Smirking animal torturers freed: Outcry after dog fighting thugs get suspended sentences
Laughing and joking, four men convicted in relation to one of the worst cases of animal cruelty in Northern Ireland taunted police and onlookers as they walked free from court.
A father, his two sons and a family friend, all from east Belfast, evaded immediate prison terms after admitting they trained dogs for fighting.
Jeremiah Kirkwood (43), sons Chris (23), Wayne (20) and family friend Jamie Morrow (19) pleaded guilty earlier this year and were sentenced yesterday.
Police and animal rights charities described the abuse as some of the worst they have ever encountered.
Both hit out after all four men avoided an immediate prison sentence, with a DUP MLA calling for the decision to be appealed.
Stormont justice committee member Jim Wells said: "The judge in this case has failed to send out a clear message that society will no longer tolerate the torture of animals. This sentence should be immediately referred to the Director of Public Prosecutions for review on the basis that it is too lenient given the very disturbing facts."
Animal welfare charity, the League Against Cruel Sports, said the men had escaped with "a slap on the wrist".
Janice Watt from the charity added: "The PSNI worked extremely hard to bring this case to court in the hope of getting justice for the countless animals who suffered at the hands of this gang. Cases like this need to utilise the full force of the law to deter anyone who participates in the horrifically barbaric and illegal activity of animal fighting."
The police officer who headed the two-year investigation admitted to being "disappointed at the outcome" of the case.
Reacting to the six-month prison sentences, suspended for two years, PSNI Detective Inspector Pete Mullan added: "We fully respect the decision of the court but are disappointed nonetheless. This type of crime can receive a custodial sentence of up to two years, and given the horrific nature of this particular incident we would have envisaged a sentence that would have acted as a greater deterrent."
The men were also disqualified from keeping, owning or controlling animals for 10 years.
The father and two sons previously admitted keeping or training animals for an animal fight on dates between July 10 and November 28, 2011.
They also pleaded guilty to possession of items for use in connection with an animal fight, namely a CD7 battery pack, handheld lamps, a green dog harness and an animal trap.
Morrow, from McAllister Court in Belfast, originally faced three charges.
Two of these were left on the books after he admitted a charge of keeping or training an animal for a fight, namely a whippet Staffordshire bull terrier-cross. The investigation started more than two years ago when video footage was recovered from a mobile phone following an unrelated police raid on Morrow's home.
Although none of the men were identified in the videos, the prosecution said further searches of the Kirkwoods' Island Street home revealed equipment used for blood sports, and a number of dogs were identified by a vet as being in the videos.
Judge Donna McColgan yesterday said: "Dogs are blooded in this way in order to train them to fight with other animals in blood sports, including badgers, foxes or deer."
Mr Mullan praised all the agencies involved, including the PSNI, USPCA and their counterparts in Scotland and the Republic.
Judges are bound by sentencing guidelines and must take into account mitigating circumstances, such as early guilty pleas, co-operation with police, and remorse, as well as aggravating factors such as intent and excessive violence.
Laughter on sickening video as family pets are ripped apart by vicious brutes
Animal rights campaigners and police said it was among the most barbaric cases of cruelty they had ever encountered.
A major probe was launched after vile mobile phone footage was discovered showing cats and badgers torn apart by fighting dogs while sick onlookers were heard laughing in the background.
In one scene, a man can be seen climbing a tree after a terrified cat, before dislodging it, causing it to fall and be slaughtered by waiting dogs.
The cats – believed to be the pets of nearby residents – are thought to have been used to blood the canines for illegal dog fights and badger baiting.
In a search of the backyard of a property belonging to the Kirkwood family, officers discovered cages and dogs.
A number of the animals bore scars consistent with having been in fights.
Four men were subsequently charged and in January convicted in relation to the finds.
The men – Jeremiah, Wayne and Christopher Kirkwood, and Jamie Morrow – sat together in the dock at Laganside Crown Court yesterday with eight security staff seated round them.
Behind sat around 30 relatives and friends of the men.
At the start of the hearing those in the packed public gallery were warned they would be ejected from the court if they failed to behave appropriately.
Yesterday, those in court were told Jeremiah Kirkwood is married with four sons.
He made 17 court appearances between 1984 and last year for 24 offences, mostly traffic-related, but also involving dishonesty and disorderly behaviour. He has been dependent on alcohol since he was aged in his 30s, the judge said.
Wayne Kirkwood has three previous convictions for causing actual bodily harm, making threats to kill and possession of an offensive weapon.
Previous court hearings were told of the barbaric nature of the video footage which sparked the police investigation. The detective who headed up that investigation said it was the worst he had encountered during his career.
Little wonder, then, the four men were visibly relieved when told by the judge they would not be sent to prison for their crimes.
Six-month jail sentences handed down to each were suspended for two years.
The judge said the adult dogs seized at the home of the Kirkwood family would be destroyed, and all four men were barred from keeping animals for the next decade.
Following the convictions of the men, Stephen Philpott of the USPCA said the abuse was sickening.
"If the definition of cruelty is causing unnecessary suffering, the savagery inflicted on innocent animals in the Kirkwood case is wickedness at its worst," he said.