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McNair says his case differed from Vick's

USC assistant says he was involved in breeding dogs, but police say it looked like fighting.

August 30, 2007|Lance Pugmire and Gary Klein | Times Staff Writers

USC assistant football coach Todd McNair said Wednesday that reports detailing his two 1990s convictions for mistreating dogs did not "accurately portray" what actually happened.

"I understand the interest about the thing in light of all that's gone on in Virginia with the [Michael] Vick case and everything," he said in an interview outside USC's Heritage Hall. "But my case was totally different from that. . . . I was cited for neglect. I wasn't convicted for abuse."

McNair, who is about to begin his fourth season as the Trojans' running backs coach, was charged with cruelty to animals, failure to obtain licenses and keeping animals for the purpose of fighting in March 1996 after authorities found more than 20 pit pulls on property he owned in East Greenwich, N.J.

He was also charged with animal neglect in July 1993.

McNair, 42, said both cases stemmed from his failed attempts at dog breeding.

"I had a number of different breeds at different points of time over a couple years," he said. "I realized I got in over my head. I wasn't able to maintain it properly and it cost me."

Law enforcement authorities who investigated the 1996 case paint a different picture. They say "all indications" showed the former NFL running back was involved in pit bull fighting.

"We didn't witness a dogfight taking place, but . . . that's what the dogs were used for," said East Greenwich Township Police Det.-Sgt. Charles Barone. "There was a treadmill used for [dog] training, and we found the dogs in an unsheltered, wooded area far from the highway, where they were held down by [automobile towing] chains connected to large tire rims. It was deplorable."

Gloucester County Judge J.R. Powell said in court that insufficient evidence kept him from convicting McNair of dogfighting. However, prosecutors won misdemeanor convictions against McNair on 17 counts of animal cruelty and failure to license dogs.

McNair was fined more than $4,900 and ordered to fulfill community service obligations, according to a local newspaper report. Court authorities said Wednesday that the official municipal court decision of the case has probably been destroyed.

McNair, a former Kansas City Chiefs and Houston Oilers running back, said he did not tell USC officials about his convictions when he was hired onto the football staff in 2004 because he "had no reason to think it would ever come up. I didn't look at it as I did a crime and was convicted anyway. I was exonerated from all the stuff."

However, he said he did tell USC Coach Pete Carroll about the incidents about a week ago when the Vick case was making national headlines. Vick, star quarterback of the Atlanta Falcons, recently pleaded guilty to a federal conspiracy charge related to dogfighting and is facing a probable prison sentence.

"We had some kind of idea that with all that's going on . . . it's a possibility it could come up and somebody could ask me questions about it," McNair said.

Carroll said he still would have hired McNair even if he had known about his convictions. "I wouldn't have recognized it as an issue," he said.

Lt. Col. Sy Goldberg of the New Jersey Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals' Humane Police said until Vick's role in dogfighting ring brought national attention, the "blood sport" wasn't treated or prosecuted as seriously as it should.

Goldberg inspected McNair's property in 1996 and told police, "It was obvious the area was being used to train dogs for fighting." Reached Wednesday, Goldberg called the extent of the injured dogs at McNair's property "outrageous."

Det.-Sgt. Barone said he brought the McNair case to the attention of federal law enforcement investigators, but they dismissed it.

"Dogfighting wasn't a big deal back then like it is now, but what I saw [at McNair's property] was the same activity that Michael Vick was in," Goldberg said. "Animal cruelty was an easier charge to prove, but if you look at the pictures from the case the dog's face was absolutely mauled."

On Wednesday, police e-mailed to The Times several crime scene photos, including shots of one dog's mangled face and another reacting viciously as police arrived on the scene.

Court records show that the case originated when a pit bull named Shadow, scarred on the face and head, escaped from McNair's property by jumping through a broken window.

While investigating Shadow's escape, Barone heard "dogs in distress, barking, crying and howling," and later found one named Crutch with a broken leg. Others were "extremely agitated, vicious and aggressive," according to court records.

Barone wrote, "All of the dogs appeared to have scars, marks and cuts on their heads and bodies . . . several . . . have open wounds." Other dogs were suffering from "poor diet, sores," or were "full of worms."

Most of the dogs seized from McNair were euthanized, police said. McNair said he had bred the dogs for sale.

"I love dogs," he added. "I've had dogs my whole life. I got one now, a pug named Pork Chop."

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