How dogfighting ring based in Maryland, Virginia tried to keep things secret

A private group chat on the Telegram messaging app where members in Maryland and Virginia discussed methods to train dogs for fighting and ways to avoid getting caught has led to convictions for conspiracy to engage in an animal fighting venture, according to federal court records.

Earlier this week, 45-year-old Mark Joseph Rodriguez of Stafford, Virginia, who the others knew as “Slow Poke,” was found guilty of conspiracy in federal court in Alexandria. Prosecutors said he was part of the dogfighting operation that organized and held secretive dogfighting exhibitions from at least May 2015 through August 2020.

Rodriguez is one of three defendants from Virginia convicted; an additional eight were from Maryland and one was from New Jersey.

According to court filings by prosecutors, Rodriguez organized and officiated many of the dogfights. A co-defendant described Rodriguez as “the most recognized ref on the East Coast,” charging between $100 and $200 for each competition.

Discussions in the “DMV Board” group chat included Rodriguez’s characterizations of fights, as well as responses from those who disagreed with some of his decisions. “We just do our best to keep as fair as possible,” Rodriguez typed, according to court records.

Rodriguez sought to ensure the discussions were kept private, according to the prosecution’s statement of facts. At one point, in the private chat group, Rodriguez warned others to avoid posts on Facebook and other public social media networks.

Rodriguez’s attorney, Ryan Campbell, argued the government failed to prove his client ever sponsored or exhibited dogs or sold, bought, possessed, trained or transported dogs for fights.

U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema heard opening and closing statements and reviewed each side’s proposed statements of fact before she found Rodriguez guilty of the single felony count.

Rodriguez will be sentenced on Tuesday, July 2, where he faces up to five years in prison.

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Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a general assignment reporter with WTOP since 1997. He says he looks forward to coming to work every day, even though that means waking up at 3:30 a.m.

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