Dogs of War

By Nelson Taylor | Boston Magazine |

Two camouflage-clad officers lock their binoculars on the house. High-powered rifles dangle at their sides. When 33-year-old Christopher DeVito slams the back door and steps into the driver's seat of his Dodge Ram pickup truck, they radio in to give Police Chief Rick Labell the heads-up.

DeVito — 5-foot-6, 190 pounds, thinning hair, large ears, eyes low on the structure of his face — reverses out of the driveway. Home this cold, clear Monday because he's on disability leave from his job as a computer technician at Harvard, he's on the way to what he thinks is a routine appointment with the chief himself. But when DeVito swings open the door of the police station, Labell arrests him. “You've got this all wrong, Chief!” he exclaims.

The biggest investigation of Labell's career is careening toward its end after three months of gathering evidence, and it doesn't need any unforeseen complications. And without DeVito there, the search of 37 Williamine Drive in Newton, New Hampshire, a small town near the Massachusetts border, goes off without a hitch. While one officer stays with the housekeeper and DeVito's mother-in-law, Labell finds a duffle bag in the bedroom closet, and gives it a kick. It's strangely heavy. Inside, Labell finds cash, gobs of it, more than $290,000, banded in $5,000 bundles, according to court records. It's a discovery he didn't expect to make.

What he did expect to find is out back in a Quonset hut. The 200-foot-long metal structure looks like it belongs on an airfield rather than in this wooded backyard. Inside are thirty cages, 6 feet by 4 feet, each occupied by a chained pit bull. There are 37 dogs in all, including some chained outside. Twenty-one show varying degrees of scarring, healing wounds. One has a badly deformed leg, possibly from another pit bull's bone-crushing jaws.

In the Quonset hut, Scott Giacoppa, a law enforcement officer with the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, begins to identify the tools of dogfighting, an activity on the rise in New England. He catalogs an operating table, a full box of the steroid Stanol-V, hypodermic needles, bodybuilding supplements, and two homemade treadmills. In the garage next door is a 12-foot-by-12-foot arena; blood smears the carpet and arena walls. Giacoppa points out other evidence: a handled piece of tapered wood used to pry open locked jaws, and a garage door spring used to strengthen a dog's jaws and back legs. There is also what police later describe as a collapsible dogfighting arena. It's turning out to be the biggest raid of its kind on the East Coast in two decades. “You don't stumble onto professional dogfighting very often,” Giacoppa says. “It's so underground, so secretive, such a closed, high-stakes society.”

It's certainly not something you'd expect to find on the grounds of a pastoral suburban home smack in the middle of the old-fashioned American dream.

Dogfighting is pure blood sport, two highly trained pit bulls doing gory battle. The dogs are usually American pit bull terriers, age-old descendants of the deadly bulldogs bred to bring down cattle in the English game of bull-baiting. When that was outlawed in the early 1800s, pitting the dogs against each other took the torch.

In Massachusetts the state dog, the Boston terrier, was originally bred for dogfighting when, in 1865, a man named Robert Hooper bought a dog named Judge, part English bulldog, part English terrier, and mated it with a bulldog-type female named Gyp owned by Edward Burnett of Southborough.

While breeding is important, training is equally so. A morning meal might include four scoops of weight-gain drugs and two scoops of creatine monohydrate, which is used by bodybuilders. Several hours of exercise might follow. This could include time on a treadmill — not the health-club sort, but a homemade number, self-propelled by the dogs. In front of them, urging them on like Swifty at the greyhound races, are live cats, rabbits, or other small animals. The dogs are often rewarded with this bait. Or they might be worked on the jump pole, a huge garage door spring hung five feet off the ground and dangling a piece of raw meat. Jumping for this bait strengthens the back legs and jaws; pit bulls can break bones with their jaws.

While professional dogfights vary in size and scope, they're generally not much different from any other small sporting event. Inside might be venders selling food, drinks, and even the printed diets of known champions. Entry fees can be upwards of $500, and bets on individual fights are known to climb into the $100,000-plus range. Undercover investigators have reported seeing whole families with children in the audience. The Humane Society estimates that 40,000 people a year watch dogfights. The fine in Massachusetts for organizing a dogfight is up to five years in prison or a $1,000 fine; for watching, a month in jail or a $250 fine.

The injuries inflicted on the dogs are often fatal, including blood loss, shock, dehydration, and infection. Losers are often killed by their owners. Dead, discarded dogs have been found in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and pulled from the Androscoggin River in Maine, all with distinctive scars and open wounds. Officials think these dogs were used as part of a highly organized underground dogfighting circuit.

But dogfights don't occur only in rural areas. So many were reported in Boston in the early 1990s that a campaign called Operation Dogtag was organized by police and animal-control officers to stop them. Gangs, it seems, were holding dogfights in alleys, parks, and playgrounds.

Investigators who have infiltrated dogfights have gotten some on videotape. One tape shows a nondescript living room with all the furniture pushed out of the way and a large, crudely cut carpet covering the floor. Shown only from their waists down, the owners hold back their dogs by their collars. The dogs snarl, stiff on their back legs, eager to attack. “Game,” somebody shouts. The dogs leap, crashing in midair, teeth gnashing. They go for the neck, trying to find purchase, to pierce the skin. One locks his jaws and starts to shake its head furiously. This particular fight is broken up before real damage is done.

