Dog fighting will not be tolerated, Sheriff says
• Officers confiscate 21 animals from a single residence in Wadley
By Parish Howard
The dogs' open wounds were bleeding and crawling with flies. Ears had been torn and teeth broken. There were puncture marks on the legs, tails and throats.
It was enough evidence for a USDA federal veterinarian, an expert witness in the field of dog fighting, to say that a number of the dogs he encountered in Jefferson County last week had been fought.
Last Tuesday Jefferson County Sheriff's deputies served warrants at homes in Wrens, Stapleton and Wadley where dogs have been kept and where they believe illegal dog fighting could have occurred.
Opening the Case
Two men were arrested in Wrens on charges of animal cruelty, and the Sheriff says that this case is still open and more charges and arrests are pending.
The dogs, the officers and agents with the US Department of Agriculture's Animal Protection Division found in Wadley were in the worst shape, by far, of the animals they saw that day. In all 21 dogs, 11 adult pit bulls and 10 puppies were seized from an East Artesian Street home. Not only did many of the animals show injuries consistent with battle wounds, but they were all, officers said, highly neglected.
"They were very dehydrated," a spokesman for the Sheriff's office said. "There was no food or clean water. They were covered in fleas and flies were everywhere."
The animals were taken to a local veterinarian where, with the permission of the animals owners, they were all euthanized.
"We've been hearing rumors and complaints about dog fighting for sometime," Sheriff Gary Hutchins said. "But then we got a lead, a special break in the case."
Serving the Warrants
The Sheriff's Office came into the possession of a video tape made by some local men that included some documentation of dog fighting in Wrens. According to reports, the tape shows men training a pit bull dog to hit a "scrub" dog. One of the animals has a huge abscess on the side of its head.
"You hear rumors of all sorts of stuff going on," the case's lead investigator said. "But once you see something like that, once you have it on video, that's something different. That's when we opened an investigation. It really motivated us to get started doing something about this."
For several weeks the department followed leads, listened closely to reports of fighting and began calling in experts. Last Tuesday officers met with those experts to plan the next move.
Along with Department of Agriculture Animal Protection Division agents, a USDA Federal Veterinarian and expert witness in dog fighting joined the team and warned the officers before leaving the station to confront these dogs and their owners.
"I want you to think of these animals as land sharks," the doctor said. "They have all the capabilities of killing you. I'm sure you see that every couple of months we get reports of someone being mauled or killed by a pit bull. Sometimes they can be very loving dogs and sometimes, well, they're just so unpredictable."
The doctor agreed to speak with the media if his name was withheld, as he has already received a number of death threats from people who deal in dog fighting across the country.
He says he has worked on cases where $50,000 to $60,000 would rest on the outcome of a single fight between two animals.
"It's not as uncommon as you'd think," he said. "And the people who do this are from all walks of life. These aren't just your ordinary rednecks. There are doctors and lawyers who spend big money on their dogs."
Some of the more obvious signs that a dog is a fighter, he said, include closely cropped ears and tails, equipment and apparatus in the yard like treadmills, rubber belts and ropes from which the dogs can hang.
First in the day, officers hit the home of the Wrens' men featured on the confiscated video tape and while searching the home seized both drugs and weapons.
Officers charged both 20-year-old Willie James Jenkins and Terry Farmer, also 20, with cruelty to animals.
A large male pit bull was chained to a car in the yard, but on inspection the veterinarian said he could find no evidence that the animal had been fought.
"Overall, he's in pretty good condition," he said and stroked the animal's ears.
Two other pit bulls were found in a lightly wooded area nearby. Neither of these showed signs of injury, however, the officers did find a bloody stool sample near a dog chain tied to a tree and there was a strong smell of decaying meat in the air. While searching the area, officers found several graves and at least seven separate piles of dog bones scattered throughout the wooded area.
One of the suspects told officers that was the area where they buried their dogs, but claimed the animals had all died of Parvo.
The pit bulls in Stapleton also seemed to be in good condition, although two males did have some wounds.
"The owner claimed those two had gotten loose and fought each other," the investigator said. "He was given the option of taking them to the vet himself or having them seized and having any costs billed to him. He chose to take them and I understand later decided to have them both put down after hearing how much it would cost to treat them."
He was not arrested or charged.
The doctor said dog fighting is hard to prove without a video tape or eye witnesses.
"Dogs will get cuts and scrapes and it isn't always easy to prove they've been purposefully fought for money," he said. "But neglect is something else."
The animals they seized on Artesian Street in Wadley were in the worst condition of any they saw, investigators said.
"It was pitiful," Sheriff Hutchins said. "Their water was as green as this book. It was pitiful to see them treated that way."
He described the animals they seized as sick, covered in fleas and flies, dripping blood, riddled with heart worms, with wounds all over their bodies.
The owner of the animals was not home when the officers arrived. Another family member with power of attorney handed the animals over and gave to asked to have them put down, the doctor said.
