Football

NY Daily News


Dog daze

Investigators raid Vick's property as race and celebrity clash


Authorities wear protective masks while looking for evidence at the home owned by Michael Vick.


Investigators are shown examining a vehicle on the property of Vick.

SURRY, Va. - At the corner of Colonial Trail East and Rolfe Highway, where the only flashing traffic light in town hangs, six men are enjoying their lunch break.

Some of the drivers who pass by Surry's main intersection honk and wave.

"Mayberry," says local store owner Bob Addison when asked to describe Surry. "It is… in nature and social conscience."

Of course, Mayberry's sheriff never had to deal with a high-profile federal criminal dogfighting investigation involving the highest-paid player in the NFL. Peaceful Surry County, population 7,119, has been rocked by the Michael Vick dogfighting probe, in which federal agents are now joining state authorities in trying to link the NFL's most elusive quarterback to illegal dogfighting.

While the Falcons' star has declared his innocence and has not been charged, Vick faces potential charges from the dual investigations centering around evidence of dogfighting seized on the property of a home Vick owned, but did not live in, in nearby Smithfield. The NFL, which is closely monitoring the controversy and could suspend Vick, has two security officials who periodically visit Surry. Both were in town last Tuesday, according to a county official.

The scandal, which has taken on racial overtones and has rocked this sleepy community, is playing out like an unsolved case from "CSI". Forensics specialists scour for blood stains and dog hair while federal investigators dig for dog carcasses on the premises.

The local prosecutor and sheriff in charge of the state investigation - Surry County Commonwealth attorney Gerald Poindexter and Sheriff H.D. Brown - have been cautious in their probe, but are being accused of dragging their feet. Some critics hint at corruption in the case, which both men, who are black, steadfastly deny.

Meanwhile, some officials involved in the state investigation are privately accusing other investigators of having an agenda against Vick, and say they are being pressured to rush charges because of Vick's star power.

With news helicopters capturing every move by investigators during the execution of each search warrant and with national media outlets descending upon the community, local authorities are basically under siege.

"Would the federal government have any interest in this if Michael Vick were not a suspect?" Poindexter asked Thursday night. "If the answer is ‘no,' then we have a problem. That is what is so troubling to me. I am doing whatever I think is right and needs to be done. If (the federal investigators) don't have an interest in breaking up a multi-state dogfighting ring, then it is all focused on one person and that is because of his celebrity status."

* * *

Some in Surry would like to see Vick follow Paris Hilton to jail after what was found on his property at 1915 Moonlight Road during a drug raid centered on Davon Boddie, Vick's cousin who was living at the house, on April 25.

The 15-acre property, which Vick is reportedly in the process of selling, was built deep in the country, about 40 minutes outside of Newport News, where Vick grew up. A few homes, separated by farming fields, dot Moonlight Road, which is barely wide enough to fit two cars. Turkeys and unleashed dogs roam some of the yards.

By comparison, Vick's gated white brick house has a small pool and a full-sized basketball court. Two boats sit in the parking lot along with an ATV and a pickup truck. A large chandelier is visible through a window above the front door and the lights are still on even though nobody lives in the house.

The home was recently burgled and three plasma televisions were stolen, according to a police report, but authorities say it did not interfere with the ongoing investigations.

Behind the home in the woods, there are four outbuildings painted black. This is where approximately 36 law enforcement officials - a large number for a drug raid, according to two local investigators - discovered evidence of a possible dogfighting operation in late April. Authorities discovered 66 dogs - over 50 of them pit bulls - and blood splatters on the second floor of one of the outbuildings. Several pieces of potential dogfighting evidence were confiscated, including dog treadmills and scales, a pry bar used to open a dog's mouth and a rape stand used for breeding.

Vick, a registered breeder, said in April that he was never at the house and blamed relatives for getting into trouble.

"There is no dogfighting," Boddie told the Daily Press (Newport News) on Thursday. "They're just making Michael look like something he's not. Michael is the type of dude who would do his sit-ups and crunches every night, read his Bible and go to bed."

"I want (NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell) to know that everything going on is really my fault," adds Boddie, who was initially charged in Hampton on April 20 for possession of marijuana with intent to distribute.

Neighbors say they rarely saw Vick, although some in Surry, which is less than 10 miles away, say they see him in town periodically. Two neighbors say they could hear dogs barking from Vick's property, where there was a licensed kennel, but that they never suspected nearly 70 dogs were being kept on the premises.

"It was upsetting to know that there are that many dogs," says Marci Radecki, a neighbor. "Why else would you have so many pit bulls? We called the game warden years ago (about the barking) and he said the dogs and everything were fine."

The only thing separating Earnest Hardy's home from Vick's is a small patch of woods. Hardy recalls seeing Vick three times and talking to him twice but he says he hasn't seen Vick in three years. Even though he says he saw the treadmills and dogs in the back once several years ago when he was showing one of Vick's caretakers where the property lines were, and he's seen a truckload of dog food being hauled into Vick's gated property, he says he doesn't believe Vick was involved in a dogfighting operation.

