Pit bulls were trained to fight, killed if they didn’t, authorities said
By Kathleen Brady Shea, Managing Editor, The Times
A West Brandywine Township couple operated “a house of pain and horror” for dozens of pit bulls used in a multi-state, dog-fighting operation, authorities said Tuesday morning.
Even worse, said Chester County District Attorney Tom Hogan at a news conference, five young children lived in the home, which was equipped for breeding, training, fighting, and torturing up to 16 animals at a time.
When police executed a search warrant on Dec. 5, they found what Hogan termed “a full gladiator gym for dogs:” treadmills for endurance training, tools to incite biting, steroidal medicine “to amp up their savagery,” a noose used to hang a dog that bit one of the children, and a blood-splattered basement arena for staging the fights.
Hogan said Shane L. Santiago, 33, and his wife, Laura Ann Acampora, 33, are both incarcerated and face charges that include animal cruelty, conspiracy, and endangering the welfare of a child. They were taken into custody on unrelated warrants during the investigation and will be arraigned on the new charges on Friday, according to court records.
Over the past year, authorities have seen indications that dog fighting was occurring in Chester County when maimed or dead pit bulls were found abandoned, Hogan said. He said the multi-agency investigation ramped up in September when smoke along Rt. 82 led a local fire chief to discover a pit bull burning to death in a locked cage.
Hogan said the publicity from the case caused participants in the dog-fighting world to lie low for a while, but investigators kept pursuing leads. Santiago ended up on detectives’ radar during Operation Silent Night, an initiative to combat violent crime in Coatesville.
About the same time, West Brandywine Township had received complaints about possible dog fighting at Santiago’s residence in the 1300 block of North Manor Road, Hogan said. He said investigators got a break when they contacted Santiago’s landlord, learned he was going to be evicted Dec. 5, and got permission to search the home.
Because both suspects had outstanding warrants – Santiago had drug charges stemming from Operation Silent Night and Acampora had traffic warrants – they were taken into custody after leaving the residence on Dec. 5, Hogan said, adding that the children were placed with relatives. He said West Brandywine Police and Chester County Detectives, who began searching the home, contacted the Chester County SPCA when they found injured animals.
The agency rescued six dogs, ranging from a young puppy to a severely disfigured adult pit bull, said Becky Turnbull, the animal protective servies coordinator for the Chester County SPCA. She said it is too early to determine whether the animals will ever be adoptable.
Hogan said investigators who conducted the search also found a dead pit bull puppy in a trashcan outside, double-wrapped in plastic bags. He said an unfinished basement served as the arena for the fights, which can generate tens of thousands in bets and attracted participants from a wide geographic area. A fight ends when a dog is killed or refuses to keep fighting, Hogan said.
In the gruesome world of dog fighting, only winning dogs have value, Hogan said. A dog that quits is generally killed by shooting, drowning, hanging, or electrocution, The latter typically involves car-jumper cables, Hogan said, adding that the ones found in the couple’s basement had dog hair on them.
According to the criminal complaint, Santiago, who referred to the animals as “livestock,” acknowledged killing at least 10 dogs by hanging or electrocution. He said he used a cable to fashion a noose for one dog that bit his daughter and wouldn’t let go, adding that it “took three minutes for the dog to die,” the complaint said.
Santiago told investigators that he and Acampora “were planning on making the training and fighting of pit bull dogs a family business,” the complaint said. He said he had planned to host two upcoming dog-fighting matches in his home – one in December and one in January, the complaint said. Asked about an injured dog that had been reported being carried out of his home in August, Santiago said some men brought the animal to spar with his fighting dog, and it got hurt, the complaint said.
Representatives from the various agencies who worked on the case attended the news conference, including West Brandywine Township Police Chief Walt Werner. Hogan said the arrests would not have occurred without the successful collaboration, and he said the investigation is continuing. “As a prosecutor, this is deeply troubling,” said Hogan of the dog-fighting ring, urging residents who suspect this kind of activity is occurring to contact authorities.
Hogan said one of the more unsettling finds in the squalid home was a parenting magazine. “I’m pretty sure nowhere in this magazine does it say: This is how to raise children,” he said.