Chris DeVito was raised in Arlington and Belmont, but he itched to move on. He tried the Navy, then attended Suffolk University. He quit a couple of courses short of his bachelor's degree in electrical engineering, but DeVito's computer skills landed him a job as a technician in Harvard's office of administrative systems in 1997. It was the dotcom boom era, and DeVito did well, working his way up to a salary just shy of $50,000 by early 2000.

He moved from his home in West Roxbury to Newton, New Hampshire, where he built a house on a 12.5-acre plot of land. Popular with commuters to Boston, the small upper-middle-class town was booming. New neighborhoods of two- and three-story Colonials were cropping up everywhere, with the requisite sporty wagons in circular driveways and large yards decked out with jungle gyms and ticking sprinklers. DeVito's house didn't differ much from any of the others, aside from the menacing no trespassing sign out front.

The same year he moved, DeVito married a woman who landed a job as a Spanish teacher at Timberlane Regional High School. They landscaped the front yard with cut stones and beds of flowers. They bought two Volvo station wagons, and, after last September 11, they hung the star-spangled banner from the lamppost beside their mailbox. DeVito's life displayed all the hallmarks of the American dream.

But his dream seemed odd somehow. For one thing, he had a lot of money for somebody who said he was on disability leave; that landscaping in the yard alone cost $15,000, and he built a $100,000 two-story garage for his new cars and trucks. For another, he had a fascination with pit bulls, and kept 10 menacing barkers chained to 55-gallon drums in a clearing behind his house. “We moved away from the problems that come with living in a city,” says one neighbor. “Now here we were in a nice community with several acres and we wouldn't let our kids outside because of those dogs.”

The neighbors filed a formal complaint. DeVito agreed to have his dogs surgically “de-barked.” He also offered to build a soundproof shed — the Quonset hut — with blown-in foam insulation. It cost $70,000. “This is how much I love my dogs,” he told Labell.

The police chief thought there was more to it. “We knew that something could be going on down there,” he says, “but we still didn't have a lick of evidence to search the property.”

On January 9, Labell got what he needed. Robert Kemp had been hired by DeVito to help feed the dogs. But after just two days, DeVito fired him for asking too many questions. A police affidavit reports that, according to Kemp's girlfriend, DeVito vaguely threatened her “beautiful daughter.” On top of the abuse he witnessed — raw paws and missing tongues — Kemp told Labell enough about the dogs for authorities to get a search warrant and an arrest warrant for DeVito. And Labell moved in.

In the two weeks it took to catalog all the evidence seized in the January 14 raid, the dogs stayed at various animal shelters around New Hampshire and Massachusetts, their whereabouts kept secret since pit bulls are often stolen and returned to the arena. Too violent to be placed into homes, all of them were ultimately put down. Meanwhile, DeVito sat in jail, charged with 37 counts of animal cruelty, including exhibiting fighting animals, and one count of criminal threatening that was later dismissed.

But something even bigger bubbled beneath the surface. Todd Prough, a special agent for the Drug Enforcement Agency in Massachusetts, happened to catch a television interview with Labell. He phoned Labell immediately and said he'd heard from a dealer that DeVito was the point man in a major marijuana distribution ring. Prosecutors allege that DeVito was running a 500-pound-a-month pot operation out of his home, fetching an annual street value of more than $9 million. They also allege that he was laundering large amounts of cash through local banks and Labell suggested that he had a bank account in Gibraltar. This might have explained why he never posted the $125,000 bail after he was taken into custody. If he had, he would have had to disclose the money's source. “Animal fighting doesn't occur in a vacuum,” says Hillary Twining of the New England Humane Society. “It's very typical to find it happening in concurrence with other illegal activities.”

DeVito hired Michael Natola, a Boston attorney known for representing high-profile clients like Stephen “the Rifleman” Flemmi and the Hell's Angels of New England. Natola tried all the tricks, arguing, among other things, that no one had consented to the search of DeVito's property. He claims DeVito was breeding the dogs for sale, not to fight. “My personal belief is that, like an awful lot of law-enforcement people, I think Chief Labell watches too much TV,” Natola says. Asked about the $290,000 in the duffle bag, he says: “That's something I cannot comment on.”

In the end, DeVito copped a plea — guilty to 23 of 37 animal cruelty charges. In August, he appeared for sentencing at the Hillsborough County Courthouse in Manchester. Wearing a bright orange jumpsuit and white Adidas sneakers, and walking with a limp his lawyer says resulted from a car accident, DeVito oozed a punky confidence. He was ordered to spend between two and five years in state prison. Judge Gillian Abramson told him he was “the most publicly reviled defendant” she had ever encountered. The federal drug and money-laundering charges are still pending.

The residents of Williamine Drive thought the sentence was too lenient. But the fact that the case concluded with a fairly strong sentence sets a powerful precedent in the still new world of dogfighting convictions. While dogfighting is illegal in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, and a felony in 46, it can be hard to get a conviction, especially one based on such circumstantial evidence; after all, no one ever said that they had witnessed dogfights at DeVito's house, and the neighbors — who certainly would have noticed — don't remember seeing large groups of people coming there.

More than anything, the case exposed the scope of dogfighting itself — and the fact that it occurs not only in urban alleys and rural backwaters but also in highbrow New England neighborhoods. Since DeVito's arrest, the flowers in front of 37 Williamine Drive have gone limp and hornets have built nests under the eaves of the roof. Yet local residents, wanting to keep up the appearance of innocent suburbia, have taken turns mowing the lawn. “I don't think anyone has lost the ability to trust our neighbors because of this,” one Newton resident says. But they hope the house can be sold soon to another family. “They don't have to be our best friends, but being friendly — and legal — would be a nice change.”