Cleaning up behind a Revere gas station last November, a landscaper spotted a black trash bag on top of the pile of dead leaves he’d collected the day before.
Too heavy to be leaves, he thought. He nudged the plastic with his foot: soft. Curious, he opened the bag. As soon as he saw what was inside, he called the police.
The discovery that day touched off what is now a nearly yearlong animal cruelty investigation into the deaths of the two puppies found inside the trash bag.
And it parted the curtains on a dog-crazed subculture of breeders who design and raise their animals to be powerful, tenacious, and aggressive — sometimes resorting to training methods and aesthetic surgical procedures that many pet lovers might think of as cruel.
Now the subject of an Essex County grand jury investigation, the case has resulted in the arrests of two men, each of whom blames the other for the slaying: Jason Gentry, who police say ran the filthy, unlicensed North Shore kennel where the puppies were killed; and Dominick Donovan of New York, the creator of the designer mixed breed of guard dog to which the dead puppies belonged.
Donovan named the crossbreed, developed for its tenacity and bite strength, after himself: the Donovan pinscher. Little known outside guard dog training circles, where trainers don heavy arm guards and work their dogs into a violent frenzy, Donovan pinschers are prized as the ultimate canine weapons for defense and security. One now works as a guard dog at a state prison in New Jersey.
But some animal rights advocates say that world can be dangerous to people and cruel to the dogs. Their ears are cropped and tails are docked like the better-known Doberman pinscher, something rights groups say is inhumane.
“They’re breeding a dog that looks threatening, and has a hair-trigger ability to attack,” said Terri Bright, an animal behaviorist with the Massachusetts Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. “The people that breed guard dogs, they’re kind of in their own world and their own culture.”
So little is known about this culture that the carcasses of the puppies initially provided few clues about the world they’d come from. Police shared pictures of the dogs on Facebook, along with a plea for help identifying them.
Soon, according to extensive police reports detailing the investigation, tips came in. The dogs appeared to be Donovan pinschers, a tipster said, and there was one local man who worked with Donovans: Gentry.
More than a thousand people had shared the Facebook photos of the puppies. One of them was Gentry, a self-styled dog trainer and owner of Alpha Canine Performance Center in Lynn. He boasted of mob ties, some who dealt with him told police, and paraded around at his run-down kennel with a handgun in his waistband.
“This is very sad to see,” Gentry wrote on his own Facebook page, where the police photo of the puppies was shared alongside a daily barrage of Internet memes espousing his love for muscular dogs and firearms and his distaste for “fake people,” gun control, and the president.
Two months later, one of the puppies’ owners came forward and identified the female puppy. Her name was Livid, the owner told police. Behavioral problems had led the owner to return the dog to Donovan at Gentry’s kennel at the end of October — three weeks before Livid was found in the trash bag. Through a lawyer, Gentry declined to speak with police.
In June, the owner of another dog came forward to police, accusing Gentry of hanging the Donovan pinscher — an adult male named Wotan — and shipping the body off dead.
Wotan had been sent to Boston to be bred, said Jesse Runyan, a New Jersey man whose family owned the dog. But in June, when Wotan was scheduled to be shipped to New York and on to Texas for further breeding, Runyan said Gentry called him.
“He laughed and said ‘the dog’s in a crate, but I don’t think he’s going to make it,’” Runyan said. “He admitted to me that he hung the dog for 15 minutes.”
Interviewed by police on July 15, a Gentry associate named David Zywusko described Wotan’s death: He and Gentry, he said, stuffed three Valium pills in a hot dog and fed it to Wotan to calm the dog down. When that didn’t work, Zywusko said, Gentry pulled on Wotan’s leash until the dog passed out.
A few days later, police got a warrant to search Gentry’s kennel.
Inside, according to a report from an Animal Rescue League of Boston investigator, “it was difficult to breathe in the kennel as there was no adequate ventilation … the extreme acrid filthy odor of stale urine & fecal smell” filled the air. Rats crawled out of an open sewer pipe. As police searched the kennel, Gentry arrived.
“Without questioning,” the police report alleges, “Gentry began to make comments about Dominick Donovan.”
Among dog lovers, Donovan is a controversial figure. Convicted of animal cruelty when 35 dogs died at his kennel in Pennsylvania in 2006, Donovan more recently ran a Long Island breeding and training operation called K9 Control.
In a series of YouTube videos no longer available online, Donovan trains dogs in fenced-in backyards. Heavily padded men work the restrained dogs into a lather. Released, the dogs chase and lunge at the men, their whole bodies dangling from their locked jaws.
“There’s a lot of egotistical people when it comes to having aggressive dogs. And it goes beyond pit bulls,” said Lorelei Stathopoulos, founder of Salem Saves Animals, who is among the many animal rights activists closely following the case against Gentry and Donovan.
On July 22, two days after the search of his kennel, Gentry came to the police station. Donovan, he said, had hanged Livid and the other puppy, who was named Gotti, because “they were not meeting breed standards.” Gentry allegedly admitted to holding the trash bag while the dogs’ bodies were lowered in.
Revere police arrested both men and charged them each with two counts of cruelty to animals and two counts of malicious killing of animals. Gentry was also charged with five counts of animal cruelty and one count of operating an unlicensed kennel in Lynn.
Both men pleaded not guilty and are out on bail, and a dog was visible at Gentry’s Salem residence in late October — an apparent violation of the conditions of his release.
Each man now blames the other for the dogs’ death: Gentry told police Donovan killed the dogs because they were not aggressive enough. Donovan’s lawyer says Gentry killed them for spite after the two men’s short-lived dog breeding and training partnership dried up. And the owners of a third dog say Gentry admitted hanging their pet and shipping it back to them dead.
Gentry’s lawyer, Ernest Stone, said the police’s portrayal of Gentry and his business is inaccurate.
“Our position is that Mr. Gentry did not participate in killing these dogs and is in fact horrified by the idea of it,” Stone said. He added that Gentry frequently worked with rescue organizations, “who will tell a different story about the conditions in the kennel.”
Donovan’s lawyer, Jack Atwood, described his client as “a legitimate dog lover.”
Donovan, Atwood said, was in Massachusetts for only a day or two around Halloween last year — weeks before Gotti and Livid were found. How, Atwood asked, could Donovan have been responsible for the deaths of the freshly killed dogs if they weren’t discovered — atop newly collected leaves — until late November? He said a falling out between Donovan and Gentry over money led Gentry to kill the dogs out of spite.
Runyan said he hopes Gentry is charged with his dog’s death, along with that of the two puppies. A spokeswoman for the Essex County district attorney said the investigation into Wotan’s death is ongoing.
“You could see that he wasn’t just hung — he was beaten,” Runyan said. “It’s a solid case with witnesses. I’m praying the truth prevails.”