Only one journalist saw fit to mention the second largest dogfighting sweep in state history
COLUMBIA, South Carolina––Four days after the biggest dogfighting bust in South Carolina in almost a year, and one of the biggest in South Carolina and for that matter the entire U.S. ever, only crime and courts reporter Ted Clifford of The State newspaper in Columbia seems to have noticed.
As of midnight on September 24, 2023, ANIMALS 24-7 could find no electronic media coverage of the big dogfighting bust whatever: no television, no radio, no web news reports, indeed no recognition at all that it ever happened, except that one other newspaper picked up Clifford’s article.
Easier to ignore dogfighting than to do something about it
That tells a lot about how seriously South Carolina media take dogfighting, and in particular, South Carolina governor Henry McMaster’s pledge to eradicate dogfighting in a state long known for harboring dogfighting, dogfighters, the Ku Klux Klan, which long protected dogfighting throughout the South as a protection racket, and the mostly African-American drug gangs associated with dogfighting today.
McMaster, 76, a Republican, “As South Carolina’s attorney general, started a dogfighting task force and worked with federal authorities to prosecute dogfighters in an attempt to stamp out the black-market sport in South Carolina,” Clifford recalled, “which was often linked to other crimes including drug dealing.”
But McMaster, elected South Carolina governor in 2016, has not been the state attorney general since 2011. McMaster’s press office offered nothing, not even a manufactured quote from McMaster, about the September 21, 2023 dogfighting bust.
“Across the Midlands & Upstate”
How big was it?
Reported Clifford, about 120 pit bulls were impounded, “following a dogfighting bust that took place across the Midlands and Upstate South Carolina, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for South Carolina has confirmed.”
How Clifford heard about the bust is unclear, since even the U.S. Attorney’s Office for South Carolina has yet to post a media release about it.
However, before becoming crime and courts reporter for The State in January 2022, Clifford spent six and a half years as a paralegal in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, first within the Financial Frauds Bureau, then as a Crime Strategies Unit intelligence analyst.
This suggests Clifford may possess formidable investigative skills, and some well-placed inside sources, too.
Narcotics & weapons also found
The September 21, 2023 dogfighting raids, continued Clifford, brought “the largest single seizure of dogs from South Carolina dogfighting rings since a 60-agency effort recovered more than 300 dogs and saw the arrest of more than 20 people almost exactly one year ago,” over the weekend of September 24-25, 2022, to be exact.
“That operation was believed to be the largest single day, single state dogfighting bust in the country,” Clifford said.
The September 21, 2023 operation “is believed to have been the second largest, investigators say,” Clifford added.
“Narcotics and weapons were also found” during the raids at multiple locations, Clifford said, “which grew out of leads generated by the ongoing investigation from last September’s bust, investigators confirmed to The State.”
Then, raiding alleged dogfighters in the Carolinas for at least the seventh time in 10 months, “federal and state law enforcement officers executed nearly two dozen warrants” over the weekend of September 24-25, 2022 “in what is believed to be the biggest takedown of a dogfighting operation in South Carolina history,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of South Carolina announced on September 26, 2022.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office did not disclose how much of the evidence presented to obtain the warrants came through recent plea bargain settlements of previous dogfighting cases in the region, but ANIMALS 24-7 noted at the time several leading coincidences of the location and timing.
“Last year’s bust,” Clifford assessed, “was a watershed moment in the history of combatting dogfighting in South Carolina. The rescue of 305 dogs and the arrest of 20 people made it one of the largest single dogfighting busts since a six-state operation centered on Missouri rescued 500 dogs, mostly pit bulls, in 2009.
“The ‘Missouri 500’ remains the largest dog fighting bust in U.S. history,” Clifford mentioned.
Dogfighting became illegal in South Carolina through the passage of the 1986 Animal Fighting & Baiting Act, punishable by up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine.
“Rescue” is frequent cover
Fighting dogs or possessing, training, selling, buying, delivering, receiving or transport dogs intended for use in dog fighting is also a federal felony, though rarely invoked, since distinguishing scarred pit bulls in transit by dogfighters from purported “bait dogs” in transit by “rescuers” is no easy feat without documentation of an actual fight taking place.
The difficulty of enforcing the federal provisions pertaining to “selling, buying, delivering, receiving or transport dogs intended for use in dog fighting” has made “rescue” perhaps the leading cover for the illegal dogfighting industry.
“The blood sport has proven a stubborn problem in South Carolina,” Clifford acknowledged. “In 2004, The State took an in-depth look at dogfighting, uncovering an underworld of animal cruelty and crime related to dogfighting. And the problem is not just limited to the state’s rural corners.
“In 2017,” Clifford recounted, “federal authorities raided two properties in the Columbia area and arrested three family members, recovering more than 40 dogs who were being kept for an animal fighting business.”
Also a bust in Bastrop, Louisiana
The September 21, 2023 South Carolina dogfighting busts came just four days after police in Bastrop, Louisiana, received an anonymous tip about a dogfight in progress.
“When officers arrived,” reported Maddy Johnson for KNOE in Monroe, Louisiana, “they found 20 pit bulls and bully mixed breeds chained throughout the backyard of the home. Each dog was covered in scars at different stages of healing and some dogs had severe wounds on their bodies.
“Three subjects were at the residence at this time and attempted to keep the responding officer from the backyard,” Johnson said.
“When backup was called, two of the subjects fled,” having given false names, but were later positively identified from police body camera images.
Justin Johnson, 39, arrested at the scene, was charged with “20 counts of aggravated cruelty to animals and conspiracy to commit aggravated cruelty to animals. Additional arrest warrants are being issued for the remaining individuals,” Maddy Johnson reported.