Over 300 dogs rescued in largest-ever crackdown on dogfighting in SC, officials say

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A joint team of more than 60 South Carolina and federal authorities rescued more than 300 dogs around the Midlands over the weekend.

The animals were part of a major, multi-county dogfighting operation, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said Monday in a news release.

It’s believed to be the biggest bust of a dogfighting operation in South Carolina history, according to the release.

“To force dogs to fight, often to the death, for the enjoyment of others is not only a federal crime, it is also cruel, sadistic, and can create a haven for other illicit activities involving drugs and firearms,” U.S. Attorney Adair Boroughs said in the release.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office said the raids were aimed at seizing the dogs, and more than 20 people were arrested on state charges relating to animal cruelty and dogfighting.

After officers broke up a planned dogfighting match Saturday in Richland County, they conducted raids the next morning at various residences and properties in Richland, York, Orangeburg, Clarendon, Lee, and Sumter counties, according to the release. The officers executed 23 search warrants at those locations that were known dogfighting kennels or associated with dogfighting, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said.

Specific locations where the dogfighting operations were located were not available.

In addition to rescuing the animals, officers seized about 30 guns, $40,000 in cash, and various evidence related to dogfighting, according to the release.

In total 305 dogs were rescued, with 275 believed to be associated with dogfighting, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said. The Humane Society of the United States and Bark Nation are providing care for the dogs.

“The depravity involved in carrying out a dogfighting conspiracy is unimaginable to most people, and those involved in such a crime must be rooted out and punished,” Gov. Henry McMaster said in the release.

As state attorney general, McMaster started a dogfighting task force. “On behalf of all South Carolinians, I would like to thank the dedicated state and federal law enforcement officers who uncovered and disrupted this unspeakable cruelty. Our state is safer because of their hard work on this investigation.”

The Animal Welfare Act makes it a felony punishable by up to five years in federal prison to fight dogs or to possess, train, sell, buy, deliver, receive, or transport dogs intended for use in dogfighting, according to the release.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office said this was the first step in a continuing investigation by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of Inspector General and the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division. The U.S. Marshals Service, South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, Richland County Sheriff’s Department, York County Sheriff’s Office, Rock Hill Police Department, Indiana Gaming Commission, and Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office Criminal Investigations Division are also assisting in the investigation, according to the release.

“SLED continues to see the devastating impacts of dog fighting across South Carolina. Law enforcement often finds that guns, illicit drugs, human trafficking, and child abuse are involved with instances of animal abuse,” said SLED Chief Mark Keel said in the release. “This operation was only a success because multiple agencies made up of dedicated professionals worked tirelessly for justice. Dog fighting is both inhumane and illegal — it will not be tolerated.”

U.S. Attorneys Jane Taylor, Elle Klein, Elizabeth Major, and Carrie Fisher Sherard are prosecuting the case.

Anyone with information on dogfighting operations in South Carolina is asked to call 800-424-9121.

In October 2019, a federal jury took about two hours to find a north Columbia man guilty of keeping pit bulls for animal fights, The State previously reported.

Santerrio Smith who had a pit bull named Cain — short for the painkilling drug Novocaine — was part of a small but thriving dog-fighting culture in the Midlands, a world in which dogs fight to the death, watched by gamblers who bet $10,000 or more, The State previously reported.

Smith is now serving a 25-year sentence in federal prison on various charges including drug offenses.

“Even after the many years we have worked to protect dogs from the calculated brutality that dogfighting perpetuates, our responders are still struck by the resilience of these dogs who have suffered unthinkable cruelty,” Humane Society President and CEO Kitty Block said in the release. “We are grateful to the federal and state officials for intervening on behalf of these dogs and for the opportunity to work together to get them the care they deserve.”