MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — An Alabama who organized dog fights where participants often bet $100,000 or more on a single deadly match was sentenced Friday to eight years in prison, four times longer than the penalty for NFL quarterback Michael Vick.
U.S. District Judge Keith Watkins ordered the sentence for 50-year-old Donnie Anderson of Auburn while six TV screens in Watkins' courtrooms showed a picture of a female pit bull that died from injuries in one of Anderson's fights in east Alabama.
Anderson is among 15 people arrested during a four-year investigation of high-stakes dog fights in east Alabama and north Mississippi.
The judge called Anderson "the godfather of this conspiracy" and gave him the harshest sentence yet of six people who have pleaded guilty. The other five were sentenced earlier this week to six months to five years. The judge said Anderson deserved longer because he pleaded guilty to more charges than anyone, had staged dog fights for many years, and had shown extraordinary cruelty to the animals.
Investigators raided Anderson's home in Auburn and wooded property in Waverly in August 2013, seizing 126 dogs. Some of the pregnant dogs later had 21 puppies. Many of the dogs were underfed and had serious health problems. The judge said that of the 147 dogs, five were in such bad shape that they died and 73 had to be euthanized.
Investigators took custody of 451 dogs from all defendants in the case, and about half either died or had to be put down because of health problems, the judge said.
Tim Rickey, who has participated in many dog fighting investigations around the country, said this case was the second largest seizure of pit bulls in U.S. history and has helped educate the public about dog fighting.
"Society is catching up to how horrific this crime is and how much other criminal activity is usually associated with dog fighting," said Rickey, vice president for field investigations with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
Anderson pleaded guilty in April to one count of conspiracy, four counts of sponsoring dog fights, one count of possessing a fighting dog, and one count of operating an illegal gambling business.
Anderson's sentence is four times the 23-month sentence that Vick got in 2007 for dog fighting, which he has finished serving.
During the sentencing hearing Friday, the judge used the courtroom TVs to display photos of thin, ill pit bulls seized from Anderson and said "most people would be shocked beyond belief" by the conditions.
Cooperating witnesses in the case testified at a hearing last week that Anderson's fights usually attracted 100 to 300 people who paid $100 to $150 each to attend. They brought large sums of cash and $100,000 or more was often bet on a single fight. They also said many participants were armed, and illegal drug sales were common.
Anderson chose not to address the judge during the sentencing hearing, but his attorney, Laronda Martin, said Anderson was trying to supplement his salary as a truck driver and was remorseful. She noted that an eight-year sentence was longer than the penalties handed down in other prominent dog-fighting cases, including Vick's.
In addition to the prison sentence, the judge ordered Anderson to spend three years on supervised release upon his release from prison and banned him from owning dogs during that time.