The investigator said that the Wadley dog owner had the reputation of having one of the toughest dogs in Jefferson County.
Breeders and Licensing
"If this dog has the reputation of being one of the toughest in the county then this is one of the dogs we need to get off the street, out of the county or in the graveyard," the Federal Veterinarian told the officers.
Some of the major reasons for seizing these dogs, the Sheriff said, is to protect residents, other animals and to make a point about fighting animals.
"These animals could get loose and kill a child," Hutchins said. "Not to mention how horrible it is to the animals. It's disgusting and anyone doing this needs to be punished. It's not the dogs' fault; they're taught to be this way."
The lead investigator said that while he does not believe that there is any high stakes-big money fights currently going on in the county, he has seen enough evidence to know that people are fighting dogs.
According to one of the suspects, most of the local fights are "scratch" or "bump" fights, where they let the dogs go at each other while the owners hold their chains. Once one dog locks on its opponent, either on its throat or other vital body part, then the fight is over and the dog that "locks" or "bumps" first is declared the victor. Owners often have to use pry sticks wedged into the animals' mouths to separate the two dogs.
"That's how they justify it," the investigator said. "Nobody admits to fighting a dog to the death, but some have said that there have been times when dogs have died later. So there have been fights that have resulted in a dog's death."
The Sheriff has said he plans to continue to take reports of dog fighting seriously.
"We're going to do our best to eliminate this kind of fighting in Jefferson County," Hutchins said. "I'm not going to tolerate someone abusing animals, and them making money off it."
During their visit the Department of Agriculture agents also visited several local breeders of pit pulls and gave them notice that anyone breeding animals for sale is required to have a license. Accordin to the officers, breeders are on notice that next time they won't get a warning. Next time they could face fines.
According to Tammie Cowart, the Animal Protection Division's enforcement agent for the district, anyone who breeds more than one litter a year to sale, must have a license.
To begin the licensure process, citizens should call the Animal Protection office at (800) 282-5852 ext. 4914 and request a pre-license inspection.
Licensing costs are determined by the number of animals.
"We just want to make sure that all animals are taken care of properly and not mistreated," Cowart said.
Black bear loose in Louisville
• Officers chased bear around the neighborhood before they could herd it back into wooded swamp
By Parish Howard
Patricia Fleming was sitting in a rocking chair on her front porch on West Eighth Street and enjoying the calm quiet of a Friday afternoon in Louisville, when a large black bear rounded the corner and stopped in front of her house.
"There's a hill and a little thicket there," she said Tuesday, recalling her first face-to-face experience with a bear. "He just came around the corner and I thought, 'My God, that's a bear.' He stood there for a couple of minutes. I left my shoes on the front porch and told my sister to call 911."
It wasn't long before the quiet afternoon, on the quiet end of Academy Drive drew quite a commotion.
Just Passing Through
"When I came back out, someone said it had gone up the street," Fleming said.
For around 45 minutes Louisville Police Officers and other volunteers chased the bear over fences and through the neighborhood, trying to herd the animal back down into Rocky Comfort Creek swamp.
According to Louisville Police Chief Jimmy Miller, the bear was between five and six feet tall when it stood on its hind feet and appeared to weigh around 300 to 400 pounds.
"It was a big bear," Miller said. "And it looked to be in good shape."
The animal stayed between Academy and Mimosa, Miller said. He contacted the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) but there was no agent in the area.
"They told us if we could get it back in the woods, and get it to leave on its own that would be best," Miller said. "Then people started showing up and driving past to try to catch a glimpse of it. And that was the worst thing they could have done."
Miller said he told a number of people to go back inside, because they did not realize the danger.
"People were yelling 'shoot him, kill him,'" Miller said. "But we can't do that."
Eventually the animal left through Mark Davis's yard. Miller said it jumped the front fence and left through the back, returning to the woods.
"I'm just glad nobody got hurt," Miller said. "It left just like it came, in a hurry."
The Louisville visit came just hours after a similar incident in a neighboring county.
Back to Louisville
Friday morning a smaller bear was chased through Sandersville and had to be tranquilized and re-released along the Oconee River.
The young, 150 lb. male was more typical of bears that sometimes run amok in inhabited areas along rivers and streams like the Ogeechee and Rocky Comfort, said Vic VanSant the local DNR regional supervisor for game management.
"It's not totally uncommon," VanSant said. "Usually when you have a bear coming into a populated area like this it is a relatively young male, 2 to 3-years-old, which has been driven out of its foraging area and is looking for a mate or other bears."
The animals often follow the more densely covered river and creek corridors where they are less likely to come into contact with man. Last year one was sighted around the Bartow area in south Jefferson County, made its way up to Thomson where it was seen a few more times before going on to the Savannah River, VanSant said. In 1985 a young black bear was struck by a car and killed in the Grange area.
