CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Charlotte-Mecklenburg police seized 27 pit bulls, tethers, a fighting arena and other items in what they say may be the largest dogfighting operation the department has ever investigated.
Evidence that officers found Friday in the backyard off Carelock Circle in east Mecklenburg County suggests the property was used for both training and fighting of the dogs, police said. The suspected operation also drew concern because of the homes proximity to J.H. Gunn Elementary School, and its location in a neighborhood and not a rural area.
Its something that we never have come across before, especially with the number of animals that were found and also being able to find the building that they were actually fighting dogs in, said Capt. Chris Dozer of Animal Care and Control.
The pit bulls that were seized are mostly adults. And while some of the dogs had scarring on their faces, the animals were fairly healthy, Dozier said. The agency hopes to put the animals up for adoption or send them for rehabilitation.
Meanwhile, two men face charges in the suspected fighting operation. Melvin Smith, 46, and Lefonze Williams, 42, both of Charlotte, were each charged with felony training of animals with the purpose of dogfighting and baiting.
Both were jailed early Saturday under a $25,000 secured bond.
Its the second set of arrests linked to dogfighting made by Charlotte-Mecklenburg police in the past two weeks.
On Jan. 24, police took 14 pit bulls after an investigation into suspected drug activity at a home off Grier Avenue also turned up evidence of suspected dogfighting. Two men were arrested, though only one was charged with animal-related offenses.
At this point, police dont suspect the two cases are connected, Dozier said.
The three arrests so far in 2013 nearly match the four dogfighting charges CMPD issued last year and surpasses the amount of arrests in other recent years.
But Dozier said he doesnt think the numbers are an indication that fighting operations are on the rise locally.
Dogfighting can take on many forms, from impromptu street-level competitions between two people who want to see whose dog is the strongest to more sophisticated rings where people buy equipment, supplements and other items to train dogs for fights that are promoted for prizes.
Drugs can be involved, but thats not always the case.
Pit bulls are a popular choice for dogfighting, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg police say they went to the home on Carelock Circle after getting a call Friday morning about several pit bulls in the backyard.
The neighborhood has just a few homes and is near the intersection of Harrisburg and Pence roads. Officers responding to the scene heard dogs barking from behind a large privacy fence on the property and then saw several pit bulls chained to spikes that were driven to the ground, police said in a statement.
'The dogs are defenseless'
Animal care officers who responded to the scene, as well as aerial footage of the home, revealed evidence consistent with training dogs for the purposes of fighting, police said.
Officers set up a perimeter around the residence. After obtaining a search warrant, they found the dogs and other evidence such as tethers, supplements and antibiotics for the animals, said Hickory Grove division Lt. J.D. Thomas.
The backyard was about one-tenth of an acre in size, Dozier said. He said it was the first time hed seen a suspected fighting scene on this scale and to have so much evidence in such a confined area.
Smith and Williams, who lived at the home, returned to the residence while officers obtained the search warrant. Police said the men were cooperative and later were arrested and interviewed by officers. Records show Williams has no criminal record in North Carolina, while Smith has a number of pending traffic-related offenses, including driving while impaired.
At least two puppies were found dead on the property, Dozier said. He said the dogs were perhaps a couple of weeks old.
The dogs are defenseless, they cant help what these people are breeding them for, Thomas said. They are taking animals that are (normally) sidekicks and pets for people and turning it to something violent. When youre able to stop operations like this, youre protecting the animals and the public.
The seized dogs are now considered evidence, but Animal Care and Control will eventually try to put the dogs up for adoption.
Several neighbors on the quiet street said they often heard dogs barking in the backyard of the small, white home but never suspected the animals were being trained to fight.
Every morning when hed get up to feed them and everything, youd hear a whole bunch of racket, said 58-year-old Sammy Dunn, who lives down the street from the house where police confiscated the dogs. I thought he was just breeding them out, said Dunn, who had seen the dogs in the backyard several months ago when he went over there for advice about his own pregnant pit bull.
He had them locked down. I feel bad for the dogs, Dunn said.
On Saturday, most of the dogs had been taken to a stray dog kennel section at animal control, while others were being evaluated. Many of the dogs appeared friendly. But the ASCPA said that dogs trained for fighting can be friendly toward people, but dangerous once near other dogs.
Officials will have to test the dogs to see whether they are aggressive toward animals or other dogs. Some dogs may be sent to rescue or advocacy organizations for rehabilitation before they can be put in homes.
Theres always that concern that the animals are going to be put down, Dozier said. We do everything we can to try to ensure that we find a possible home or a live outcome for the animals. Its something we always try to do when we confiscate this large number of animals.
CAMERON STEELE AND NEWS RESEARCHER MARION PAYNTER CONTRIBUTED.