Four Belfast men who admitted inflicting "one of the vilest examples of premeditated abuse" on animals ever seen in Northern Ireland have walked free from court after being handed suspended sentences.
n east Belfast father and his two sons admitted allowing a cat to be torn to shreds by dogs trained to fight. The Ulster Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (USPCA) said the savagery inflicted on innocent animals was "wickedness at its worst".
But the family avoided jail on Thursday when the men were each handed six-month suspended sentences.
Jeremiah Kirkwood, 43, and sons Chris, 23, and Wayne, 20, admitted keeping animals for fighting. They also pleaded guilty to having equipment connected with animal fights and causing unnecessary suffering to four puppies.
Jamie Morrow, 19, admitted similar charges.
Police uncovered the gang after they seized Morrow's phone for an unconnected reason. On it they found three video clips from 2011 that depicted four dogs attacking and killing a cat, a judge at Belfast Crown Court said.
Judge McColgan added: "Dogs are blooded in this way in order to train them to fight with other animals in blood sports, including badgers, foxes or deer."
A vet who examined the adult dogs seized from the Kirkwood and Morrow properties said they were the ones seen killing a cat in video clips.
A detective said the cat was being "literally torn apart by dogs".
As a result of the gruesome find two further police searches were carried out at the Kirkwood home in Island Street, Belfast, and at Morrow's home in McAllister Court in the city.
At the Kirkwood property police found kennels with adult bull lurcher dogs inside, the court was told. Animal cruelty experts noted injuries consistent with the type expected during fights.
Four bull terrier puppies, three weeks old, were found under a heat lamp without their mother. Their tails were docked, the judge said. An animal trap, surgical cutting equipment and prescribed veterinary medicine for treating wounds were also recovered. Another dog, called Princess, was found at Morrow's home.
Police spent months investigating the family and preparing the case against them, but were left dismayed by the light sentence.
Detective inspector Pete Mullan said: "We are very disappointed at the outcome. 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."
Democratic Unionist Stormont assembly member Jim Wells said: "The public will be outraged that the Kirkwoods, who were involved in horrendous acts of animal cruelty, were let off today with suspended sentences.
"This was the first test of new animal welfare legislation which for the first time permitted the court to impose a custodial sentence for those involved in high levels of cruelty.
"The judge in this case totally 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 much too lenient given the very disturbing facts surrounding this dreadful case."
The footage showed dogs being set on a badger. In another, the same dogs were set on a cat that had been trapped in a cage, tearing it to pieces.
The four defendants were surrounded by prison officers as they were led into the dock in handcuffs. They were dressed in tracksuits and at least one wore an earring. A crowd of supporters in muscle T-shirts and tracksuits sat in the public gallery.
Morrow, who the judge accepted had a "chaotic" family background, admitted keeping or training an animal, a whippet cross Staffordshire bull terrier female, for use in connection with an animal fight.
The Kirkwoods admitted causing unnecessary suffering to the puppies, ownership of items designed for use in connection with an animal fight including a green dog harness and an animal trap, and keeping four bull lurchers for use in an animal fight.
All offences happened in November 2011.
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 convictions for causing actual bodily harm, making threats to kill and possession of an offensive weapon. He has learning difficulties and a history of cannabis use.
Judge McColgan sentenced them to six-month sentences in prison or young offender centres, suspended for two years. They were also disqualified from keeping, owning or controlling animals for ten years.
She said the adult dogs would be destroyed and the puppies have been found homes.