MALAD, Idaho––An arrest has been made in connection with an April 2013 triple murder in rural Idaho near the Utah border, believed to have been linked to dogfighting.
Oneida County Sheriff Jeff Semrad on February 12, 2015 announced in a written release distributed to local media that Severo Luera, 35, of Tremonton, Utah, had on January 30, 2015 been served “on an Idaho felony warrant in connection with the triple homicide in Holbrook on April 4, 2013.”
“Police did not refer to Luera as a suspect and did not specify what his relationship to the alleged crime might be,” reported Mark Green of Fox 13. “The release stated the investigation is ongoing and that further comments would not be made regarding the case at this time.”
Booked for investigation
Already in custody in Utah for alleged misdemeanor drug offenses, Luera was held without bail in the Box Elder County Jail, awaiting extradition to Idaho for arraignment, said the Idaho Attorney General’s Office, which is to handle the prosecution. The extradition process was expected to take about 10 days.
Luera “was booked for investigation of first-degree murder and aiding and abetting charges,” Pat Reavy of the Salt Lake City Deseret News reported, citing an unnamed Box Elder County Jail official.
Luera reportedly had prior convictions including for possession of a vicious dog, a class C misdemeanor, in Garland City, Utah, in 2010. Earlier, Luera was convicted of misdemeanor drug possession in 2001, of unlawfully selling or supplying alcohol to minors, also in 2001, and of felony drug distribution in 2002, for which he was sentenced to serve a year in jail.
“I think it’s pretty clear there will be more arrests coming,” Bannock County Sheriff Lorin Nielsen told media.
“It’s an active investigation,” said Semrad.
Murder followed dogfighting busts
The triple murder followed major dogfighting raids in six other states on successive weekends, and preceded several even larger dogfighting busts that were apparently based on information gathered during the first round of arrests.
Still unclear is whether there was any connection among the persons apprehended in the other states, the murder victims, and/or suspect Luera.
Brent L. Christensen, 62, Trent Jon Christensen, 32, and Yavette Chivon Carter, 27, were found shot to death inside their home one mile west of Holbrook, population 400. They were apparently killed as long as 24 hours before a man who came to pick up several dogs found Carter’s two-year-old daughter sitting on the front steps.
Walking inside, the unidentified man found the bodies, and found a two-month-old baby girl beneath Carter’s arm. “It looked as if she was protecting the baby when she was killed,” Oneida County Sheriff Jeff Semrad told media.
64 pit bulls
Sheriff’s deputies found 64 pit bulls chained in two dog yards. Both dog yards were visible in photographs taken from two county highways intersecting near the scene, and found 38 marijuana plants, with a cumulative street value estimated at $95,000. Bruce Christensen, brother of Brent, told media that Brent had served prison time for drug-related offenses. Brent L. Christensen was also reputedly a professional dogfighter.
“Evidence at the scene suggests dog fights were held at the site,” reported Debbie Bryce of the Idaho State Journal.
“So, we have a dog fighting ring going on here and pretty good grow operation. And so we just don’t know right now. Is it drug related, or not? Maybe it’s not related to either one of those things,” Semrad said. “We believe that they knew who the killer was. There’s no evidence there was a robbery.”
“Names of interest”
Semrad said the investigation had discovered names of interest from other parts of southern Idaho and northern Utah.
The Oneida County Sheriff’s Department in August 2007 found as many as 34 pit bulls believed to have been bred for fighting on the premises of alleged marijuana growers Andy Ray Willard and Tiffany Willard, near Malad, the only incorporated city in the county. Both Willards were convicted in November 2007 of manufacturing a controlled substance. Andy Willard was sentenced to serve two years in state prison; Tiffany Willard was eligible for probation after serving 180 days.
Dogfighting charges were not filed, after the 34 pit bulls disappeared soon after the Willards were arrested.
Semrad indicated that the murder victims were not involved in the Willard case, but the Willard case did involve other suspects.
“These are dangerous people, and the individual we arrested [apparently Andy Willard] has told us that. That’s why he doesn’t want to cooperate and give names, because he’s scared,” Semrad said soon after the dogs vanished.
“We did locate what we thought possibly were some of the dogs that were stolen but the attorneys for the Willards would not allow them to cooperate with us and identify the dogs, because they were worried about federal charges,” Semrad told KPVI News, of Pocatello, in November 2007.
Holbrook pits were rehomed
Oneida County Commissioner Max Firth donated food for the pit bulls who were impounded after the murders. The pit bulls had apparently not been properly fed in some time. “Occasionally they would grind up the meat of a dog who died and feed that to the other dogs,” Semrad e-mailed to Local News 8, of Idaho Falls. “We found a dead dog in the freezer and a grinder nearby,” Semrad said.
