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Last suspect in dog-fighting ring arrested in Eclectic

Published 5:45pm Thursday, February 13, 2014

With an assist from police in Eclectic, New Site Police Chief John McKelvey got the last indicted suspect in the Nov. 19 dog-fighting raid in custody Thursday morning.

McKelvey said Tuesday that he had received information that suspect Sonja Benson might be hiding out with family members in Elmore County. Benson was the last suspect still at large for numerous counts of dog-fighting and aggravated animal cruelty stemming from an almost two-year investigation into a gambling operation in New Site that pitted fierce dogs — most often pit bulls — against each other to fight to the death.

Benson faces 18 counts of dog-fighting and 18 counts of aggravated cruelty to animals.

Sonja Benson was arrested on Sunset Drive in Eclectic Thursday after being indicted on 36 counts of dog-fighting and aggravated animal cruelty.
Sonja Benson was arrested on Sunset Drive in Eclectic Thursday after being indicted on 36 counts of dog-fighting and aggravated animal cruelty.

Eclectic police located Benson Thursday morning at the home of relatives on Sunset Drive in Eclectic. She was taken into custody without incident, according to Eclectic Police Chief Robert Head, and transferred to the custody of New Site Police.

Six suspects face around 200 counts of animal cruelty and illegal dog-fighting charges related to the investigation. Also indicted were Delcarlos Holley of New Site, Justin Noble Calhoun of Eclectic and Erick Jerrod Calhoun, Roderick Sweetwyne and Jennifer Kelley, all of Alexander City.

Though three of the indicted suspect have roots in Eclectic, EPD Chief Head said there was no evidence of dogs being fought or prepared for fighting in town.

“You don’t want to assume (illegal dog-fighting) just because someone has a pit bull, but it’s something we’re looking out for if a name comes up,” he said. “Some might have them for that, but for most people who have them, they’re just big pets.”

New Site Police were aided by the Tallapoosa County Sheriff’s Office, Alexander City Police and dog-fighting specialists with the Humane Society of the United States in breaking up the ring at three homes in the New Site and Alexander City area. The Nov. 19 raid marked the culmination of almost two years of investigation, he said. The probe began when Holley was arrested in 2012 in a drug bust.

Law enforcement seized 25 dogs from the residence at that point, McKelvey said, but did not file charges, choosing instead to dig deeper into the operation. Holley saw his probation revoked last week on the drug charges that stemmed from the 2012 arrest.

Personnel from the Lake Martin Area Humane Society and the Montgomery Humane Society helped to handle and care for the 55 dogs rescued from three locations in the Nov. 19 raids.

McKelvey said burial locations and remains of numerous other animals were found at all three locations. Of the 55 dogs rescued, 51 are being rehabilitated in hopes they can live a normal life with a loving family.

“They’re truly trauma victims,” Janette Reever, a dog-fighting investigator with the national Humane Society said. “They need to decompress and get over the trauma of what they’ve been through before placed in a forever homes.”

McKelvey said the investigation into this dog-fighting operation continues, and “hopefully there will be future arrests made in this case and possibly another (dog-fighting operation).”

Because illegal gambling on the dog-fighting matches involves significant amounts of money, McKelvey said it’s a difficult problem to fully snuff out.

“We’re trying our best to eradicate it all, but unfortunately, it’s a crime of entertainment and gambling,” he said. “As long as there’s that level of gambling, I don’t see it going away. But we’re going to try.”

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