Whitesell found about 35 dogs last week, hungry, dehydrated and beat up, at a property in Mullica Township, a remote section of Atlantic County that authorities believe was used for illegal pit-bull fighting.
Fifteen of the dogs are licensed to Bell, who did not return messages left on his cell phone. Whitesell said Amaro is the owner of the property. He could not be reached for comment.
Whitesell will charge the two men with 22 counts because that is the number of dogs that remain after about 13 vanished from the property sometime between 8:30 p.m. Nov. 4 - when Whitesell left - and 9 a.m. the next day, when she returned. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals is offering a $2,500 reward for the return of the dogs.
Eleven dogs are being housed at the Atlantic County Animal Shelter, where they are taking up runs usually reserved for more adoptable dogs. The rest of the dogs are in private foster care.
Since the pit bulls are evidence in a criminal case, they can't be euthanized easily. Whitesell said it typically takes six months to a year for animal-cruelty cases to be resolved through the courts.
"That's our dilemma," Whitesell said. The animal shelter "does not have to hold these dogs for us. They realize the circumstances we removed them under, and they're helping us out."
If the shelter said it no longer could house the dogs, "I don't know what would happen," said Nancy Beall, president of the county SPCA. "I have no place to put them."
Whitesell and Beall were seeking an emergency forfeiture order from a municipal judge to gain custody of the dogs, "and then we can try to move them" to families willing to adopt or to emergency animal-rescue facilities, Whitesell said.
"These dogs are not aggressive toward people," Whitesell said. "Some are extremely aggressive toward other dogs, so they can't be with other animals. But there are some adolescents who haven't been trained for fighting and are very adoptable. The majority could be placed."
The missing dogs are as much of a worry because "the sad part is, we're sure they were taken by the same type of people who were using them, and they'll be used for the same purpose," Beall said.
Whitesell went to the property Nov. 4 and removed 13 dogs, including four puppies. She left about 8:30 p.m. The Mullica Township police, who had responded to an anonymous tip, did not have the manpower to leave an officer there overnight, Whitesell said.
Besides the dogs, Whitesell said, "I found sufficient evidence on that property that either dog-fighting or a murder took place there. There was blood spattered everywhere, and there was enough dog medication that someone was trying to patch up or resuscitate dogs that had significant injuries."
Under state law, animal cruelty is punishable by a fine of $250 to $1,000 and jail time of no more than six months, or both, and community service.
Whitesell said that guilty pleas in animal-cruelty cases rarely result in jail time, and that she has sought jail time only on a couple of occasions in her 13 years on the job in Atlantic County.
Contact staff writer Rusty Pray at 856-779-3894 or email@example.com.