Removing the pit bulls from the premises on April 8, the Idaho Humane Society reported on April 9 that most were “in very poor body condition,” malnourished, with open wounds and skin, eye, and ear ailments resulting from neglect of basic care. Some had untreated broken bones.
Taken into custody by the Idaho Humane Society and transported to Boise, the pit bulls were rehomed beginning in May 2013, with the assistance of the California-based organization BADRAP and the Best Friends Animal Society, of Kanab, Utah.
Possible motives for the Holbook murders might have included silencing suspected witnesses or retaliating against suspected informants.
No new information pertaining to the motive was released with the news of the Severo Luera arrest.
But there were earlier hints that some of the alleged dogfighters involved in the 2013 raids had homicidal inclinations. As many as 10 shots were reportedly fired early on Easter Sunday, 2013 near Benton, Mississippi, when more than 100 officers and agents with the Marshall, Benton, and DeSoto county sheriff’s departments and the Mississippi Bureau of Investigations closed in on a dogfight that allegedly included “major players” in dogfighting nationally. Fifty-two people were reportedly arrested and 26 pit bulls seized at the scene.
“I don’t know if it was a lookout [firing shots to warn the dogfight participants] or if it was a psycho who realized at 2:00 a.m. in a crowd of 200, he could shoot into the woods and maybe kill a cop with no one being able to figure out who did what,” Humane Society of the U.S. director of animal cruelty policy John Goodwin told ANIMALS 24-7. “A bunch of guys got away,” as many as 70 according to local police, “and we suspect the weapon that was fired got away too,” Goodwin said.
“This was definitely a gathering of some of the most hardcore dogfighters in the country,” Goodwin added.
Five more suspects and 18 pit bulls were rounded up on April 5, 2013 from locations in Tracy and Carmichael, California. The California suspects were charged with possession of fighting dogs, drug and weapons-related offenses, and child endangerment.
“These are the kind of guys who operate under street names,” said Goodwin. “This wasn’t the old school, big-name dog man crowd, but rather the core of the new high roller gang-affiliated dogfighters. They came of age when the underground magazines [published by and for the “old school” dogfighters] were starting to disappear, and are much harder to track.”
But HSUS senior law enforcement specialist Eric Sakach remembered the oldest of the California arrestees, James Leiva, 60. “I testified against Leiva in a dogfighting case in Lake County, California, in 1999. He was found guilty and served 16 months in state prison,” Sakach said.
Each raid seemed to lead to another
The Benton raid came a week after the biggest seizure of alleged fighting dogs in nearly four years, disclosed on March 25, 2013, brought the total number of alleged fighting dogs seized by law enforcement in the first 100 days of 2013 to more than twice as many as were impounded in all of 2012.
Meanwhile nearly 100 pit bulls were found by the FBI, U.S. Attorney’s Office, and Missouri State Highway Patrol in raids on sites in Kansas, Missouri, and Texas. Pete Davis, 38, and Melvin Robinson, 41, both of Kansas City, Kansas (across the Missouri River from Kansas City, Missouri) each pleaded guilty later in 2013 to dogfighting-related charges.
Davis had prior convictions including a fine of $400 for allowing one of his dogs to maul two smaller dogs who were being walked by a neighbor and her seven-year-old daughter.
The raids resulting in criminal charges against Davis and Robinson came about six weeks after the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation, Federal Drug Administration, and local sheriff’s deputies seized 99 alleged fighting pit bulls from seven sites in five North Carolina counties.
$2 million restitution order
All of that, however, was only preliminary to the August 2013 seizure of 367 pit bulls from alleged fighting dog breeders in Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi.
“Several of the dogs were pregnant. Animal welfare groups ended up with 451 dogs by the time the puppies arrived. More than half the dogs have been adopted or being prepared for adoption, but the remainder died from health problems or had to be euthanized because they were too aggressive toward humans,” reprised Philip Rawls of Associated Press on January 16, 2015, after U.S. District Judge Keith Watkins of Montgomery, Alabama ordered seven convicted defendants to pay $2 million for the pit bulls’ care.
Donnie Anderson, of Auburn, Alabama, “described by the judge as “the kingpin of this conspiracy,’ was sentenced in November 2014 to eight years in prison,” Rawls continued. “Anderson worked out an agreement with federal prosecutors to pay $580,000 in restitution for the care of his 147 dogs, and the judge approved it. The judge said in an earlier hearing that 78 of Anderson’s dogs either died from injuries or had to be euthanized.”
Ricky Van Lee of Biloxi, Mississippi, was ordered to pay $627,389 for the care of his 68 dogs.
“Lee is serving four years in prison,” Rawls wrote. “Michael Martin of Auburn must pay $458,752 for the care of his 55 dogs. He has a five-year sentence. The judge ordered four others to pay smaller amounts that pushed the total to $1,987,411. One defendant, who had two dogs seized, became ill in court and his restitution case had to be postponed. Prosecutors are recommending $17,840 in his case.”