An ex-con with a significant history of narcotics convictions emerged as a figure in an investigation of suspected dog fighting that led to the rescue of 28 canines in Manhattan and on Long Island.
In court Friday, Jose Rivera, 54, was ordered held on $500,000 cash or bond after pleading not guilty to drug and weapons charges stemming from an NYPD raid on a Washington Heights apartment a day earlier.
During the raids at the apartment and a house in Uniondale, which were part of a joint probe with Nassau County police, investigators found 11 live dogs — mostly pit bulls and pit bull mixes — as well as the carcass of a dead dog in a freezer in the apartment, according to the Manhattan district attorney's office.
At a court appearance Friday in Manhattan state court, Assistant District Attorney Kelli Clancy disclosed that Rivera had three separate federal narcotics-related cases from 1999 in which he received a total of 120 months in prison, the office said.
Clancy didn’t disclose the location of the earlier drug cases but said Rivera now could be sentenced to a minimum of 8 years in prison and possibly longer because he faces an A-1 drug case based on what police said was at least 1.5 kilos of heroin found in an apartment at 566 W. 162nd St.
Rivera was one of two men arrested Thursday in the joint probe into a suspected dog fighting ring. In a predawn raid at a home on Cooper Court in Uniondale, the authorities made an arrest and took away what appeared to be pit bull-like terriers.
The actual dog fighting was conducted at an undisclosed location in New Jersey, said a law enforcement official who asked not to be identified.
The other defendant in the case, identified by the Nassau district attorney's office as Benito Gittens, 46, who lives in the Cooper Court house, was arraigned Friday at First District Court in Hempstead and ordered jailed on $60,000 bond or $30,000 cash, according to online court records. As of Friday afternoon, the bail had not been posted. He is charged with three felonies relating to firearms, and a misdemeanor charging the torture or injury of animals, the records show.
According to court papers provided by the Nassau district attorney's office, a cane corso dog belonging to Gittens was “found to be underfed and neglected” at the Cooper Court location. Court papers stated Gittens was accused of unlicensed weapons possession, including a pistol, ammunition and a silencer.
According to a criminal complaint filed against Rivera, investigators alleged that they found drug paraphernalia, including more than 1.5 kilos of heroin, a loaded .25 mm handgun and a loaded .45 mm Glock.
That Manhattan apartment also had a room to train fighting dogs that was equipped with treadmills and a weight-pulling sled, said Clancy, according to the Manhattan district attorney's office, which summarized her comments.
Dog fighting charges are forthcoming, the office said.
Defense attorney Brian Wagner said in an email that Rivera entered a plea of not guilty and was looking forward to defending his case in court.
According to the court records, Gittens was represented at arraignment by the Legal Aid Society of Nassau County, whose policy is not to comment to the press.