MACON, Ga. (CN) — A dogfighting trainer and breeder from Suwanee, Georgia, was sentenced to five years in prison on Wednesday for his role in what prosecutors called a large multistate dogfighting and cocaine trafficking ring.
Vernon Vegas, 49, was given the statutory maximum sentencing after pleading guilty last September to conspiracy to participate in an animal fighting venture. U.S. District Judge Tilman E. "Tripp" Self III also sentenced Vegas to three years of supervised release following his imprisonment and ordered him to forfeit $116,819 in seized cash and pay a $10,000 fine.
Eleven people, including Vegas, were indicted on federal charges a year ago after a law enforcement investigation into a criminal organization involved in both cocaine distribution and organized dogfighting, which operated across North Georgia, Florida and Alabama from May 2019 until February 2020.
Vegas operated Cane Valley Kennels in Roberta, Georgia, for nearly 24 years, breeding, selling and training dogs to fight.
“Vernon Vegas was the trainer to the trainers—he taught individuals about the bloody and brutal business of dog-fighting and worked to ensure it was thriving,” U.S. Attorney Peter D. Leary for the Middle District of Georgia said in a statement after Vegas pleaded guilty. “Dog fighting ventures are magnets for a multitude of dangerous criminal activity. Our office and law enforcement will not tolerate animal fighting or the crimes surrounding it; we will seek federal prosecution when warranted.”
Investigators discovered a multitude of training and conditioning equipment including slat mills, chains, a staple gun, hanging weight scales, break sticks, flirt poles and various medicines to treat injuries or disease sustained by dogs made to fight.
More than 150 dogs that were being used for fighting were seized in February 2020, after the investigation issued 15 residential search warrants.
“This case illustrates that dog-fighting is intimately connected with the underworld of drugs and organized crime, and that the Department of Justice will investigate and prosecute it to the fullest extent of the law,” said Assistant Attorney General Todd Kim of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division.
Prosecutors say Vegas along with co-conspirators including Derrick Owens and Christopher Raines attended dogfights where illegal gambling and drug dealing also regularly occur.
According to the New England Animal Control/Humane Academy, those involved in dogfighting are also highly likely to be convicted of violent crimes against humans, up to and including homicide.
The deadly business of dogfighting not only kills an estimate of 16,000 dogs each year, but also damages the children who grow up encountering it in their communities.
"Many communities report growing involvement of juvenile offenders in dogfighting, often as a part of gang involvement. The sense of power and control gained from having an aggressive dog, as well as the potential financial gain, can lure juveniles into an underground scene that often includes other criminal activities," the academy said.
While dogfighting has been outlawed in all states since 1976, a federal law against it was passed by Congress until 2007.
“Our office, working alongside local, state and federal law enforcement, will hold individuals and groups that participate in illegal dog-fighting accountable for their crimes," Leary said Wednesday.