"I figured he had it because he is a registered breeder and wanted his dogs up to par," says Hardy. "If there was dogfighting on the property like they said it was, I would have heard something. He may be guilty. If he is and I was too dumb to know what was going on, I appreciate his discretion."

Hardy, who is black, says he and another neighbor on Moonlight Road are now at odds after the neighbor accused him in a local newspaper editorial of knowing what was going on at Vick's house. Hardy, who has lived in this area for over 30 years, now picks up his phone several times a day only to hear nothing on the other end. This has been happening since he was quoted in local papers shortly after authorities raided the Vick home in late April.

"It shows it is a racial and prejudice situation," says Hardy. "There's been a lot worse things that have happened here than dogs biting another dog."

Many blacks in the town say they do not care if Vick is charged as long as he is proven guilty. And that is where the racial divide seems to lie: Some whites believe there is already enough evidence to charge Vick, who signed a 10-year, $130 million contract in 2004; many blacks do not.

"They don't got nothing on the man," says Travis Tyler, one of the six African-American men hanging out at the corner by the town's lone traffic light. "I'm not trying to be racist but he is the highest-paid black quarterback. This is about jealousy and money. I'm 100% behind him all the way."

Across the intersection, several white men are asked about Vick at Farmer's United, an animal supply store that the Falcons quarterback has shopped at before.

"We're really interested in why anything hasn't been done yet," says Farmer United's manager, Kenny Pittman, who sold horse food to Vick before the case began in late April.

Before the United States Department of Agriculture opened its own investigation and executed a sealed search warrant to dig for possible carcasses on Vick's property on Thursday, some whites made it sound as if Barney Fife was handling the state probe.

"I think Harold Brown carries a bullet in his gun," cracks one customer at Farmer's United.

Brown and Poindexter have come under fire for their cautious approach to the state investigation. Poindexter has heard all the criticism - he's in over his head ... he takes money to protect Vick.

It was initially reported that Vick sold his home for much less than market value to an unknown buyer. Hardy says he wanted to buy the house and that one of Vick's associates told him he could purchase it for $300,000 because the quarterback wanted to sell it fast. Hardy says Vick changed his mind to take a larger offer, however, and as of Friday, no sale has been made official, according to the clerk's office.

But somehow, says Poindexter, people thought he was the buyer.

"There is so much misrepresentation, you wouldn't believe it," says Poindexter, who along with Brown is up for reelection in the fall. "I had somebody step in my face and ask me if I bought the Vick home. Don't accuse me of corrupt activity, taking a bribe or buying somebody's house for something that is a whole lot less than what it is worth.

"I am not afraid of convicting Michael Vick or anybody else that might have been involved in dogfighting in Surry County."

* * *

Dogfighting is a multimillion-dollar industry that is part of an underground subculture that holds its events in in secret locations. It is extremely difficult for authorities to prove who has dogs for fighting purposes.

Two officials who were on the Vick property when the dogs were initially seized said that the majority of the canines were in "good health" and had food. Their water was "blackish." Four dogs, one with scars, were taken for immediate medical care. This contradicts initial reports that had many of the dogs in poor health. Some investigators wonder where these initial accounts originated.

Poindexter says he saw dried blood splatters after they were pointed out to him on the second floor of one of the outbuildings, after he'd climbed a narrow and rickety collapsible ladder to the room. The prosecutor says he and Brown want their case to be airtight before handing out charges. In 2000, both men were involved in a dogfighting case that was dismissed due to a technicality involving search-and-seizure issues.

Brown and Poindexter refused to execute a third search warrant that expired on Thursday - the same day the federal search warrant was launched - because of what they called faulty language in the warrant that could have jeopardized the case.

They are also researching the backgrounds of informants who say they can link Vick to dogfighting and the information they are providing. "The overwhelming majority of dogfighting cases are based on circumstantial evidence," says Ethan Eddy, staff attorney at the Humane Society, whose expertise is on animal fighting and animal cruelty. "Most often, they could probably get a conviction of much less than they already got."

"It is fair to say that this process has taken longer than usual," adds Eddy. "Authorities tend to expedite animal fighting cases because while the investigation is pending the local authorities are burdened with the costs of taking care of these animals. These bills can rack up to tens of thousands easily. From what I heard, this particular one already has."

The dogs are spread out around the area, with several housed at the Surry pound. Sometimes dogs seized from dogfighters are stolen from pounds, while most are euthanized. If convicted by the state, Vick could face up to five years in prison and a fine of $2,500. If USDA investigators can prove that Vick was involved in transporting, buying or selling dogs between states, the star would be subject to a fine of $15,000 and a maximum sentence of one year in prison for each violation he is guilty of, according to Eddy.

Last Monday, Poindexter said he did not yet have one report from his investigators on the case. But among the many folders that sat on Poindexter's wooden desk was a complimentary copy of an AirTran magazine that featured Vick on the cover. Poindexter says he picked it up on a flight from Atlanta last Christmas and never read it. Since the investigations could last months, Poindexter may have plenty of time to read about Vick and to see what all the fuss is about.

"All this attention is because of (Vick's) celebrity status," Poindexter says with a laugh. "(It's almost as if) that puts him in the category of Paris Hilton or Lindsay Lohan."