RALEIGH — A dog named Hurricane Hugo has lived a life that has been as destructive as the storm with the same name.
Restrained by a logging chain hooked to a car axle buried in the ground, the pit bull's only shelter from cold, heat and rain was a blue 50-gallon plastic barrel. At 46 pounds, he was described as severely underweight. He likely spent hours each week on a treadmill to build his endurance. Other times, he would have been tethered near another dog to create aggression.
"Their day-to-day life is spent chained to the ground," Amber Burckhalter, an Atlanta dog trainer, said of the typical fighting dog's life. "They unchain them for a dog fight and they go into the pit. And if they come out, they come out. And if they don't ..."
Burckhalter examined Hugo after an undercover investigator bought him at a dog-fighting enclave in Duplin County in 2010. The man who sold Hugo, 78-year-old Harry Hargrove, is considered a legend in the dog-fighting world and was sentenced Thursday to 60 months in prison, the toughest sentence that U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle could give him. He was taken into custody immediately.
By comparison, NFL player Michael Vick was sentenced to 23 months in prison and three years of probation. He served 18 months in a federal penitentiary and two months on home confinement.
"This is as sick as it gets," Boyle told Hargrove. Hargrove told the judge that he once had more than 100 dogs but was down to about 35 when he was arrested. Some of those 35 dogs weren't his, he said. Boyle brushed that explanation aside.
"This doesn't make it better," he said.
Hargrove's brother and niece believe that his experience in the Vietnam War changed Hargrove dramatically, said his attorney, Sherri Alspaugh. Boyle rejected that theory out of hand.
Hargrove had pleaded guilty earlier this year to selling, delivering, possessing, training, and transporting animals for the purposes of having the animals participate in an animal fighting venture. In a motion, the U.S. Attorney's Office described a gruesome, blood-stained scene where winning dogs barely survived and losing dogs were electrocuted.
"It was horrific," said Duplin County Sheriff Blake Wallace, whose office got a tip about the dog fighting on Hargrove's rural property. An undercover officer went to Hargrove's home, where he purchased Hugo for $1,500. To prove Hugo's prowess, Hargrove put Hugo in the fighting pit with another dog and let them fight for more than five minutes.
Investigators searched the property. A metal building housed the fighting pit, with plywood walls and carpet that helped the dogs maintain their grip. Jumper cables were used to electrocute dogs. Treadmills and spring poles - used to build a dog's leg and jaw muscles - were found.
One-by-one, the federal motion describes each dog found: thin, underweight, submissive, aggressive, scared, old wounds, fresh wounds, multiple scars. Thirty-five were euthanized. Hugo is the 36th dog.
He's now about 3 years old and at last report, is "fat and lazy," having gained about 20 pounds, Burckhalter said. She won't say where he lives now for fear that Hargrove's buddies will try to find him.