Illinois Employs RICO Statute to Combat Dogfighting

July 16, 2012
Illinois recently became one of only a handful of states to make dogfighting punishable under a law that targets organized crime.

July 16--Dharma the three-legged pit bull is a survivor.

The canine was found mangled in 2009 when federal investigators busted a massive dogfighting ring that spanned from Illinois to Texas. The raids resulted in the seizure of more than 400 dogs and numerous arrests.

Animal welfare workers said Dharma wasn't used in the dogfights but rather was left chained outside in rural Missouri to produce fresh litters of puppies. The dog's abusers, they said, amputated one of her front legs.

Suzanne Schemm, the dog's adoptive owner, believes Dharma, now 5, is lucky to have escaped from an underground world where crimes against animals are common but often difficult to solve and prosecute.

"This case was just the tip of the iceberg," said Schemm, a southwest suburban resident, referring to the Missouri raid.

That's why animal rights advocates like Schemm were heartened when Illinois recently became one of only a handful of states to make dogfighting punishable under a law that targets organized crime. The law could result in harsher penalties for those who operate and fund the blood sport.

"It's a savvy approach for any legislative body that wants to see dogfighting eradicated," said John Goodwin, director of animal cruelty policy at the Humane Society of the United States. "Dogfighting is an organized crime. (Dogfighters) need to be rooted out and prosecuted and completely put out of business."

The state law is based on the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO. Now more than 40 years old, RICO was initially aimed at mobsters. It later was used as a tool to prosecute corrupt public officials. And more recently, the law has been used to combat a more contemporary criminal outfit -- street gangs.

Under Illinois' new state-level RICO statute, signed into law last month by Gov. Pat Quinn, dogfighting is among dozens of offenses -- including drug trafficking, prostitution promotion, gunrunning, terrorism and others -- that could be used as evidence in the prosecution of an organized criminal enterprise.

RICO cases are typically the result of long-term investigations. Using the RICO statute, prosecutors employ informants and wiretaps to target the leaders of a gang even if those individuals did not, for example, pull the trigger in a murder or personally sell drugs on a street.

And now in Illinois, because of the RICO statute, authorities can crack down on dogfighting rings and can conceivably disassemble the organizations behind them.

"Dogfighting will be part of the larger picture, which is the point of RICO," said Cook County Assistant State's Attorney Jack Blakey, who helped draft the new Illinois statute. "There's a high correlation between dogfighting groups and street gang activity."

According to research conducted by Chicago police, about 60 percent of offenders who commit crimes against animals are self-admitted gang members.

"(Dogfighting) is a telltale sign that there's a lot more going on," said Sgt. Mark George, who is with the Chicago Police Department's Animal Crimes Unit. "RICO is a great tool to deal with this element that plagues the community ... and combat gangs and drugs."

In 2011, the unit initiated nearly 500 investigations resulting in 73 search warrants, 101 arrests, and the seizure of 190 animals, 17 guns, 700 grams of cannabis, 47 grams of heroin and several thousand dollars cash, George said.

The unit's past success was limited, officials said. George said, before the new RICO statute, prosecutors and police could not effectively tie those crimes to the gang leaders and criminal enterprises that enable them.

"RICO lets you cut off the head of the snake," he said. "Dogfighting is a criminal enterprise. At some point, you've got to take off the snake's head."

While dozens of other states have also expanded anti-racketeering laws, only a handful count dogfighting among the offenses that can qualify as organized crime.

Virginia -- the home of NFL star Michael Vick, who served almost two years in prison for his role in a dogfighting operation there -- was among the first.

"It was a wake-up call to prosecutors across the nation about the seriousness of animal fighting," said Michelle Welch, an assistant attorney general in Virginia who is a nationally recognized expert in prosecuting animal abuse and fighting cases.

The animal fighting clause in Virginia's RICO Act has strengthened prosecutors' ability to go after gangs and organized crime, the attorney general's office said.

Illinois already has some of the stiffest penalties in the country -- just being a spectator at a dogfight is often a felony. But because catching a dogfighter in the act is difficult, enforcement remains a challenge.

In one rare case in 2008, police stormed an Englewood basement where two snarling, bloody pit bulls had been fighting to the death.

Police issued about 50 tickets to people who were there to watch and gamble.

Dogfighting is most commonly associated with rural areas and inner cities, where the most vicious animals serve as status symbols for street gangs, research suggests. But recent crackdowns by cooperating law enforcement agencies have forced dogfighters in Chicago to go further underground or into the suburbs, George said.

While executing a search warrant on what they believed to be an indoor marijuana growing operation in 2010, Elgin police found a house full of pit bulls that appeared to be trained as fighting dogs. They shot six of the 21 animals, which attacked police or turned on each other.

And, in 2009, Cook County sheriff's officials raided a dogfighting ring housed in a licensed day care facility in Maywood.

Prosecutors now have the option to charge dogfighting under the RICO statute. But many cases originate with Chicago Anti-Cruelty Society investigators, who roam some of the city's most violent neighborhoods responding to anonymous complaints about animal neglect and abuse.

They find neglected dogs with no food or water bound by heavy chains in backyards. When they see evidence of more serious crimes such as fresh wounds or the signature dogfighting scars crisscrossing a dog's neck and muzzle, the investigators call police.

"Dogfighting is very underground, but we see signs of it every day," said Simon Harries, an investigator with the Anti-Cruelty Society. "You can see it if the dogs are chewed up. And, I don't think the problem is getting better. I think it's getting worse."

Meanwhile, Dharma the pit bull is living the life of a coddled pet. It's been three years since Schemm found her while volunteering in Missouri for the rescue group Phoenix Pack after the 2009 dogfighting bust.

"She still had a partial stump when I first saw her, and I know it was painful for her to try to walk on it," said Schemm, 34, who agreed to foster Dharma but quickly decided she couldn't give her up. "I fell in love with her great big smile."

They have visited Chicago-area classrooms. The scars from the first part of her life, along with the dog's sweet demeanor, left a lasting impression on students about the violence inherent in animal abuse.

"People who meet her are always curious about her story and how she lost her leg," Schemm said. "It's an opportunity to educate people about the reality and cruelty of dogfighting, and to show people that the victims of dogfighting -- the dogs -- can be sweet and loving companions if they are given a second chance."

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Copyright 2012 - Chicago Tribune

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