Jails in Benton, Marshall and Tippah counties are at or near full occupancy in the wake of Saturday's massive raid on a dogfighting ring in northern Mississippi.
More than 50 suspects from 11 states were arraigned Monday in Benton County Circuit Court. The arraignment proceedings required two judges and two courtrooms.
Nestled just off Highway 72 where Pottery Road intersects with Steward Road is a forest-laden location so out of the way even those who live there admit random visitors are few and far between.
MORE: 20 dogs seized, 40 arrested in MS dogfighting raid
Late Saturday night dozens of law enforcement officers, representing various Mid-South agencies and the Humane Society, found exactly what they were looking for on muddy Steward Road. They staged a month in the planning raid on a dogfighting operation that drew 200 attendees from 11 different states to the woods seven miles east of Ashland.
"When we first approached the suspects where this illegal activity was going on, then they fled into the woods," said Marshall County sheriff Kenny Dickerson, who was among the 60 officers who took part in the wild scene. "Some number of them fired several gunshots. We don't know if they were shooting at us, shooting up in the air. But, we do know several gunshots were fired."
When the rain, fog and muddy conditions cleared the busted dogfighting ring yielded 20 rescued pit bulls, a number of luxury vehicles driven by the participants, thousands in cash and led initially to the arrest of 40 people. The rest started desperately running into the night and the snake-infested waters of the Wolf River trying to get away.
"We have reason to believe there's probably another 30 or 40 that actually fled into the woods and through the use of cellphones and communications possibly got rides out," Sheriff Dickerson said.
But, the confiscated vehicles were towed out of the woods and now reside outside the Benton County Agri and Forestry Center where the license plate display looks like the parking lot of a Tunica casino.
"It's going to be 60-80 vehicles we towed in which we will file proper papers with the court and seize those vehicles, along with a large amount of cash that's already been confiscated," Sheriff Dickerson said.
Monday's spotlight fell on 50 of the accused - eight of them women and a pair in wheelchairs - who were bused in from area jails for a mass arraignment before judges Gary McBride and Brody Childers in two separate courtrooms. Cameras were not allowed inside the Benton County Justice Complex.
One interested party was Benton County bail bondsman Jovernia Smith, who says he'd consider posting bond even for out-of-towners from as far away as California.
"We have a couple of bounty hunters on standby," Smith said. "So, all we have right now is to try and get all the information we can, and try and make sure we can get him back here at any point in time."
"An actual participant in the dog fight, someone who brings a dog there for the purpose of fighting or someone who conducts or promotes the fighting, could receive up to five years in the penitentiary along with a large fine," sheriff Dickerson said.
Two pit bulls used in an actual fight had to receive emergency care after losing a lot of blood and going in to shock, said Chris Schindler, Humane Society manager of animal fighting investigations. One of the dogs is not doing well.
The Humane Society placed the dogs in temporary shelters, including an undisclosed shelter in Memphis, and provided the canines with veterinary treatment. The Humane society said it is treating all 20 of the pit bulls as individuals in getting the best care.
"They're going to get all the things they may have never known: kindness and proper care and enrichment," Schindler said. "Things they so desperately needed."
The Humane Society's animal fighting experts assisted law enforcement in identifying and documenting suspected dogfighting evidence and forensic crime scene evidence, as well as coordinating the dog rescue effort.