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NJ: Asbury Park man who threw dog in trash sentenced


Dog fighting: Asbury Park man who threw dog in trash sentenced
Kathleen Hopkins Published 5:40 p.m. ET April 18, 2018 | Updated 12:28 p.m. ET April 19, 2018

ASBURY PARK - Bad smells and howling provided some clues to dark secrets hidden in a New Street house.

Behind the doors of the two-story frame dwelling at 905 New St. were drugs used to euthanize dogs, canine treadmills, sticks used to pry open dogs’ mouths, poles to increase aggression and build strength in the dogs' jaws and animal pelts to bait them to fight.

Out back were 18 pit bulls trapped in a plywood kennel, bred and trained to fight in a ring until death, authorities said. Some of the dogs were injured and scarred, and one had fresh wounds consistent with dog fighting, according to court papers.

Their owner was a man with a prior record for animal cruelty, under a court order not to add to what was once a collection of 12 dogs.

But, as his pack of dogs grew beyond the permitted number, Mario Atkinson, 42, who lived there, took one of the canines to a fight in Virginia in April 2016, entered the animal in the contest and bet $1,000 on the match, according to court papers. The dog was near death at the end of the fight, which it lost. Atkinson threw the dog in the trash when it died on the ride home to New Jersey, court papers said.

Atkinson now must spend two years in a federal prison. Judge Peter G. Sheridan in U.S. District Court in Trenton sentenced him to the prison term Wednesday and fined him $1,000, said Will Skaggs, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Newark. Sheridan also ordered Atkinson to remain under court supervision for three years after he is released from prison.

Under a plea agreement, Atkins will forfeit an array of dog-fighting accessories and veterinary supplies seized from his home in a raid on June 1, 2016.

Atkinson was among nine people from four states arrested that day by federal authorities in an investigation into a dog-fighting network that stretched from New Jersey to New Mexico. The probe was dubbed “Operation Grand Champion" after a phrase used by people who fight dogs to describe a canine with five or more fight victories.

Following the arrests, Ross Licitra, chief law enforcement officer for the Monmouth County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, identified Atkinson as a “key player" in the dog-fighting network. Authorities said the ring arranged for dogs to maul each other, often until the death of one or both them, while spectators placed wagers on the outcome.

"Animal cruelty like the conduct in this case has no place in a civilized society," said Acting Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey H. Wood. "Today's sentencing sends a strong message that we are bringing to justice those who engage in illegal dog-fighting and that anyone who engages in this conduct does so at the risk of significant jail time."

Atkinson was charged under the federal Animal Welfare Act, which makes it a felony punishable by up to five years in prison to fight dogs or to possess, train, sell, buy, deliver, receive or transport dogs intended for fighting.

The dogs taken from Atkinson's property were found near dog-fighting equipment, including an electric treadmill specially outfitted with side panels and a leash clip to force the dogs to run on it. Agents also found blood splatters in three areas of Atkinson's basement that tested positive for canine blood, according to court documents.

Atkinson pleaded guilty June 15 before U.S. District Judge Anne E. Thompson to a two-count information that charged him with sponsoring and exhibiting a dog in an animal-fighting venture and possessing a dog for purposes of participation in an animal-fighting venture.

It was then that Atkinson admitted taking a dog to Virginia to fight in April 2016, and tossing it in the garbage when the animal died during the ride back to New Jersey, according to court papers.

Previously, Atkinson was convicted of 10 counts of animal cruelty against nine dogs in Neptune municipal court in 2015. Atkinson lived in Neptune at the time of the offenses. He was charged as a result of an investigation begun on July 2, 2014, when neighbors reported finding a pit bull stuck between two fences, with visible puncture and bite wounds. The probe revealed that Atkinson was denying nine of his 12 dogs proper care and sustenance.

He was fined $6,500 for the offenses and ordered to submit to inspections at his home by the SPCA for an indefinite period to ensure he did not get any more pets.

Despite that, SPCA officials inspected his home in Asbury Park on April 4, 2016, and found 20 pit bulls in crates, and another female dog in a crate with five puppies, plus seven more dogs in individual crates in the basement, near a dog treadmill, according to court papers.

Following Atkinson’s arrest in June 2016, a neighbor told the Asbury Park Press there were bad smells coming from the property, and dogs were barking and howling day and night.

During the "Operation Grand Champion" probe, authorities intercepted text messages and telephone conversations between Atkinson and an unnamed associate in which they were arranging dog fights.

In one conversation, Atkinson was discussing a fight between two female dogs.

"Man, she was biting the (expletive) out of that bitch," he said in the conversation. "She had bleeders on that bitch."

In another conversation, Atkinson talked about one of the dogs becoming weak after fighting for an hour.

"He wasn't really fighting back," Atkinson said. "He was just hanging on."

In all, 98 dogs have been rescued as a result of "Operation Grand Champion." The Humane Society of the United States assisted with the care of the dogs.

Four other defendants in the case have previously pleaded guilty and been sentenced. Four more are awaiting trial.

The case was investigated by the Office of Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the FBI.

Full story, pictures and video: https://www.app.com/story/news/loca...aged-dogs-interstate-fighting-ring/527920002/