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By Sean Pendergast
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Dogfighting Bust Whimpers Out
Light sentences result from much-publicized arrests
The majority of Harris County dogfighters charged after a massive 2008 undercover investigation were given deferred adjudication, served as little as two days in jail, had their charges dropped, or were never arrested.
Nearly 200 dogs were seized in the 17-month, three-county, multiagency operation, but court records filed in Harris County show that — even though much of the dogfighting was caught on videotape and witnessed by law enforcement officers — prosecutors doled out light sentences because, in most instances, the defendants were spectators, and were not witnessed entering dogs in fights. (Participants in dogfights can face up to two years in prison; spectators can get a year in jail and a $4,000 fine.)
But in some of those cases, even defendants whom officers witnessed entering dogs into fights had their charges dropped — like William Stanforth, who was indicted on three charges of felony dogfighting, only to have two charges dismissed and receive deferred adjudication for the third. And then there's Albert Ramirez, who a grand jury said "unlawfully, intentionally and knowingly caused a dog to fight with another dog" in October 2008, and whose case was dismissed a month later.
Others who were sentenced to time in Harris County Jail were allowed to serve during off-work hours; some of those who were charged were never even arrested. Some had criminal records, such as a man who was sentenced to 20 days for being a spectator, and who had previous convictions of assault of a family member, felony weapon possession, burglary of a vehicle and auto theft.
In a case where a defendant actually received imprisonment — six months in Harris County Jail — Animal Cruelty Prosecutor Belinda Smith did not object to the man serving his time on weekends, according to the defendant's lawyer. The judge ultimately denied the man's request.
In another case, Herman Adams received deferred adjudication for his role in the ring, even though he had a 2003 conviction for deadly conduct. (Previous charges for aggravated assault of a family member and manufacturing/delivery of a controlled substance were all dismissed. We're sure all of those were just a simple misunderstanding.)
Smith, who called the 2008 sting the biggest undercover operation in the country, has been vocal about her determination to bring dogfighters to justice. After the bust, she told Texas Monthly that she established a "Pit Bull Task Force," and tells officers involved in animal cruelty cases that "Even getting these guys behind bars for a year or two is [a] noble thing to do."
Apparently, putting them behind bars for two days is noble as well: On March 6, 2009, Darrick Ford was convicted on two separate charges of misdemeanor dogfighting — he was a spectator — and received a two-day sentence for each. He also received a two-day credit for each. So things worked out well for Ford.
Ford got off much easier than Urias Contreras, who was sentenced to four whole days on one charge. Contreras was originally charged with felony dogfighting — meaning he actually caused one dog to fight with another — but the prosecutor lowered the charge to a misdemeanor. (A few months after serving his time, Contreras was charged with possession of marijuana and possession of a controlled substance).
But even in the case of Ronald Munerlyn, who was sentenced to 180 days in Harris County Jail, the penalty is a bit troubling: In February 2007, a jury found Munerlyn guilty of animal cruelty, and he was sentenced to a year in jail. (A separate animal cruelty charge was dismissed.) But Smith agreed to a suspended sentence, allowing Munerlyn to serve 28 days and enter into two years' probation — some of which he enjoyed by attending at least one dogfight. (Smith was unavailable for comment. We also asked to speak with anyone else in the DA's office familiar with these cases, but it appears that Smith is the only person able to talk about them.)
All those socked with deferred adjudication are not supposed to be around dogs during their probation...except for Donnie Watson. After charging Watson with three counts of dogfighting, prosecutors dropped two charges and gave him three years' deferred adjudication on the remaining felony count. Watson's not allowed to own any dogs — except for his sweet little cocker spaniel, who was already in his home.
In some cases, however, defendants served real time: Cedric Cleveland, who had previous convictions for possession of crack, unlawful carrying of a weapon and forgery, was sentenced to three years in prison. Roderick Spencer received 16 months, and Pershing Powell was sentenced to ten months. But those appear to be the minority.
Hair Balls got a tip on all this from Margaret Gondo, an animal welfare advocate who runs Sisyphus Rescue, and we asked the District Attorney's Office for a list of all the names of those arrested and/or charged as a result of the massive undercover operation, but a spokeswoman for the office said the DA doesn't have such a list. So we checked a list of 41 known defendants, and all but seven defendants who received at least a month of jail or prison time, had their cases dismissed, received deferred adjudication, were sentenced to at most 20 days in jail. (For the record, that's one 20-day sentence, with the next-longest sentence being ten days.)