Elderly dog fighter escapes jail time, pays no fines

Convicted dog fighter avoids jail time, pays no fines

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Bulletproof Sam was an abnormal dog.

Not because of his "severe flea infestation." Not because of the trauma-induced hair loss on his tail and toes. Not because his teeth were worn to the gum line.

According to the vet who examined him, the most remarkable thing about Sam was the fact that he was missing half his face.

The "tremendous facial disfigurement" cited in Sam's exam included the "absence of upper lips" and scar tissue so severe that it prevented the 10-year-old pit bull from fully opening or closing his mouth.

That face, according to his owner, was evidence of a champion bloodline. In a 2012 police report, Willie Coleman told an undercover officer that the fight in which Sam lost his face earned him a cool $40,000.

Sam, he added, won the fight.

In the dark world of dogfighting, Willie Coleman was himself a bit of a trophy. Known for breeding fierce and durable dogs from the backyard of his Northwest Jacksonville home, Coleman was eventually charged with 18 felonies.

Assistant State Attorney Cyrus Zomorodian prosecuted Coleman and says the evidence against him was significant. More than a dozen dogs in kennels, or wearing the heavy chains used to train dogs for combat. Bite sticks used to break the hold of pit bull jaws. Medications to treat infection. Pages of breeding logs. And 17 scarred pit bulls – 11 of which, after examination, had to be euthanized.

Coleman admitted to the charges, pleading guilty to two of the felony counts against him. It should have been a victory. But Coleman, now 72, received no jail time beyond his first 4 days in jail. He was ordered to pay $17,000 in restitution – but according to the Duval Clerk of Court, not a penny has been paid.

So despite three years of investigation and prosecution, the most notorious dog breeder in Jacksonville continues to live comfortably at home.

Willie Coleman declined our request for an interview, and his wife expressed dismay anyone was "still interested" in his story. But some people believe this story is about more than just Coleman.

Jannette Reever, deputy manager of animal fighting response for the Animal Rescue Team of the Humane Society of the United States, was involved in the Coleman bust. She says the fact that he served no jail time doesn't mean his case won't serve as a deterrent. She says when it comes to dog breeders, "Coleman was one of the top in the nation," with customers as far away as Italy and Japan. Shutting him down, matters, she says. The fact he didn't serve time was just a "practical reality."

"We kinda weighed the pros and cons, and given the fact of his health and how long the case had been going on for, we decide to go ahead and take the deal," she says.

Florida law considers animal torture or fighting a second degree felony, but just a Level 1 crime, punishable by "up to" 5 years in prison. The exception? If the animal is livestock. In that case, it's a Level 4 crime.

"If someone commits an aggravated abuse on a cow or horse that's a second-degree felony punishable by up to 15 years," says Zomorodian. "Why is there that disparity?"

When it comes to cruelty to any animal, he adds, "I consider it very serious and I'd like to see the court address it in a more serious way."

Because there are no mandatory minimums sentences for animal cruelty, current law limits the effect of even successful prosecutions. And while Zomorodian stops short of expressing frustration about the case, he says he would have liked to see Coleman punished.

"Would I personally like for him to have gone to prison?" he says. "Yes, absolutely."

But until state law is changed, the case serves as a reminder of how we treat those who treat dogs like Sam.


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