Brunson’s story highlights concerns about dog fighting in region

When Kristen Tilton first met Brunson, the small pittie was emaciated, his muzzle marred by scars. He was clearly in pain.

Veterinarians and animal rights groups say Brunson’s teeth being ground down and evidence of old, healed scars suggest he was used in dog fighting — possibly as a “bait dog,” a victim to to teach other dogs to attack and kill.

Brunson was found Dec. 12 on the streets of Trotwood and taken to Our Farm Sanctuary in Tipp City where Tilton volunteers. Despite the torture he endured, Brunson’s sweetness shown through.

“The day we met I wasn’t even supposed to be at the sanctuary, but by chance I was there when he came in. By some small miracle he decided I was OK to trust and he dragged himself into my lap to collapse, and from then on we were an instant family,” Tilton wrote in an online obituary for Brunson.

Tilton gave Brunson all the love and medical care she could. The pup died Dec. 16 as a result of his injuries.

“I gave him everything I had and it just wasn’t enough to overcome the absolute torture his body endured before he found me,” she wrote. “If love could have saved him I wouldn’t have lost him. While this is the end of his time here on Earth this is not the end of his story.”

Now Tilton is using Brunson’s story to raise awareness of dog fighting in the Dayton region.

Law enforcement officials and animal rights advocates say dog fighting is occurring in the region. Arrests and prosecutions are rare, they say, because of how well those involved stay hidden from the public — leaving pups like Brunson to suffer out of sight.

Prosecuting dog fighting

The Montgomery County Prosecutor’s Office has not reviewed or prosecuted a case involving dog fighting in a decade. Officials attribute this to multiple factors.

“We’ve found that these cases many times, but not always, happen in more rural areas,” said Prosecutor Mat Heck Jr.

When dog fighting incidents do happen in more populated areas, authorities are often alerted to these crimes by the public.

“Police might get complaints from neighbors about large gatherings, most often in a garage or barn,” Heck said. “They’ve also gotten reports from veterinarians who’ve had dogs brought in for care and they identify certain traits, whether it’s a dog that’s actually been trained to fight or visible wounds that you wouldn’t normally see on a family dog.”

But officials note it can be difficult to gather enough evidence to effectively charge those involved with the fourth-degree felony offense.

Brunson had a chip implant, for example, that connected him to a previous owner who Humane Society of Greater Dayton’s chief investigator Brad Mercer said is on their radar.

According to Mercer, the previous owner’s name and address was connected to a prior dog fighting investigation, though no charges were filed against him at that time.

The Dayton Daily News is not reporting the man’s name because he also has not been charged with any crime connected to Brunson’s case.

The owner information provided by Brunson’s chip is a start, Mercer said, but is far from enough to win a court case, a fact of which many involved in the dog fighting arena are likely well aware.

“Sometimes these people insulate themselves from things like this because they’ve been in trouble before and they know how to play the game,” Mercer said.

Authorities say this lack of prosecution should not be considered an indicator that there is no dog fighting taking place in the Dayton area.

“There are dog fighting rings that may go from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, not only in Ohio but they may travel from Ohio to Kentucky to Indiana and have dog fighting contests throughout the tri-state area,” Heck said. “They do this to stay ahead of law enforcement and also to get additional people in these other states involved.”

The Montgomery County Animal Resource Center responded to questions from the Dayton Daily News with a statement saying “Dog fighting is ethically and morally reprehensible.” The statement says ARC takes calls for neglect and abuse that could lead to investigations into dogfighting, but said it’s law enforcement’s responsibility to prosecute cases and track the prevalence of the issue.

Brunson’s story

Brunson was rushed to Our Farm Sanctuary on Dec. 12 after he was found injured and emaciated, wandering the streets in Trotwood.

“I have never in my 36 years seen an animal in such horrific condition,” Tilton said of her first encounter with the dog. “I could count every rib, his muzzle was torn, and he had a terrible smell … but despite it all, he was an incredibly gentle dog.”

Formerly named Maximus, according to the electronic chip implant, the dog showed signs of potential neglect and/or abuse, Tilton said. She noted visible healed scars on his legs, body, head and muzzle, along with more recent trauma.

“Typically, with dog fighting, you’re looking for a history of injuries, old scars, old injuries, along with new injuries; something that indicates a (pattern),” Mercer said.

Brunson’s intake report from MedVet Dayton indicates he also had a potential broken leg, along with necrotic tissue resulting from an abscess on his abdomen.

A photo of Brunson’s mouth taken by MedVet Dayton doctors shows several missing teeth, as well as remaining teeth that appear to have been grinded down.

“A lot of times (dog fighters) will file down the teeth because they don’t want the bait dogs to injure the fighting dogs during training,” Mercer said. “Other times, the fighting dogs will wear their own teeth down from continued fighting.”

