SEFFNER — It started with an anonymous call: Follow a sandy trail through a remote acreage to find a clandestine and illegal operation.
Investigators followed that trail. And what they found astounded them.
A man who lives on the property acknowledged running illegal dogfights for 20 years, authorities said. And he said that more than 100 dogs had been buried there over the years.
He said investigators were standing in a dog cemetery, authorities said.
Vannie Franklin, 55, of 6846 Stark Road, was arrested Tuesday on felony charges of animal cruelty, baiting animals and owning property for animal fighting. He was being held in the Hillsborough County Jail on $57,500 bail.
Also arrested on the property was Russell Franklin, 41, of Thonotosassa on felony charges of animal cruelty, baiting animals and owning property for animal fighting. He was being held on $14,000 bail.
Hillsborough County officials said they found seven wounded and chained pit bulls on Vannie Franklin's property — along with a skull, headless body and various other bones of dogs.
"He openly admitted that he had been fighting dogs and burying dogs for a long period of time," said Marti Ryan, the spokeswoman for Hillsborough County Animal Services.
One of the dogs they found, a female named China, was bound with a 27-pound chain, Ryan said. Investigators dubbed another dog "Rudolph" because of a bleeding wound on his nose.
The seven dogs are in county custody and were receiving medical treatment, Ryan said.
Investigators said that, in all, they found more than 80 pounds of dog chains on the property.
The area in Seffner was so heavily wooded it was difficult for investigators to drive to, Ryan said.
"It's been going on for a long time, and no one would have known," she said.
While they were searching the property, investigators said they also found cocaine, marijuana and guns.
Vannie Franklin has been arrested several times over the last 20 years, records from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement show. Charges of felony marijuana production, sexual assault and kidnapping were dismissed, records show. He was convicted of a charge of carrying a concealed weapon, the records show.
Ryan said the dogfighting operation is certainly one of the most unusual uncovered in Hillsborough, given the specificity of the anonymous tip and Franklin's seemingly unapologetic admission.
"That to me is shocking, more shocking than just the dogs we found," Ryan said.