I usually don’t take up precious space in my column for news from the court dockets of America. These days, you can’t walk into a courthouse in most major cities without tripping over some high priced scofflaw/athlete who has run afoul of the law. Besides, the subject is depressing in that it tarnishes the games we play and love to watch. And unless I’m writing about Brittney Spears or Anna Nicole Smith, I don’t do depressing.
But the case of Michael Vick is special. I’m not talking about an athlete who felt the rules did not apply to him or that the carefully crafted personae, meticulously built up by the NFL, the Atlanta Falcons, and the half dozen major sports outfitters who used Vick as a role model-spokesman hid a degenerate dog murderer. When I say that the case was different I’m talking about the way the guardians of the law treated this barbarian of a man and how they ended up cornering and trapping someone who even with all the money in the world, was unable to escape his own legacy of cruelty and degrading treatment of animals.
The story began with an investigation into drug use by Vick’s cousin Davon Boddie which included a search of a 15 acre estate owned by Vick on which Boddie was living at the time. In their search for drugs, the cops found dogs instead – more than a 5 dozen animals, some of whom were injured and showed signs that they had been fighting. Subsequent searches of the property turned up dog carcasses later determined to have been put to death. The cops also confiscated other evidence related to dog fighting as well as guns, ammunition and evidence of gambling.
When it was revealed that the Feds were also investigating the case, you knew something was really amiss. And what the authorities were looking at was nothing less than an illegal interstate dog fighting operation involving Vick and three other men. The details are beyond belief, beyond cruelty. In addition to training dogs to fight, Vick is charged with killing dogs that didn’t measure up in the ring. The details of how this was done have not been released but are reportedly to have included hangings and electrocutions.
Vick was indicted along with Purnell A. Peace, Quanis L. Phillips, and Tony Taylor for “knowingly sponsoring and exhibiting in an animal fighting venture,” as well as for “destroying or otherwise disposing” of dogs involved in the fights . Federal documents filed with the court outlined an extensive multi-state dog fighting enterprise named “Bad Newz Kennels” which the Feds say operated from Vick’s property since 2002.
He retained high priced criminal attorney Billy Martin and the stage was set for another all too familiar drama involving a high profile athlete seeking to beat the rap. Only this time, federal prosecutors latched on to Vick’s leg like a bull terrier and wouldn’t let go.
Following his arraignment, Vick put his spin machine on full and issued a statement. He denied everything. He denied everything to the fans. He denied everything to his teammates. He denied everything to the owners of the Falcons. He denied everything to the NFL Commissioner Roger Goddell. Meanwhile, prosecutors were plotting to corner Vick and force a confession from him. Assistant District Attorneys Michael Gill and Brian Whisler, known for a strong work ethic and bulldog tenacity, began to work on Vick’s co-defendants.
First, they announced plans to issue a “superseding indictment” at the end of August. Most court watchers speculate that this is what spooked Vick’s partners in crime. It is very likely that given the multi-state nature of the dog fighting enterprise as well as the involvement of some other, still unnamed defendants and the ongoing nature of the conspiracy, that prosecutors were planning on filing racketeering charges against Vick and the other three men. Under the RICO statute, the defendants were exposing themselves to sentences of up to 20 years in prison.
Four days after the prosecutor made his announcement, Tony Taylor pled guilty to most of the charges and outlined Vick’s guilt in a “Summary of Facts” given to the court at the time of his plea. Taylor fingers Vick as the financier of the enterprise, funding both the Bad Newz Kennels as well as putting up gambling money. Taylor also said that Vick attended or sponsored dog fights involving animals from the kennel.
It wasn’t long after that bombshell that Peace and Phillips announced that they too were pleading guilty in exchange for their testimony against Vick. In effect, Vick was legally trapped between the damning testimony that would be given against him by his co-defendants and the looming RICO indictment. Seeing no alternative, Vick decided to plead guilty. In his plea agreement, Vick admitted to participating in and funding the dog fights but said he did not gamble on the contests or collect any winnings.
It hardly matters. The judge in the case, Henry E. Hudson, is known for handing down maximum penalties. And at the hearing, Judge Hudson made it absolutely clear he will not feel bound by sentencing guidelines. “You’re taking your chances here. You’ll have to live with whatever decision I make,” Hudson said. Those chances include the possibility of a jail term of up to five years. Given the barbarity of the crimes, it is possible that Hudson will impose a sentence in excess of the 12-18 month term many analysts expect.
Even if Vick gets a light sentence from the federal judge, he still must deal with additional state charges for much the same activity. Those state charges are still pending and could mean additional jail time if the sentences were served consecutively with the federal punishment.
Vick has been suspended indefinitely by the NFL and the Falcons are mulling over their options. The team is already going after the $22 million signing bonus from Vick’s latest contract but cutting or releasing him outright would mean that the team would take a huge hit on its salary cap. In the end, it is likely that Vick’s playing days with the team are over.
In a statement read before the press without notes, Vick apologized for deceiving everyone and for his “bad judgement and making bad decisions.” He appeared to be a man in shock, not quite believing what had befallen him. He claims to have “found Jesus” and given his life to God. He also “totally asked for forgiveness and understanding” as he moves forward.
It is so difficult these days to determine when an athlete is being sincere and when he is being “handled” by the PR flacks and media experts hired to put him in the best possible light whenever he goes on television. Vick appeared contrite but also curiously detached. I have no doubt that he’s sorry – now. Perhaps he could tell us what he was feeling when electrocuting those dogs.
Michael Vick will be out of football this season and almost certainly next season as well. And if it comes out that his Bad Newz Kennels was involved with even shadier characters and practices, that suspension could become permanent. But whatever punishment meted out to the young man, it pales in comparison to what he put those helpless animals through during their short, brutal lives.
For that, there is nothing in the United States Code that covers the cruelty and depraved indifference shown by Vick toward those animals nor the manner in which he sought to deceive everyone about his nefarious and heartless enterprises.
Rick Moran blogs at Right Wing Nut House.
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