RALEIGH, N.C. — A dog named Hurricane Hugo has lived a life that has been as destructive as the storm with the same name.
Restrained by a logging chain hooked to a car axle buried in the ground, the pit bull's only shelter from cold, heat and rain likely was a blue 50-gallon plastic barrel. At 46 pounds, he was described as severely underweight. If his days were spent as those of most fighting dogs, he spent hours each week on a treadmill to build his endurance. At other times, he would have been tethered within several feet of another dog to create aggression.
"Their day-to-day life is spent chained to the ground," Amber Burckhalter, a dog trainer in Atlanta who works with aggressive animals said of the typical fighting dog's life. "They unchain them for a dog fight and they go into the pit. And if they come out, they come out. And if they don't ..."
Burckhalter examined Hugo after an undercover investigator bought him at a dog-fighting enclave in Duplin County in April 2010. The man who sold Hugo, 78-year-old Harry Hargrove, is considered a legend in the dog-fighting world and was sentenced Thursday to 60 months in prison, the toughest sentence that U.S. District Court Judge Terrence Boyle could give him. He was taken into custody immediately.
By comparison, NFL player Michael Vick was sentenced to 23 months in prison and three years of probation. He served 18 months in a federal penitentiary and two months on home confinement before resuming his football career.
"This is as sick as it gets," Boyle told Hargrove. "It really is."
Hargrove told the judge that he once had more than 100 dogs but was down to about 35 when he was arrested. Some of those 35 dogs weren't his, he said. Boyle brushed that explanation aside.
"This doesn't make it better," he said.
Hargrove's brother and niece believe that his experience in the Vietnam War changed Hargrove dramatically, said his attorney, Sherri Alspaugh. Boyle rejected that theory out of hand.
"Why would he discard all of that for a life of brutality?" the judge asked.
Hargrove had pleaded guilty earlier this year to selling, delivering, possessing, training, and transporting animals for the purposes of having the animals participate in an animal fighting venture In their motion for a tough sentence, the U.S. Attorney's Office described a gruesome, blood-stained scene where winning dogs barely survived and losing dogs were electrocuted, their carcasses found in a pit where garbage was burned.
"It was horrific," said Duplin County Sheriff Blake Wallace, whose office got a tip about the dog fighting on Hargrove's rural property. Thirty-five dogs were found on the land, behind Hargrove's older mobile home, which was located about 100 yards down a dirt path, Wallace said. "Somebody not back there behind his house wouldn't know the dogs were even there."
The early investigation by Wallace's deputies told the sheriff that this case required assistance. He learned that Hargrove had lived in Duplin County, then joined the military and left the area for decades. He traveled dog-fighting circuits in Georgia, South Carolina and maybe Florida before landing back in Duplin County, Wallace said.
So Wallace called the feds and he called humane organizations and the undercover officer went to Hargrove's home, where he purchased Hugo for $1,500. Hargrove told the agent he had fought Hugo three times and that Hugo won all three fights. To prove Hugo's prowess, he put Hugo in the fighting pit with another dog and let them fight for more than five minutes, while Hargrove discussed Hugo's fighting style.
A few days later, the investigators searched Hargrove's property. Hargrove was "almost indifferent," Wallace said.
"I won't say that he was surprised that we were there but almost that we were making a bigger deal out of it than it was," Wallace said. "I'm not a mind reader, but I think he has become so calloused to this activity. At the time, he didn't believe he was doing anything wrong."
Hargrove's brother and niece attended the sentencing hearing and
A metal building housed the fighting pit, with four plywood walls and carpet that helped the dogs maintain their grip. Jumper cables, modified to fit the home's outlets, were used to electrocute dogs. Treadmills and spring poles — used to build a dog's leg and jaw muscles — were found, along with lots of medicine.
"You could tell he was a serious dog fighter, not only from the number of dogs, but the equipment and the fighting pit," said Richard Rice, executive vice president of the Atlanta Humane Society, which worked with officers on the case. "It was a pretty professional outfit."
Dog fighters work on different levels, starting with the urban dog owners who generally have one dog in the inner city and go to small events, Rice said. Intermediate dog fighters go to slightly larger events, but pale in comparison to professionals such as Hargrove, Rice said. Large numbers of people attend such events, both as spectators and fighters.
"They consider it a sport, but we consider it animal cruelty," he said.
Hargrove made spontaneous statements during the search, including that "he was one of the best in the nation" and that he had been fighting dogs for 40 years, the federal motion says. At a hearing earlier this year, Hargrove confirmed he has fought dogs all his life. He said he drove South to fight dogs but that he trained them at his home.
In seeking the higher sentence, the prosecutors point out that Hargrove has previous convictions in North Carolina and Georgia, all of which are related to dog-fighting activities. Prosecutors are asking for the higher sentence for several reasons, including "his extraordinary cruelty to the 36 animals seized during the investigation" and "his extraordinary cruelty to the hundreds of dogs he has bred, trained and sold, knowing they would be subjected to maiming or death in a dog fight."
One-by-one, the federal motion lists each dog found on Hargrove's property with descriptions: thin, underweight, submissive, aggressive, scared, old wounds, fresh wounds, multiple scars. Thirty-five were euthanized. Hugo is the 36th dog.
He's now about 3 years old and at last report, is "fat and lazy," having gained about 20 pounds, Burckhalter said. She won't say where he lives now for fear that Hargrove's buddies will try to find him.
Wallace said he's relieved Hargrove will be behind bars now.
"I hate to see anything treated the way these animals were treated," he said. "It was pitiful. And the fact that anybody was proud of fighting dogs ... barbaric."
Martha Waggoner can be reached at http://twitter.com/mjwaggonernc