By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
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.)
Others' cases are listed as "inactive," and one defendant listed in the county's JIMS database as being charged is not listed on the District Clerk's Web site as being charged with dogfighting.
We were also especially concerned about the case of Joseph Allen Green Jr., who received deferred adjudication for allowing a dogfight to be held on his property. Here's an excerpt from the DPS officer's affidavit, where he describes how he and a fellow officer observed one of the fights:
The location was a pasture at the end of Cedar Grove Road. [We] were met at the location by the Defendant, who identified himself as 'Cowboy.' The Defendant stated that the property belonged to him, and he supervised the setting up of the pit and collection of door fees. Affiant observed a pit set up outside of a barn with a pair of lights positioned on a stand to overlook the pit. Co-defendant Jay Andrews' dog fought co-defendant Robert Rogers' dog, and the fight lasted approximately 24 minutes. Co-defendant Andrew's dog lost, so Andrews paid the $1,000 bet. As [we] were about to leave, the Defendant demanded $300 for use of his property. [We] advised the Defendant that [we] would not be paying the $300 because the fees were not discussed prior to the fight.
Green received deferred adjudication. We're sure Harris County taught him a lesson.
Big New Park for Montrose?
The sad, twisted saga of the could-have-been-retro-cool Wilshire Village apartments is in something of a limbo right now — the area has been cleared, there's lawsuit activity, no one knows exactly what's going to happen to the Montrose property.
Rumors are that H-E-B is looking to put a supermarket there. Maria-Elesa Heg says she has a better idea — make it a park.
The Montrose Land Defense Coalition has put up an online petition (Google the name of the group for it) calling for the city to make the site into the kind of greenspace that is rare in the neighborhood.
In less than two days, 300 people have signed it, Heg tells Hair Balls.
She doesn't expect the city to put out taxpayer money for the land, valued at about $27 million.
"My plan is to find private investors to aid the city's purchase of this property, if not in full, then a significant portion thereof," she says. "The land would be used as community gardens, space for a farmers' market, and parkland for general enjoyment to increase pedestrian traffic in that area of the Montrose. If the city cannot procure the entirety of the property, private investment in partial lots would be encouraged in order for use as small commercial spaces, focusing on local arts and artisan crafts, a cafe or community space."
She says the response has been enthusiastic so far.
"I am finding that everyone I've spoken to, from co-workers to city officials, have been supportive of this initiative," she says. "The Montrose deserves to maintain its integrity. Development for development's sake has been a blight on the neighborhood, as large numbers of half-finished condominiums in disrepair can attest to."
Soon there will be a more fully developed Web site outlining the plan.
Anyone who lives near the site, at Alabama and Dunlavy, knows that parkland is in short supply. Seeing 7.7 acres of green space can inspire some impressive plans.
Whether this one works out or not, it's definitely worth a shot.
This all might be too late, though. H-E-B has announced a deal to buy the property, if — and it's not a small if — anyone can figure out who actually owns it and gets a clear title.