Authorities have seized 34 dogs from Foxworth that are suspected of being involved in dog fighting, although the owner says it is a legitimate breeding operation.
A mobile home fire on May 14, allegedly arson, preceded discovery of the animals at 974 Pickwick Road.
A family dispute over the dogs led to the fire at the mobile home, according to Marion County Chief Deputy Jamie Singley.
Lonnell Pittman wanted the dogs moved, but his nephew Daron Lee, owner of the dogs, wanted to keep them at the current location, according to Danielle Barber of the Columbia Animal Control and Rescue Center. Pittman was allegedly in the process of moving into the trailer that his nephew is accused of setting on fire.
Lee, 24, 1518 Barnes St., Columbia, has been charged with arson of a dwelling - first degree, which is a felony.
Pittman, 55, 974 Pickwick Road, Foxworth, is facing five counts of animal cruelty for allegedly setting some of the dogs loose to allow them to fight at the same location, according to an incident report.
Lee was arrested May 14 and was released on $45,000 bond. Pittman, who was also arrested on May 14, posted a $2,500 bond. The arson charge can bring five to 20 years in jail plus restitution. Animal cruelty is a misdemeanor and carries a fine up to $2,500 or up to six months in jail.
Lee said in a phone interview Monday that he was a dog breeder and has been breeding dogs since he was in middle school.
“The dogs are perfectly healthy,” Lee said.
He said his late grandmother gave him permission five years ago to put the dogs out there and that he visits daily to make sure the animals have food and water.
However, court documents and an interview with an animal control officer paint a different picture.
An affidavit Barber filed in Marion County Justice Court said none of the animals appeared to have adequate food and water. She said shelter was provided by plastic barrels and dogs were restrained by heavy chains.
The affidavit said Devon Lee, brother of Daron Lee, told officers they showed the dogs, but Barber said none of the animals on the property met show dog criteria.
“All dogs are very thin, very scarred, and are far from show dog quality,” the affidavit says. “The dogs on the property appear to be fight dogs, bait dogs, and pups who will end up in an inhumane lifestyle.”
The affidavit stated that Devon Lee said he owns the puppies and that his brother Daron Lee owns the adults.
Authorities from the Columbia Animal Control and Rescue Center and Marion County Sheriff’s Office on May 14 initially took six of the dogs that appeared to be the most injured. Barber’s affidavit described the condition of each of them, detailing problems like scarring, lacerations and swelling.
Justice Court Judge Gwen Broom issued a seizure order Friday allowing the Columbia Police Department, which oversees the animal shelter, to take custody of the remaining dogs. Officials returned Monday and got the animals.
State law gives the owner of seized animals five days from the seizure to request a court hearing to determine whether the owner is fit to have custody of the animals. If the owner does not, the shelter will take possession of the animals. As long as ownership of the dogs is in limbo, the dogs cannot receive proper medical care for injuries, Barber said.
The dogs have some injuries that are old and new, according to Barber. She said one dog had a hole in his neck and a severe genital laceration. Some dogs had neck injuries, possibly from wearing spike collars, Barber said. Most of the adult dogs had severe scarring on their faces and bodies, and some could have broken bones, she said. One dog was blind in an eye.
Barber also said it appeared evident there was a lot of inbreeding and that it did not look like the dogs were fed on a regular schedule.
Yet, “most of the dogs have the sweetest demeanor,” she said.
The affidavit said a ring made out of plastic pallets was found. The department was told it was a maternity ring. There were puppies on the property, but they were housed in what appears to be a rabbit pen with their mother, the affidavit said. Also found on the property was a running wheel located in a shed on the property.
“It has been told to us that gunpowder was added to the dogs food, to make them more aggressive because of the pain. Gunpowder eats the lining of the stomach which causes pain,” according to the affidavit.
Rochelle Pittman, who lives in the brick home in front of the trailer, said Monday he had no idea there were that many dogs in the woods behind him. The dogs were all on chains spread throughout the woods behind the burned trailer.
Lonnell Pittman told a sheriff’s deputy the dogs were fighting dogs, according to an incident report.
Daron Lee said Monday that authorities did not give him a proper cause for why they took the dogs.
After the death of his grandmother, whom Lee said had given permission to put the dogs on the family property, Lee said his uncle wanted to move on the land and that started all of the commotion.