drug bags and lines, “breeding stands” used to immobilize female dogs, and chains weighing up to several pounds per linear foot. Agents found canine blood on the floor, walls, and ceiling of the basement of one defendant’s residence, indicating that the area was likely used as a dog fighting pit. One of the defendants admitted that his dog died in his car on the way home after losing a dog fight.
“The criminal conduct speaks to the cruel conditions in which these animals live,” Acting U.S. Attorney Fitzpatrick said. “This office, along with our law enforcement partners and the Humane Society, is working to end this illegal activity and punish those who abuse animals for their own enjoyment.”
“Justice is being delivered in these cases,” Acting Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey H. Wood of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division said. “Ending animal fighting ventures and other inhumane practices depends upon the hard work of investigators and lawyers like those who brought these cases, and will also require continued partnership with federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies. Our Division is proud to be a leader in this worthy cause. We also applaud the work of the Humane Society in partnering with us to provide hope of recovery for the abused animals."
“The provisions of the Animal Welfare Act were designed to protect animals from being used in illegal fighting ventures, which often entail other forms of criminal activity involving drugs, firearms and gambling,” Special Agent-in-Charge Bethanne M. Dinkins, U.S. Department of Agriculture - Office of Inspector General, said. “Together with the Department of Justice, animal fighting is an investigative priority for USDA-OIG, and we will work with our law enforcement partners to investigate and assist in the criminal prosecution of those who participate in animal fighting ventures.”
The charges are part of Operation Grand Champion, a coordinated effort across numerous federal judicial districts to combat organized dog fighting. The phrase “Grand Champion” is used by dog fighters to refer to a dog with more than five dog fighting “victories.” To date, 98 dogs have been rescued as part of Operation Grand Champion, and either surrendered or forfeited to the government. The Humane Society of the United States assisted with the care of the dogs seized by federal law enforcement.
Each animal fighting charge carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. The weapons charge against defendant Nichols carries a maximum sentence of ten years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Sentencing for Nichols and Cuellar is scheduled for Nov. 29, 2017. Sentencing for Gaines and Harris is scheduled for Nov. 28, 2017. Sentencing for Atkinson is scheduled for Oct. 3, 2017. All sentencings are before Judge Thompson.
The government is represented by Assistant U.S. Attorney Kathleen O’Leary, District of New Jersey, and Trial Attorney Ethan Eddy of the Justice Department’s Environmental Crimes Section.
The investigation by the U.S. Department of Agriculture - Office of Inspector General; the U.S. Department of Homeland Security - Homeland Security Investigations; and the FBI is ongoing.
Nichols: Michael Calabro Esq., Newark
Cuellar: Joseph Rotella Esq., Newark
Harris: Herbert Waldman Esq., Springfield, New Jersey
Gaines: Vincent LaPaglia Esq., Hoboken, New Jersey
Atkinson: Christopher D. Adams Esq., Holmdel, New Jersey