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Couple sentenced in Tampa dogfighting case

Maurice Bayless and girlfriend Celena Brantley were sentenced Friday. Investigators confiscated scared and malnourished dogs from Bayless’ South Tampa home in April 2008.

SKIP O’ROURKE | Times

Maurice Bayless and girlfriend Celena Brantley were sentenced Friday. Investigators confiscated scared and malnourished dogs from Bayless’ South Tampa home in April 2008.

TAMPA — Maurice Bayless maintained he was the leader of the pack, looking out for his 11 dogs and eight puppies.

But a jury convicted him of owning dogs for fighting.

At his sentencing Friday, Bayless, 49, first apologized to his girlfriend, Celena Brantley, calling her "an innocent girl caught up in all of this." She, too, had been convicted.

He then referenced his adult pit bulls, long since euthanized by Animal Services.

"I'd like to apologize to my dogs," Bayless said. "I did love my dogs. But they're all gone. I did fail them."

They were confiscated at Bayless' South Tampa home off Interbay Boulevard in April 2008, flea bitten and malnourished. Their scars spoke to investigators, who found weighted collars, vests, scales, syringes, scalpels, sutures, needles, steroids and what appeared to be dogfighting records dating back several years.

Investigators had been aware of Bayless for more than a decade. He had a tattoo of a dog on his arm that said "scratch to win" and had named his setup "Going Hard Kennels." Hillsborough County Animal Services investigator K.A. Vetzel said Bayless had flown all over the world to fight dogs.

In court Friday, Bayless stated that he was a Marine, having served between 1979 and 1983, and could take the punishment he was given.

But then his speech of repentance turned into a defense.

He told the judge the dogs had previously been abused. He was nursing them back to health. He never fought them, he said.

A home video jurors had seen with pit bulls lunging violently at each other was misinterpreted, he said.

"I don't want them to fight," he said. "I'm a pack leader and that was my family."

Hillsborough County Circuit Judge William Fuente didn't believe him, sentencing Bayless to 30 months in prison and 30 months of probation.

He had been convicted in December of one felony count of owning animals for the purpose of fighting and three counts of drug possession.

"It is obvious that what was taking place at that residence was dogs being bred for the purpose of fighting," the judge said.

Brantley, 36, received a year in jail and four years of probation.

She had been convicted in 2009 of four counts of owning animals for the purpose of fighting, one count of owning equipment for dog fighting, one count of promoting dog fighting and one count of possessing drug paraphernalia.

She was the first woman convicted of dogfighting in the United States, according to Hillsborough County Animal Services spokeswoman Marti Ryan.

At the sentencing, Brantley said just a few words.

"I can be a productive part of society," she said.

Fuente sentenced both defendants to less than what a prosecutor had urged.

He had weighed Brantley's minor role in the kennel and Bayless' military record to their benefit.

But he said they will never be allowed to own dogs again.

Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or jgeorge@sptimes.com.

Couple sentenced in Tampa dogfighting case 01/07/11 [Last modified: Saturday, January 8, 2011 12:00am]

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