"We believe there is an existing population of bears south of Macon on the Ocmulgee River," VanSant said. "But they could be coming from farther south, possibly from as far as the Okefenokee."
Bears move around quite a bit, he said. Some could forage for vegetative material, dead animals or look for mates regularly in a 10,000 acre range.
"These are wild animals and they're not fond of people," VanSant said. "They will usually avoid inhabited areas unless they come up looking for food. Usually that's when someone is dumping a lot of garbage. Then they can start hanging around and that's when they can really get to be a problem and someone has to step in and do something. They are not usually dangerous at all, but like any wild animal, if cornered they could be aggressive. Unless aggravated, they are normally very docile creatures."
He recommends if anyone sees a bear in their neighborhood to just let it be, give it plenty of room and let it leave on its own. If there is an emergency involving one of these or any other wild animal, they can call DNR's emergency operations center at (800) 241-4113.
Residents in the Academy Drive area have been asked to let officers know if they see the animal again. If it begins returning to the area regularly, it may have to be relocated.
"Those things can really move when they want to," Miller said. "Within 12 hours it could have been 40 miles from here. There weren't any other sightings through the weekend that I've heard of. It may have been here before and that may have been the first time it has been in town."
Miller said that a number of people he spoke to were skeptical that a animal that size would show up in town.
"Maybe it got its taste of civilization and took off," Miller said. "Deer in town are not that uncommon. One woman said that she just couldn't believe there was a bear in town. I asked her if she'd believe that there was once a six-foot alligator on Peachtree."
Several years ago the big reptile was found on 10th Street near William Hadden's Garage and DNR had to relocate it to the Ogeechee River.
BOE rolls back millage
• Re-evaluations still result in tax increase for most
By Ben Roberts
The Jefferson County Board of Education has announced a tax increase of 7.04-percent despite a 4-0 vote to roll back the millage rate by almost a quarter of a mill.
That increase is a result of reassessments of county property by the Jefferson County Tax Assessor’s Office, which resulted in increased property values for the vast majority of county residents.
District 1 member Donald Hatcher was absent from the meeting.
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At their called meeting last Monday night, Jefferson County School Superintendent Carl Bethune recommended the board leave the millage rate at 13.84. With the increased taxes, that same millage rate was estimated to result in a budget deficit of almost $47,000.
Board chairman James Fleming made a surprise motion to rollback the millage by almost a quarter of a mill to 13.60. Vice-chairman Charlie Brown seconded the motion to bring it to the table for discussion.
Bethune told board members the rollback would increase the budget deficit by an estimated $120,000, but that he believed that shortfall was manageable. Bethune noted the board had yet to dip into its reserve funds, which he estimated to be valued around $4-million.
“If ever there was a reasonable time to use our reserve funds, this would be it,” Fleming said, pointing to the continued reduction of state funding.
“Things are still tight from the State,” Bethune said in a later phone interview. “Our local ad valorem taxes simply cannot make up the difference; it can only add back bits and pieces. The State tells us how many teachers to hire, how many students we can have in a class and how much to pay our teachers, so in reality the board has very little control over most of the budget, but we have tried to control the things we can.”
Bethune echoed those thoughts to board members at Monday’s meeting. “You (the board) have been very diligent to the people of Jefferson County
in how you spend their money. And while I’m worried about future costs, we don’t want to gouge the taxpayers.”
“We’re trying to be as easy on the taxpayers as we can while trying to do what we’ve got to do,” Fleming said in reasoning his push for the slight rollback.
District 4 representative Bobby Butts hopes taxpayers will keep that in mind next year when the board will most likely hold a special election to extend the system’s current one-cent Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST).
“I feel like we have the people of Jefferson County in mind,” he said. “Anything we can do to help these people; maybe they’ll help us out on the SPLOST next time around.”
The 2004-2005 budget contained an estimated $298,000 shortfall, but through various adjustments during the year Bethune now expects that figure to drop to somewhere between $80,000 and $100,000. Bethune said his office would not know for sure until the close of the year on June 30.
The board gave final approval to its 2005-2006 budget of $19,480,097 at its regular meeting earlier this month.
The five members also voted unanimously to extend Bethune’s contract again through the 2008 school year and grant him a four-percent pay increase.
Fleming explained that with the state’s mandatory two-percent pay increase for other employees, Bethune is really only getting an additional two-percent more. Fleming said he thought that increase was justified since Bethune took a voluntary pay cut in 2003-2004. Bethune’s salary was $112,000 for the 2004-2005 school year.
The board will hold public hearings for concerned citizens regarding the tax increase and millage rate on July 14 at 4 p.m., July 21 at 8:30 a.m. and July 21 at 6:30 p.m. Following the last hearing, the board will hold a called meeting at 7 p.m. to approve the final millage rate. All of those meetings will be held at the board’s office at 1001 Peachtree Street in Louisville.