New Jersey and Chicago-Area Defendants Convicted As Part of Operation Grand Champion
Four defendants pleaded guilty today and yesterday to federal charges for their roles in an inter-state dog fighting network spanning from New Mexico to New Jersey, announced Acting Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey H. Wood of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division, and Acting United States Attorney for the District of New Jersey William E. Fitzpatrick. A fifth defendant pleaded guilty in June. U.S. District Judge Mary L. Cooper in Trenton accepted the following pleas:
- Anthony “Monte” Gaines, 36, of Vineland, New Jersey, a/k/a “Whiteboy,” pleaded guilty yesterday to two felony counts of conspiracy to buy, sell, receive, transport, deliver, and possess dogs intended for use in an animal fighting venture, and one felony count of possessing a dog intended for use in an animal fighting venture.
- Lydell Harris, 32, of Vineland, New Jersey, a/k/a “Sinn,” pleaded guilty yesterday to one felony count of conspiracy to sponsor or exhibit a dog in an animal fighting venture, and one felony count of possessing a dog intended for use in an animal fighting venture.
- Frank Nichols, 40, of Millville, New Jersey, pleaded guilty today to one felony count of conspiracy to transport, deliver and receive dogs intended for use in an animal fighting venture, and one felony count of possessing a stolen firearm subsequent to a felony conviction.
- Pedro Cuellar, 47, of Willow Springs, Illinois, pleaded guilty today to one felony count of conspiracy to transport, deliver, and receive dogs intended for use in an animal fighting venture.
- Mario Atkinson, 42, of Asbury Park, New Jersey, pleaded guilty on June 15, 2017 before Judge Anne E. Thompson in U.S. District Court in Trenton to one count of sponsoring or exhibiting a dog in an animal fighting venture, and one count of possessing a dog intended for use in an animal fighting venture.
Nichols and Harris pleaded guilty to indictments. Gaines, Cuellar, and Atkinson were charged with Bills of Information. Charges remain pending against four defendants.
According to court documents filed in connection with the cases, from October 2015 through June 1, 2016, the pleading defendants and their co-defendants and associates fought dogs – including to the death – and trafficked in dogs with other dog fighters in Indiana, Illinois, New Mexico, and elsewhere so that those dogs could be used in dog fights. They also maintained fighting dogs and dog fighting equipment such as dog treadmills, intravenous drug bags and lines, “breeding stands” used to immobilize female dogs, and chains weighing up to several pounds per linear foot. Agents found canine blood on the floor, walls, and ceiling of the basement of one defendant’s residence, indicating that the area was likely used as a dog fighting pit. Among other acts involved in the charges, one of the pleading defendants admitted that his dog died in his car on the way home after losing a dog fight.
“Justice is being delivered in these cases,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Wood. “Ending animal fighting ventures and other inhumane practices depends upon the hard work of investigators and lawyers like those who brought these cases, and will also require continued partnership with federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies. Our Division is proud to be a leader in this worthy cause. We also applaud the work of the Humane Society in partnering with us to provide hope of recovery for the abused animals."
“The criminal conduct speaks to the cruel conditions in which these animals live,” Acting U.S. Attorney Fitzpatrick said. “This office, along with our law enforcement partners and the Humane Society, is working to end this illegal activity and punish those who abuse animals for their own enjoyment.”
“The provisions of the Animal Welfare Act were designed to protect animals from being used in illegal fighting ventures, which often entail other forms of criminal activity involving drugs, firearms and gambling,” said Special Agent-in-Charge Bethanne M. Dinkins of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of Inspector General. “Together with the Department of Justice, animal fighting is an investigative priority for USDA-OIG, and we will work with our law enforcement partners to investigate and assist in the criminal prosecution of those who participate in animal fighting ventures.”
This case is part of Operation Grand Champion, a coordinated effort across numerous federal judicial districts to combat organized dog fighting. The phrase “Grand Champion” is used by dog fighters to refer to a dog with more than five dog fighting “victories.” To date, 98 dogs have been rescued as part of Operation Grand Champion, and either surrendered or forfeited to the government. The Humane Society of the United States assisted with the care of the dogs seized by federal law enforcement. The government is represented by Trial Attorney Ethan Eddy of the Justice Department’s Environmental Crimes Section, and Assistant U.S. Attorney Kathleen O’Leary. The case is being investigated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture – Office of Inspector General, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security – Homeland Security Investigations, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Each animal fighting charge carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. The weapons charge against defendant Nichols carries a maximum sentence of ten years in prison and a $250,000 fine. The investigation is ongoing.