By Lisa Wade McCormick

July 10, 2009
Federal authorities have filed additional charges--and rescued hundreds of more dogs--in connection with Wednesday's multistate busts of dog fighting rings.

Gruesome details of these barbaric contests and the treatment of the dogs continue to surface in this investigation, which the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) calls the "largest simultaneous raid of multiple dogfighting operations" in the country's history.

In this massive crackdown--triggered by a Humane Society of Missouri investigation--authorities have now charged 26 people for their roles in conspiracy to promote and participate in illegal dog fights and rescued more than 350 dogs in Missouri, Illinois, Iowa, Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas.

Most of the dogs rescued from this vicious blood sport are Pit Bull Terriers.

"Dog fighting inflicts serious injuries and death upon dogs that are bred and trained to be dangerously aggressive," said Matt Whitworth, Acting United States Attorney for the Western District of Missouri.

"Like many dog owners, I am appalled that such a cruel and inhumane activity occurs in our state. We will vigorously prosecute those who illegally practice this so-called sport."

The latest defendants charged in this investigation -- which included assistance from various federal and state law enforcement agencies -- were named in an indictment unsealed on Wednesday in the Western District of Missouri.

In that action, federal authorities charged seven people from Missouri, Iowa, and Nebraska, for their involvement in dog fighting operations and illegal gambling and bookmaking activities:

• Rick P. Hihath, 55, of St. Joseph, Missouri, who works for a state school for the handicapped;

• Cris E. Bottcher, 48, of Gilman City, Missouri, a registered nurse at Harrison County Community Hospital in Bethany, Missouri;

• Julio Reyes, 28, of Tecumseh, Nebraska;

• Jill D. Makstaller, 43, of Perry, Iowa;

• Zachary R. Connelly, 32, of Ogden, Iowa;

• Kevin P. Tasler, 51, of Jefferson, Iowa;

• Ryan J. Tasler, 42, of Woodward, Iowa, who works for the Madrid Community School District

The indictment alleges that from January 15 to May 8, 2009, the defendants participated in a conspiracy to travel across state lines to sponsor a dog in an animal fighting venture and participated in illegal gambling and bookmaking activities.

According to the indictment, the defendants "acquired, bred, and trained" Pit Bull Terriers for the purpose of entering them in animal fighting ventures, and then denied the dogs adequate and humane medical treatment for the injuries they suffered during the fights.

The indictment further alleges the defendants "routinely and inhumanely" destroyed dogs that became severely injured during the fights by shooting them in the head. The defendants then threw the carcasses in the river or burned them in a barrel, authorities allege.

The indictment also charges Hihath and Bottcher with two counts of sponsoring or exhibiting a Pit Bull Terrier in an animal fighting venture.

In addition, Makstaller, Reyes, Zachary Connelly, Ryan Tasler and Kevin Tasler are each charged with one count of transporting animals for participation in a dog fight.

In painstaking detail, the indictment cites dog fights that allegedly took place at Bottcher's farm in Gilman City, Missouri:

Two fights allegedly occurred on February, 28, 2009. Hihath fought a dog "Black Sheep" and Bottcher entered a dog named "Pope Joe" in the match fight. According to the indictment, Bottcher and Hihath built the dog fighting pit for the contest. Hihath refereed the match when Bottcher fought "Pope Joe." The two men also placed bets on the fight, the indictment alleges. Three dog fighters from central Iowa allegedly attended this fight: Kevin Tasler, Ryan Tasler and Connelly. The indictment also states that Ryan Tasler was the spongeman, meaning he provided sponges to the dogs handlers to wipe blood off the animals or cool them down during the fights;

On April 25, 2009, 12 roll fights allegedly occurred at Bottcher's farm. These are shorter fight between two dogs and are used to build the dogs' confidence and expose the animals to a variety of fighting styles, authorities said. Roll fights are viewed as a way to test younger dogs and usually dont involve gambling. According to the indictment, Bottcher held those fights in an outbuilding on the farm. Hihath allegedly promoted the fight and had at least two dogs in the contest. The indictment states that several dog fighters from Iowa attended and participated in the fight, including Kevin Tasler and Makstaller. Reyes, a dog fighter from Nebraska, also attended the fights and transported two dogs to participate in the contests. Hihath allegedly handled a dog in five of the 12 rolls, while Bottcher allegedly handled a dog in four of the rolls, the indictment states. At the end of the fight, Bottcher allegedly used a .22-caliber rifle to shoot and kill two dogs that fought in roll fights that night but did not perform to the owners expectations. According to the indictment, Bottcher shot each animal twice in the head and then placed the carcasses in plastic containers outside of the garage;

On May 8, 2009, two dog fights allegedly occurred. According to the indictment, Bottcher held the fights in an outbuilding and was the handler for his dog, "Pope Joe," for the first fight of the night. Hihath allegedly promoted the fights, handled the bet monies, and refereed the second fight. Bottcher and Hihath allegedly built the pit for the dog fight. Authorities said more than 13 dogs were seen on the Bottcher's property. Four dog fighters from Iowa--Connelly, Ryan Tasler, Kevin Tasler and Makstaller--attended the fights, according to the indictment. Connelly allegedly handled his dog, "Tommy," in the second fight that night. Markstaller refereed the first fight, the indictment states, and was the timekeeper for the second fight. Tasler was the timekeeper and spongeman for the first fight, according to the indictment. Reyes allegedly brought his dog from Nebraska and was the spongeman for the second fight. Bottcher, Hihath, Ryan Tasler, Kevin Tasler, Reyes, Connelly, and Makstaller allegedly placed bets during that fights.

These charges coincide with legal action authorities in the Eastern District Court of Missouri took on Wednesday against five men for their involvement in illegal dog fighting ventures.

"Forcing a dog to fight to its death is not a sport," said John V. Gillies, Special Agent in Charge of the St. Louis office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). "There is nothing respectable about encouraging two animals to torture and dismember each other. Individuals who participate in dog fighting claim to care for the animals, but they don't hesitate to electrocute their helpless dog once it loses a fight and can no longer provide any financial benefit."

If convicted, each of the defendants name in both cases face a maximum penalty of five years in prison and fines of up to $250,000 for each count.

Federal authorities also filed motions seeking legal ownership of all the dogs rescued and placing the animals in the care and custody of the Humane Society of Missouri.

"The Humane Society of Missouri provided initial information that led to this investigation," said Acting United States Attorney Michael Reap. "During the course of the investigation they also cared for animals involved when possible, and they are presently designated to provide continuing care for the seized dogs."

Animal behavior experts with the Humane Society of Missouri and other organizations will also evaluate each of the dogs rescued to see if they can be adopted.

Organized dogfighting is now a felony in all 50 states, according to the HSUS. But an estimated 40,000 people, HSUS officials said, still follow the barbaric dogfighting circuits across the U.S.--and an additional 100,000 meet on neighborhood streets, alleys and hideaways.

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