by Jule Hubbard
Authorities arrested three people on one count each of felony dog fighting and baiting at their homes on Mertie Road in Millers Creek Wednesday and spent most of that rainy day hauling away 127 pit bull dogs from nearby Wildside Kennels with assistance of animal control officials from Wilkes and Mecklenburg counties.
The arrests of Edward Anthony Faron, 61, Donni "Don" Juan Casanova, 18, and Amanda Grace Lunsford, 25, culminated an investigation of a suspected dog fighting operation by the Wilkes Sheriff's Department, Wilkes County Animal Control and the Humane Society of the U.S. that began over three years ago. Authorities identified Faron as Wildside Kennels' owner.
All three were released from custody later Wednesday under secured bonds of $2,500 each. Authorities said additional charges are pending and are being cautious about releasing details due to the nature of the case.
Law enforcement officials said the investigation led them to believe Faron was one of the nation’s largest breeders of pit bulls used for fighting for 10 to 15 years.
Wilkes Sheriff Dane Mastin said the charges resulted from evidence gathered during the three-year investigation, including through undercover work.
Mastin said the charges were filed under a section of a state dog fighting statute that makes it illegal to possess or provide dogs for dog fighting. “Baiting” refers to harassing a tethered animal.
If convicted, the people charged could be sentenced to between four and 10 months in prison.
He said authorities have no evidence indicating organized dog fighting occurred on or near the Wildside Kennels property.
Mastin said investigators found documents, photos and paraphernalia pertaining to dog fighting while searching Wednesday. He said scars on some of the dogs seized were consistent with dog fighting.
Chief Deputy Chris Shew said about a dozen people, including Wilkes Sheriff’s Department officers, went to Faron’s doublewide mobile home and the nearby mobile home of Casanova and Ms. Lunsford in two teams with search warrants about 7:30 a.m. Wednesday. Shew said the suspects were there as the homes were searched and didn’t resist.
Shew said some of the 127 pit bulls were in the kennel’s fenced enclosure and others were chained to stakes near dog houses in nearby woods. About half of the dogs were puppies.
Faron was convicted of dog fighting in Alamance County in 1989 and was described in a Humane Society of the U.S. press release as a known “breeder of pit bull bloodlines that have a strong following in the criminal underground of dogfighting nationwide.”
A book he co-authored, called “The Complete Gamedog—A Guide to Breeding and Raising the American Pit Bull Terrier,” has graphic accounts (identified as fictional) of injuries inflicted or suffered by dogs used for fighting.
Wilkes Animal Control Director Junior Simmons, involved with the case for about 17 hours Wednesday, said he didn’t know of any larger seizure of dogs as part of a dog fighting investigation than the one on Wednesday. Humane Society of the U.S. officials said it was among the largest.
Three of the county’s five other animal control officers were also on the scene.
Simmons said the 127 pit bulls were taken away with help of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Animal Control personnel with four vans. A tractor-trailer belonging to the Humane Society of the U.S. also was used to transport dogs.
He said the pit bulls were being kept as evidence at an undisclosed location until the completion of court proceedings in the case, with a goal of moving through court as rapidly as possible.
“If the state wins the case, the dogs will be euthanized, as called for under the county’s Animal Control Ordinance, based on the dogs being trained and used for fighting,” he said, adding that the dogs were therefore considered dangerous.
The pit bulls weren’t taken to the Wilkes Animal Control Shelter in Wilkesboro, which only has capacity for about 60 dogs. Citing concerns about possible action by animal rights groups or other security issues, Simmons and other officials wouldn’t say where the dogs were being kept.
Simmons said a person called his office several years ago with a complaint about Faron raising dogs used for fighting all over the nation.
“We went to the property and talked to him in 2003. It was very unusual to see over 100 pit bulls on the same property. While we were looking at ways to find out more, the Humane Society of the United States called us and wanted to discuss it about three years ago,” he said.
Authorities said preparations for Wednesday’s search included prior consultation with the local district attorney’s office, County Attorney Tony Triplett and Commissioner Charles Sink, before Commissioner Zach Henderson replaced Sink as chairman.
Chris Schindler, deputy manager of animal fighting law enforcement for the Humane Society of the U.S., recently told authorities here that a connection between Wilkes and dog fighting in Georgia had been uncovered.
Schindler said he was impressed by the work of the Wilkes Sheriff’s Department and Wilkes Animal Control Department. “Those guys did a great job…. It was a very successful raid and should have a rippling effect on other people doing this kind of crime,” he added.
He said Dr. Melinda Merck, forensic veterinarian and leader of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals’ Crime Scene Investigation Unit, assisted with the raid and evaluated the seized dogs for evidence of dog fighting
He said his organization offers a $5,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of people involved in animal fighting, which is made possible through a grant from the Holland M. Ware Charitable Foundation.
Schindler said availability of this reward, investigative efforts and difficult economic conditions combined to reduce the size and number of organized dog fights recently, but that they still occurred.