The six dogs, all pitbulls, all showed signs of abuse and neglect when Bunnell police, animal control and a Flagler County Sheriff’s deputy surveyed the scene at 508 South Railroad Street in Bunnell. They’d been left all chained in the backyard of the abandoned property, some with water, some without, most with fresh wounds, all with other ailments, as a veterinarian would soon document.
Authorities suspected the dogs were used in fights. Snapchat videos recovered from their owner’s phone appeared to prove them right. One 23-second video shows one of the dogs biting down on the other by the neck “and viciously swinging his neck back and forth,” while a voice is heard inciting the dogs. Another video shows a puppy, wet and with a bloody ear, lying down next to a blood-spattered water bowl. In another, the same man’s voice is heard saying “got into another fight” as the man’s hand touches a black and white pitbull with several fresh bite marks and blood on its snout, jaw and cheek.
The warrant yielded 10 videos from the man’s phone, all of them showing the pitbulls–Kane, Diesel, Gelato, Max, Nova, Pepper–either injured, lacerated, bloody or neglected.
The man’s voice was tied to the phone’s owner, and the dogs’ owner: Willie Gardner III, 28, of 6 Perotti Place in Palm Coast who a year ago had been put under orders by County Judge Andrea Totten to follow strict rules in caring for his dogs. He’d been charged with a misdemeanor count of cruelty to animals, a case still pending in court. On Nov. 9, Totten signed an order forbidding Gardner from owning any pets for five years. The order stemmed from the further evidence of cruelty uncovered in October at the South Railroad Street property, where neighbors’ complaints about dogs at the property had been frequent since last year.
In mid-October, animal control had posted several warnings there, advising the dog owner to respond. The notices cited evidence of animal abandonment, neglect, inadequate shelter and improper tethering, and warned that the animals would be removed if there was no response. Gardner never responded.
Last week, Gardner was booked at the Flagler County jail on four felony counts of animal cruelty causing death, pain and suffering. He was almost immediately released on $40,000 bond.
At one point during the investigation Gardner agreed to meet Flagler County Sheriff’s detective Annie Conrad in a McDonald’s parking lot. He told her he used the dogs to hunt raccoons, hogs and other small animals, and that he lent the dogs to friends to do the same. Conrad told him the wounds on the dogs didn’t look like they were caused by hunting. Gardner blamed them on what he called “yard accidents,” the dogs getting loose in the yard and attacking each other–as two dogs did in front of a police officer at one point, when the dogs were last discovered in that yard and before they’d received some care.
That home had belonged to a man who’d inherited it from his late grandmother, and whose stepson told authorities that he never gave permission to anyone to use the property. The house itself was boarded up, had no running water, was strewn with debris and looked uninhabitable. Gardner said his cousin gave him permission to bring the dogs there from Espanola. The cousin denied doing so, when asked by law enforcement. Neighbors’ surveillance video and witness statements allowed police to establish a timeline of when the dogs had arrived: since around October 10. One of the neighbors who walks his dog in the neighborhood had become concerned about his and his dog’s safety because of the pitbulls, which seemed unsupervised–and whose presence would draw calls to Bunnell police.
“The circumstances appeared to be hazardous to both the animals and the public,” Gardner’s arrest affidavit states. “Furthermore, if the animals did not seek proper veterinarian treatment, and be removed from the filthy squalid conditions, the dogs would sustain further injury to themselves or hurt other animals or persons.”
The Flagler Humane Society took ownership of all the dogs and renamed them, clearly with a touch of humor: every dog was given the name of a famous designer line instead–Michael Kors, Sophia Loren, Prada, Donatella, Coco, George, maybe after George Davies. But at the time that was the only touch of humour that attached to the dogs. Dr. Roberto Aguiar, the veterinarian who examined them, found most of them bearing scars, lacerations and wounds, found them all positive for hookworms, generally associated with unsanitary conditions, and in Max/George’s case, found a wound so infected that puss was seeping out. Aguiar told authorities the wound was possibly the result of fighting.
Enabling dog-fighting is a felony in all 50 states and under federal law.
The dogs were seized from the Railroad Street property before contact would be made with Gardner, who had not responded to numerous advisories and warnings left tacked to the property walls. Gardner then called the Humane Society to reclaim his dogs, which then led to the dog owner’s meeting with Conrad. During that meeting, Gardner showed Conrad one of the videos on his phone of a wet, seemingly lifeless dog.
When Conrad asked him what had happened, he said he’d just washed off that dog because it had been in a dog-fighting incident. He denied involving his dogs in dog fighting, but, according to the arrest report, told Conrad: Fighting dogs do not stop until one dog is dead.”
And one dog had died. Gardner said he’d lent the dog to a friend for some hunting. The dog died. There’s no explanation as to how.
Gardner has a few convictions on misdemeanors, including obstructing officers, but nothing as serious as the charges he now faces. He turned himself in to the jail on Nov. 8 for his booking. Each of the charge he faces is a third-degree felony.