Both sides declare victory in local dogfighting case
Both sides declared victory Monday after a Ramona man was ordered to stand trial on a felony charge of possession of a pit bull for dogfighting and a misdemeanor count of failure to obtain a dog kennel license.
Judge William McGrath dismissed four charges at the preliminary hearing in El Cajon Superior Court that alleged that Raul A. Leyva, 34, mistreated dogs, failed to obtain a dog license, failure to vaccinate a dog against rabies and failure to affix a dog license to a collar.
“It’s a big victory getting four of those six charges dismissed,” said attorney Vikas Bajaj, who represents Leyva.
Bajaj said he will soon file a motion to dismiss the other charges. Leyva remains free on his own recognizance on condition he not possess any animals.
Deputy District Attorney John Pro said the judge ordered Leyva to stand trial on the lone felony charge, which carries a three-year prison term. Pro said he would probably not refile the dismissed charges, all of which were misdemeanors.
County animal control officers found 10 pit bulls on Leyva’s property on Boundary Avenue in Ramona on May 14, 2008. Leyva was not at home at the time, said Kathy Conwell, who has worked for the county’s department of animal services for 22 years.
County officials seized the dogs and equipment, and took photos of the kennel Leyva had. Conwell said two treadmills were found that “were made for dogs specifically.” She said treadmills “are used for conditioning a dog” to fight.
Conwell testified the dogs themselves “were very friendly” to humans, but were aggressive to any other dogs.
“They would lunge, pull at the leash,” she said.
Conwell said animal officers found vitamins for dogs, syringes and cotton balls, which would be used to treat injuries. She testified about finding photos of two pit bulls fighting, but she said it looked like the photos were taken in Mexico.
Conwell described injuries to the dogs that included multiple puncture wounds to the head, neck and legs with scarring. She described a carpet that included stains that could be from dog blood.
The animal control officer told McGrath she first visited Leyva’s property on Jan. 4, 2008, after neighbors had complained about dogs barking at 10 p.m. and at 7 a.m.
Eric Sakach, who represents the Humane Society, testified “all of these things together” show that the dogs were used for fighting.
“This person is heavily involved in raising dogs for dogfighting,” said Sakach.
Since the county euthanized all 10 animals, the witnesses had to look at photos taken after they were seized. Bajaj fought the district attorney’s office for months in opposition to kill the dogs, but a judge eventually signed an order to euthanize them. The dogs were allegedly used for dogfighting, which made them unsuitable for adoption, according to the district attorney’s office.
There were no witnesses presented who had ever seen a dog fight on Leyva’s property. Conwell and Sakach testified about photographs of the dogs and equipment found on the property, but Leyva’s lawyer argued this was only circumstantial evidence. Sakach said he didn’t see the dogs before they were put to death.
Conwell said money is wagered during dog fights, but investigators did not find any cash on the property. She said Leyva had never applied for a license for a kennel, and she could not find any records of any rabies vaccinations.
An expert witness called by the defense, Richard Stratton, told the judge “I don’t see any evidence the dogs were being held for a dog fight.”
Stratton said the carpeting stains “could be from a number of things” and didn’t prove it was from a dog fight. He said the neighbors’ complaints of barking could come from anticipation of being fed.
Stratton said he wasn’t able to examine the dogs because “they were euthanized by the state” and had to rely on photographs. He said Leyva has won ribbons and awards for his dogs in dog shows.
Pro told the judge “these dogs were possessed to fight” and the proof comes with the specialized equipment such as treadmills, dog vitamins, the soiled carpet, “and the way the dogs were kept.”
Bajaj argued there was “an utter lack of…proof” and “lack of reliable evidence” to bind Leyva over for trial.
McGrath said the evidence was indirect and circumstantial, but was sufficient to order a trial on two counts. He ordered Leyva to next appear in court on Oct. 13 to set a trial date. Leyva has pleaded not guilty.
Conwell testified she found a “weighted dog collar” that would bring strength to the dog, and other heavy harnesses were found to help build up the dog for strength. She said a “breaking stick” was found on the property and it was used to stick inside a dog’s mouth to separate dogs from fighting. She said bite marks were found on the stick.
Sakach disagreed with Conwell’s description of the “breaking stick.” He said the stick was “way too long” for it to be useful to separate dogs. Conwell testified it appeared to be a part of an old broom handle.
Sakach said dogfighting often occurs on carpeting because the dogs’ blood and other fluids would turn into mud if it occurred on the ground.
Stratton said the treadmills found on the property could have been used by people. He said some of the dogs in the photos appeared to be too light to be used for fighting.
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