MILWAUKEE -- Law enforcement authorities broke up a dogfighting ring in Milwaukee that involved at least 23 dogs, and officers arrested 13 people Thursday in pre-dawn raids across the city, state and federal officials said.
The defendants are accused of breeding and training pit bulls for fighting, or accused of arranging the matches. One suspect hosted competitions in a basement splattered with dog blood, and the fresh corpse of a bloody dog was found buried in his backyard, prosecutors said.
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The arrests wrapped up a yearslong investigation by prosecutors, police and an animal welfare group. Kent Lovern, a Milwaukee County prosecutor, said the investigation began in 2011 after authorities recovered more than a dozen dogs from a suspected dogfighting operation.
"That started an investigation into some individuals that has expanded to include other individuals," including some arrested today, he told The Associated Press. Their arrests might yield even more leads, he added.
Officials pay special attention to animal abuse cases because they're often tied to cases of violence against women and children, said John Chisholm, Milwaukee County's district attorney.
"As we respond to the neglect or abuse of a domestic animal, we should be looking closely at the condition of vulnerable people in the same setting," he said.
The 22 living dogs that were recovered were being evaluated and given medical treatment. However, their future remains in doubt.
Fighting dogs, which are bred specifically to be vicious killers of other dogs, cannot always be rehabilitated and put up for adoption. But the animal welfare group that helped in the police investigation said it was too early to rule anything out.
Tim Rickey, a spokesman for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, said each dog would be evaluated on an individual basis. He said in his experience, some fighting dogs can be placed with very little concern, while others require much more intensive rehabilitation. Some can never be adopted.
Even if these dogs can be rehabilitated, Wisconsin law prevents the placing of fighting dogs while the investigations are pending because the animals are considered evidence.
Chisholm said two people were charged in state court, and he expects at least 12 federal cases to result from the investigation. Thirteen people, all from the Milwaukee area, were arrested Thursday and a 14th remains at large.
The investigation turned up evidence of dogfighting, including dogs with scars and bite marks consistent with fights, as well as equipment used to train or kill dogs, U.S. Attorney James Santelle said.
One federal indictment alleges that a man trained pit bull terriers and also hosted "money fights." Investigators who searched his home found a wooden dogfighting pit, a dogfighting trophy, and instructions and rules for conducting a contest.
They also found a "Thunderbolt," a 225-volt device with large alligator clips and a heavy-duty battery charger. The device was used to kill dogs, according to the indictment.
Another defendant, who faces three state charges related to animal abuse, sometimes killed dogs by hanging them from his basement beams until they died, according to a criminal complaint. Authorities were tipped off to Thomas S. Zollicoffer, 24, after a witness told investigators he attended occasional dogfights at Zollicoffer's home in 2011.
A second Milwaukee man, 31-year-old Travis L. Hazlett, is charged with six felony counts of mistreating animals or instigating fights between them.
He's accused of wagering as much as $1,500 that his dog, Goblin, could beat another man's pit bull. To train Goblin, Hazlett allegedly ran him on a treadmill and forced him to drag a heavy weight several miles per day.
No home telephone numbers could be found for Zollicoffer or Hazlett. Online court records didn't list defense attorneys for either man.