The brick house
Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick owned on Moonlight Road in rural
Smithfield, Va., is painted white. It has a white door, a white fence and a
huge white gate that opens on a spare front lawn holding a white birdbath. In
the woods behind the house, out of view from the road, stand five smaller
buildings. These are painted black--not gray or charcoal, but pure black, as if
they'd been dipped in ink. They are set off from the house by a fence, also
Kathy Strouse, an
animal control officer, was standing in front of those outbuildings as night
fell on April 25 when a simple question came to her: Why the black paint? A
moment passed before Strouse had an answer. At night, when most dogfights are
held, no one would know these buildings were here.
Strouse, 54, is a
member of the Virginia Animal Fighting Task Force, a consortium of animal
control and law enforcement officials from around the state. She serves as an
expert witness in dogfighting trials and teaches investigative tactics to
animal control officers nationwide. As she and officers from the Surry County
sheriff's office probed each of the back buildings and the rest of the 15-acre
property that night, she saw what she considers unmistakable evidence of a
professional dogfighting operation.
In one building a
scale hung from the ceiling. There were treadmills to exercise the animals and
a "rape stand," a contraption that holds aggressive dogs in place
during breeding. In other buildings Strouse found syringes as well as
injectable diuretics and nutritional supplements commonly given to fighting
dogs. Stuck in the ground between two buildings was a metal shaft with a
tethering arm, designed to keep a dog walking in a circle. Like the treadmill,
this setup can be used as part of what dogfighters call the "keep," the
training regimen before a fight.
A long building
held numerous kennels, each of which contained at least one dog. Most were
American pit bull terriers. Some had wounds on their ears, necks and front
legs. Contrary to early reports, those 30 or so dogs were not emaciated, nor
were the roughly 30 pit bulls found in the woods, tied to car axles buried in
the ground. "Give the dogfighter his due," Strouse says. "It is not
in his interest to starve his dogs."
It was clear to
Strouse, who has been an animal control officer for 22 years, that some of the
animals had been used in fights, but not until she climbed a stepladder to the
second story of the largest of the black buildings was she convinced that
fights had been staged on the property. In a room about 16 feet square Strouse
found blood: a smear on one wall, splashes near the base of walls, a spattering
on a jacket hanging from an air conditioner. She also found a dog tooth on a
bucket. Yet the most convincing evidence that this was the "pit"--the
dogfighting arena--was the rectangular area in the middle of the room devoid of
blood. "Dogfighters put down carpet to give their dogs traction,"
eventually find a bloodstained carpet elsewhere on the property, and later
Strouse would proclaim to a friend, "We got him. We got Michael
But neither the
case, nor Vick's connection to it, is so clear-cut. Since the raid, Vick, 26,
has proclaimed his innocence and blamed family members who lived in the house
for what was found there. "It's unfortunate I have to take the heat,"
he said to reporters in New York City on April 27, a day before the NFL draft.
"Lesson learned for me."
As of Monday, Surry
County commonwealth's attorney Gerald Poindexter had not filed animal-welfare
charges against anyone in the case, including Vick and his cousin, 26-year-old
Davon Boddie, whose arrest on suspicion of drug possession sparked the raid.
(Boddie gave police the Moonlight Road address as his place of residence; when
searching the property they found probable cause to seek a second warrant
involving animal cruelty.)
Poindexter has said
he's convinced dogfighting took place on Moonlight Road but also that he hasn't
yet found enough evidence to charge anyone. He said he has no eyewitnesses to
fights there and noted that as many as 10 people might have had access to the
property. Two schools of thought have thus emerged based on the information
uncovered so far: Vick is either, as some in the animal welfare community
believe, the financier of a large dogfighting operation and an aficionado of
that blood sport, or, he is, as he said, a victim of poor choices made by those