The NFL has its latest -- and unquestionably biggest -- fallen star: Michael Vick.
The Atlanta Falcons quarterback -- the league’s second-highest paid player -- on Tuesday was indicted by a federal grand jury on multiple charges related to illegal dogfighting.
Vick, 27, and three others are accused of violating federal laws against staging dogfights, gambling and engaging in unlawful activities across state lines. The 18-page indictment includes graphic details of Vick and others running Bad Newz Kennels, arranging fights with purses worth thousands of dollars and executing dogs that didn’t perform well by methods such as hanging, drowning, electrocuting, shooting and “slamming at least one dog’s body to the ground.”
The indictment, the product of an investigation focusing on a property Vick owns in Surry, Va., is a major test of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s new conduct policy.
In question: After suspending arrest-prone players Adam “Pacman” Jones, Chris Henry and Tank Johnson for all or part of the 2007 season -- and saying he would not necessarily wait for the courts to dole out punishment -- how will the new commissioner react to a scandal involving a superstar?
“This clearly ratchets up the Goodell Test to a whole new level,” said Paul Swangard, managing director of the University of Oregon’s Warsaw Sports Marketing Center. “It will define the level of legitimacy his policies will have moving forward.”
If convicted, Vick and the others -- Purnell A. Peace, 35, of Virginia Beach, Quanis L. Phillips, 28, of Atlanta, and Tony Taylor, 34, of Hampton, Va. -- could face up to six years in prison, $350,000 in fines, plus restitution.
A spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office said Vick would not be arrested but would be ordered to appear in district court in Richmond, Va., for a hearing. The date of that hearing could be set as early as today.
Telephone and e-mail messages left for Vick’s attorney, Larry Woodward, were not immediately returned. The Falcons issued a statement saying the Vick situation “has been troubling to many people, including our fans, during the last few months,” and that “we are disappointed that one of our players -- and therefore the Falcons -- is being presented to the public in a negative way, and we apologize to our fans and the community for that.”
The NFL, through spokesman Brian McCarthy, called the alleged activities “cruel, degrading and illegal,” but added: “Michael Vick’s guilt has not yet been proven, and we believe that all concerned should allow the legal process to determine the facts.”
However, Goodell has made it clear in the past that the league will sometimes act before the courts when it comes to punishing wayward players -- as it did in the case of Jones.
Vick, a former No. 1 draft pick, said after an initial raid of the property in April that he was rarely at the house and had no idea it had been used in a criminal enterprise. But the indictment paints a different picture, identifying Vick as a key player in an operation that dated to early 2001, just before the former Virginia Tech star’s rookie season with the Falcons. It was then that Vick bought the property with the goal of using it as “the main staging area for housing and training the pit bulls in the dogfighting venture and hosting dogfights.”
The indictment lists at least 30 fights that Vick or other members of Bad Newz Kennels participated in or attended from 2002 to early 2007 and is “pretty extensive in terms of the factual allegations and what’s being asserted,” said Carl Tobias, a University of Richmond law professor. “That doesn’t mean that’s what ultimately will be proved, but I can see now by reading it why the federal government became involved.”
The document detailed the names of dogs and the amount of money -- often thousands of dollars -- awarded to the owners of the winners in matches that were frequently fought to the death. In April, the indictment says, Peace, Phillips and Vick executed “approximately eight” dogs that did not perform well in so-called “testing” sessions.
Authorities later seized from the property 66 dogs, most of them pit bulls, and equipment commonly used in dogfighting, including treadmills, a stick used to pry fighting dogs apart, and a “rape stand” device used to hold down aggressive females for breeding. About half the dogs were tethered to buried car axles with heavy chains that allowed them to get close to each other, but not to have contact.
In a search warrant executed July 7, the government said fights usually took place late at night or early in the morning and would last several hours. The filings said opposing dogs would be washed before fights to remove any poison or narcotic placed on their coats that could affect the other dog’s performance.
Animal rights activists had been pushing for months to send the case before the federal government. After the indictment was announced, Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States, called the case “an ugly wake-up call for America,” and that “we feel for the dogs that are tormented and tortured simply for the titillation and amusement of the people participating in this awful crime.”
Although he praised federal investigators, Pacelle says he has not received assurances from the NFL that it will be as aggressive as possible in dealing with the situation.
“The NFL has not given us any indication to this point that it’s taking stern action,” he said. “We’ve asked the NFL to work with us in educating players about dogfighting, and they’ve basically held firm to the idea that -- while they say dogfighting is wrong and unethical -- that Michael Vick hasn’t been convicted yet.
“I don’t know if the indictment will change the equation for the NFL. We certainly hope it does.”
The Newport News Daily Press and the Associated Press contributed to this report.