Public Enemy Number One

Street-fighting dogs: Inside the world of the much-abused, ever-maligned pit bull

At 10:48 on a late August night in 2003, a dispatcher at the Chisago County Sheriff's Department received a panicky phone call. The woman, who refused to identify herself, said she was in fear for her life. After that, the line went dead. The call was traced to a rural property in Sunrise Township, a remote spot wedged between Interstate 35 and the St. Croix Wild River State Park, some 50 miles north of the Twin Cities. The first three deputies at the scene noted a suspiciously large cluster of cars parked along the quarter-mile driveway leading to the main residence. Immediately, one of the deputies called for backup from the North Branch Police Department. The assembled clutch of officers then made their way to the main residence. Outside the house, there were three chained, agitated dogs—two Rottweilers and a pit bull. Cautiously circling the wooded lot, the investigators walked up to a large pole barn. Through an open door, they could see a crowd of 50 to 75 people. There was cheering and repeated shouts of "Get him! Get him!" As one deputy later put it: "We backed off and requested assistance from further law enforcement as we still didn't know what was going on."

Not long afterward, Steve Pouti, a supervisor with the sheriff's department, drove up from Taylors Falls. Outside the main residence, according to Pouti's report, he encountered a man who identified himself as the homeowner, 59-year-old Tommie Lee McClellan. McClellan claimed to have no idea what was happening in his barn. Pouti then told McClellan about the phone call from the woman who said her life was in danger and asked for permission to enter the pole barn to investigate. McClellan agreed, according to the report, and so, with guns drawn, Pouti and eight other cops entered the barn. After announcing their presence, they witnessed a spectacle few police officers, humane investigators, or other outsiders ever see: an organized dogfight.

"I was pretty shocked," Pouti recalls. "And the people around the fighting ring were shocked too, because they had no idea law enforcement was around. They were all just totally fixated on the fight." At the order of the cops, most of the spectators dropped to the ground, where they were placed in plastic flex cuffs. About a dozen people, meanwhile, crawled through a gap under a sliding door and fled into the woods. Most were captured or surrendered in the following hours. The two dogs in the makeshift pit were oblivious to all the commotion. Like any game dog (in the parlance of the dogman, "gameness" refers to lust for battle), the two pits remained locked in combat. It was, Pouti recalls, somewhat eerie. "They weren't making any noise. They were just chewing on each other like little machines," he says. "At that point, I asked whose dogs they were. Of course, nobody would answer. So I told the homeowner to separate the dogs. He said 'They're not my dogs.' I said, 'I don't care. Separate them.' So basically, he just went in there and kicked them apart." After that, the bloodied dogs were taken into custody by Chisago Lakes Animal Control. And as is almost always the case when authorities gain custody of pit bulls known to have been used for fighting, the animals were soon put to death.

Mike Mosedale

In the end, the investigators charged two men at the scene with felony animal fighting: a 49-year-old Minneapolis resident named Neal Burton, who admitted to owning one of the combatants, and the property owner, McClellan. To this day, McClellan insists he didn't know what was going on in his pole barn that night and that he has no interest in dogfighting. "I don't know anything about that world myself. I'm really just a coon hunter," he offers by way of explanation. "But I ran into some guys, they seemed to be pretty nice guys, and they said they wanted to come up to exercise their dogs. So I just got caught in some bull crap that I shouldn't have been involved in and, man, I paid the price."

Investigators were never able to locate the owner of the other combatant dog or discover anything about his identity aside from his moniker: "Rat." (Nor did they ever solve the mystery of the initial 911 call from the frightened woman.) Still, by the standards of dogfighting investigations in Minnesota, the Chisago County case was a colossal success, resulting in two felony convictions—Burton and McClellan were each fined $500 and placed on five years' probation—and 39 misdemeanor citations for attending a dogfight. In the past decade, there have been just 64 animal-fighting convictions in Minnesota. But those modest numbers have less to do with the popularity of the practice than the inherent difficulty of penetrating an insular, secretive subculture. When police do stumble onto a dog case, it's usually the product of either pure luck or a separate investigation, into drugs, loud parties, or—as in the Sunrise Township case—a domestic violence call.

Cruising the streets of north Minneapolis in his Crown Victoria, Keith Streff looks like a cop out of central casting. He's a fit, middle-aged white guy. Short-cropped hair. Square jaw. He wears a brown and tan uniform with a gold badge and a sidearm. On this pleasant autumnal day, he's on the prowl for signs of fighting dogs. As he rolls down a side street in the Jordan neighborhood, he spots three hard-looking black kids. There are no dogs in sight, but one of the kids is puffing on a joint. With a crease of a smile, Streff pulls to the curb. "Want to jack these guys up?" he asks, before rolling down the passenger window and shouting out: "Hey, you shouldn't smoke in the street." The kid looks surprised, sizes up Streff's colors, and appears to swallow the roach. Only then does he seem to take note of the fact that whoever Streff is, he's not a Minneapolis cop. His expression flattens and he says, "Okay." Streff appears amused.

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