LARGO — Five pit bulls, some with scars on their faces and legs, were found without water in wooden crates in the back yard of a house near Largo. Investigators say the discovery of the dogs and a variety of dogfighting equipment led them to arrest a 39-year-old man Tuesday on a felony charge of dogfighting — a rare arrest in Pinellas County.
The dogfighting items were found at 11745 126th Ter. N in the unincorporated Baskins area when detectives searched the house for illegal drugs Monday night, according to the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office. Detectives returned with a new warrant Tuesday morning.
Michael J. Hearns, 39, is charged with five counts of animal cruelty, three counts of being a felon in possession of a firearm, and one count of possession of a structure for trafficking in cocaine.
Among the items found: a treadmill rigged with wooden boards on the sides to keep the dogs on the device. Sheriff's spokeswoman Cecilia Barreda said she was told that canines used in dogfighting are chained on those treadmills for one or two hours at a time.
Deputies also found a pen used for dogfighting as well as a book, Cajun Rules, which lists rules for dogfighting.
"I understand that there's some blood on some of these items," said Barreda, eyeing the equipment as investigators pulled it onto the lawn.
Dogfighting charges in Pinellas County are highly unusual, said Brent Bardell, director of humane care and facilities for SPCA Tampa Bay. He thinks dogfighting may be common in Pinellas, although he's not aware of any major arrests here. He's hoping news about this case will raise awareness.
Pinellas-Pasco Chief Assistant State Attorney Bruce Bartlett doesn't recall any prosecutions for dogfighting in the county in recent years, either. "Not to say there haven't been any in the distant past," he said. "But I don't remember any here."
At the scene of the investigation, many of Hearns' neighbors were reluctant to talk to reporters. But Cindy Brown, who lives a couple of streets away, was upset.
"It's so sad to know that kind of stuff would be happening in our neighborhood," said Brown, who has a pit bull of her own named Bootsie.
Johnny Watson, who lives down the street, was chatting with his neighbor, Yvonne Green, as investigators combed Hearns' home. They found it hard to believe that their neighbor would be involved in such a bloody sport. Green added that, if it was true, she was surprised he would be so brazen to do it in such a populated area.
"I don't think anybody would be so brave to do something right here," Green said.
Authorities haven't determined where the dogfighting took place, Barreda said, but a deputy told her that the equipment indicated it was possible that some of the fighting took place at the home.
A couple of weeks ago, deputies made drug-related arrests at a house nearby and found animals in that home, Barreda said. There were no animal cruelty or animal fighting charges then, but there were some associations between the two cases, she said.
Hearns, who also uses the last name Lang, has an arrest record that traces back to 1991. He has previously been arrested on charges of cocaine possession and driving with a suspended or revoked license, state records show.
On Tuesday night, he was being held in lieu of $182,500 bail at Pinellas County Jail.
Deputies say they found 2 ounces of crack cocaine at the house as well as three guns, one of which is stolen.
Early Tuesday, the five American pitbull terriers were under medical and behavioral evaluation, said the SPCA's Bardell.
After that, Bardell said, "We can evaluate them for adoption."
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Lorri Helfand can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4155.