The chip also named an owner for Brunson. Tilton said Our Farm Sanctuary staff was unable to reach him by the contact information provided, though the dog was found about a quarter mile from the address listed on the chip.

MedVet staff did successfully save Brunson that day, Tilton said. Caregivers included Dr. Ken Brunson, after whom Brunson was renamed.

Tilton quickly decided to foster Brunson as he began a road to recovery from his various wounds and infections. She began keeping a record of Brunson’s care and day-to-day progress.

Credit: Hancock, Aimee (COP-Dayton)

Credit: Hancock, Aimee (COP-Dayton)

“My pal settled in for the night easily, and slept on warm bedding with blankets under and over him,” Tilton wrote in a post to Facebook on Dec. 13. “… Brunson is on strict crate rest so he is currently snoozing while his body fights the infections and he heals. I’m not sure where his forever will be, but I sure hope I get to follow his story.”

Tilton said she quickly realized she wanted to provide Brunson a forever home rather than just a short-term foster. She applied and was approved to adopt him.

Photos and videos on her Facebook page show Brunson alert and responsive, tail wagging. His relaxed and happy demeanor is shadowed by his protruding ribcage, deeply scarred face, and an apparent hesitance to fully let his guard down.

Yet Tilton vowed to give Brunson the life she felt he deserved.

“Brunson has discovered the joys of all the soft things,” she said in a Dec. 15 post on Facebook. “He’s particularly fond of the outdoor sectional after he’s been out in the yard, and he is a fan of the sofa. We think it’s likely the first time he is experiencing all of the softness life has to offer.”

He died the next day, Tilton said, wearing his new Christmas pajamas.

Dog fighting rings

Dog fighting rings can operate as an underbelly of society, similar to that of any drug trade, officials note.

“It’s highly secretive and hard to infiltrate,” said Brian Weltge, president of the Humane Society of Greater Dayton.

And often, Heck noted, dog fighting is not taking place on its own but is rather as part of a larger crime syndicate that may involve drug dealing and guns on top of the gambling associated with the dog fighting shows.

“These shows bring a lot of other crimes with them,” he said. “Dogfighting, drugs, alcohol and weapons don’t create a good situation, so this certainly affects a community and it also just goes against the moral fiber of that community by introducing criminal behavior into it.”

One of biggest dog fighting cases prosecuted in Montgomery County was dubbed Operation Bite Back, a multi-agency investigation that resulted in the arrest of 54 people on state and federal charges in 2007.

Ten of those 54 were charged in federal court, 44 were charged in state court and 37 were charged in Montgomery County.

The nearly two-year investigation allowed authorities to infiltrate and shut down a multi-state dog fighting operation based in southwest Ohio.

As part of Operation Bite Back, Kettering Police Sgt. Michael Gabrielson spent 14 months working undercover. He told the newspaper in 2010 that he had to live the role in the underworld of dog fighting in order to help build a case.

“I was a partner in a kennel with some bad guys,” he said at the time. “I was a financial partner in a kennel whose sole purpose was to buy, sell and raise pit bull dogs.”

Gabrielson said he also bought drugs, guns and attended more than 30 dogfights.

But for all the illegal activities he was engaged in, Gabrielson said nothing compared to the abuse he witnessed, recalling “the sounds from the fights … (and) the yelping and crunching of bone.”

Soon after Operation Bite Back concluded, Congress passed the Animal Fighting Prohibition Enforcement Act of 2007.

This act amended the federal criminal code to impose a fine and/or prison term of up to three years for crimes relating to the sponsoring or exhibiting of an animal in an animal fighting venture; buying, selling, transporting, delivering or receiving any animal to transport for participation in an animal fighting venture; and using mail or other interstate commerce to promote or further an animal fighting venture.

Local agencies say it’s important for the general public to report any information they witness that could be related to dog fighting or animal cruelty.

“It’s like the old adage, ‘If you see something, say something,’” Mercer said. “Someone’s new information could be the piece of the puzzle we need.”

Advocating for action

Tilton is now urging authorities and lawmakers to both punish anyone who may have played a role in Brunson’s injuries and to strengthen existing laws and penalties for animal cruelty in Ohio.

“I urge you and your fellow representatives to reassess and strengthen the existing laws and penalties for animal cruelty in (Ohio),” Tilton wrote in a letter to U.S. Rep. Warren Davidson, R-Troy, along with other local and state legislators. “Stricter legislation and enforcement of these laws is necessary to protect our beloved companions, as well as our community.”

Tilton created a petition to strengthen laws and penalties for dog fighting and animal cruelty, which has amassed more than 11,000 signatures in less than a month.

“This is about Brunson but it’s also about making it better for the next animal because right now there is another Brunson out there; that’s just a fact,” she told the Dayton Daily News.

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