ST. LOUIS — Four Missouri men were sentenced to federal prison Tuesday for crimes uncovered earlier this year during a federal dogfighting crackdown in seven states.
Authorities said the men had roles in breeding, raising, training, conditioning, trafficking, fighting and destroying American pit bull terriers. Each pleaded guilty to conspiracy to violate federal animal fighting laws.
Teddy Kiriakidis, 50, of Leasburg, and Ronald Creach, 34, of Leslie, were sentenced to 18 months in federal prison. Michael Morgan, 38, of Hannibal, and Robert Hackman, 56, of Foley, who also pleaded guilty to selling animals for fighting, were each sentenced to a year and a day in prison.
They were among 26 people arrested in July by federal agents who seized more than 500 dogs in Missouri, Iowa, Illinois, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Nebraska and Texas. It was the largest coordinated multi-state dogfighting raids in U.S. history.
Attorneys for the four sentenced Tuesday described their clients as family men caught up in a rural American culture where dogfighting was acceptable. Lawyer Joel Schwartz said Hackman loved and took care and pride in his dogs. Creach was described as an avid hunter and fisherman who raised pigeons and regarded his dogs as pets.
U.S. District Judge Carol Jackson said extraordinary cruelty was evident in each of the men's crimes.
"I'm hearing this is part of a culture a lot of us aren't familiar with," she said. "But they realized they're out of the mainstream. People involved in this know it's illegal. Culture is not a mitigating factor. This was a serious offense."
Pre-sentencing documents prepared for the court showed that the men had the dogs electrocuted or shot for poor performance or serious injuries from the fighting ring, or left them to freeze to death while chained to a stake in the ground without shelter.
Kiriakidis' attorney, Gil Sison, said his client couldn't take a dog with serious injury to the veterinarian, so he resorted to other means. But Jackson said Kiriakidis' disposing of a dog by electrocution was not humane.
"It suffered seizures," she said. "Clearly this just wasn't the way to do it."
Kiriakidis said he understands that what he did was wrong and apologized to the court and his family.
The Humane Society of Missouri has housed and cared for the more than 500 dogs seized in Missouri and Illinois and puppies born since the raids. About 100 dogs seized in other states were taken by rescue groups elsewhere. Teams that evaluated the dogs found most could be suitable as pets, and many have made their way to U.S. rescue groups and foster homes, pending permanent placement.
Debbie Hill, vice president of operations at the Humane Society of Missouri, said 90 remaining dogs in the St. Louis-based group's care await their chance at placement.
She bristled at the defense argument that dogfighting is ingrained in rural culture. "I live in the rural Midwest, and it's not part of my culture," she said after the hearing.
Hill said the best way to root out entrenched abuse patterns is "what happened here today."
"You draw the line," she said, "and say this is not acceptable."