A dogfighting operation spanning more than 20 years was uncovered Tuesday night, nestled deep in a patch of scrub forest at the end of Stark Road.
Neighbors had never heard a sound, investigators say.
Hillsborough County Animal Services and Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office investigators received an anonymous tip on Monday and obtained a warrant, based on detailed information from the tipster, including the description of a trail of sugar sand leading from the wooded property onto Stark Road, said Animal Services spokeswoman Marti Ryan.
"That's how we found it," she said.
On the property — which is in Seffner, just west of County Road 579 and north of Pruett Road — investigators found a massive dog graveyard along with seven flea-infested dogs, mostly pit bulls, many with fresh, untreated fighting wounds and medical conditions. Some of the animals were used for breeding, said investigators, who also found tools for fighting and a blood-stained pit where the dogs fought.
Investigators said the dogs' owners, Vannie and Russell Franklin, said they'd been doing this for 20 years and this is the first time they'd been caught.
Vannie Franklin, 55, faces four charges of baiting, breeding, owning or possessing animals for fighting; owning property for animal fighting or baiting; two charges of cruelty to animals; possession of cannabis; possession of cannabis with intent to sell; possession of cocaine; and five counts of being a felon in possession of a firearm. He is being held at the Hillsborough County Jail, with bail set at $57,500.
Russell Franklin, 41, was arrested on four charges of baiting, breeding, owning or possessing animals for fighting; owning property for animal fighting or baiting; and two charges of cruelty to animals. He is being held on $14,000 bail.
Vannie Franklin, who lives on the property, "actually admitted to us that he's (been) fighting dogs out there for 20 years and jokingly said that we were walking on a graveyard," said Animal Services investigation manager Pam Perry.
"He had no remorse, no qualms about it.
"Walking around the property, you know that you're walking on dogs that have probably passed away who have been discarded or been executed," Perry said.
Officers and deputies also found more than 80 pounds of chain they say was used to restrain dogs. One of the dogs, a 60-pound breeder named China, had a 27-pound chain around her neck, Ryan said.
The investigation is ongoing and more arrests are expected. Ryan said it would require a warrant to excavate the property where Vannie Franklin told investigators he'd been burying dogs for years. Ryan said she doesn't know if investigators will pursue that.
"This person was so open and bold and entitled, to abuse and exploit these animals and just dispose of them," Ryan said.
Dog fighting is a cruel and illegal hobby and is rampant in Hillsborough County, she said.
"It is very prevalent, and so is other animal fighting, such as roosters, and it's on the rise," Ryan said. "We're doing what we can with the resources we have. You've got to establish probable cause, get the paperwork. These situations are extremely dangerous."
Investigators are very much dependent on the public to come to them with information, Ryan said.
"We certainly do welcome all information regarding the case," Ryan said. "The public is key and has been our eyes and ears on many occasions."
Getting rid of animal-fighting usually gets rid of other crime in a community, she said.
"This person was already on probation and had weapons" and drugs, Ryan said. "If you don't think this doesn't affect quality of life in a neighborhood, think again."