RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - Michael Vick was due in federal court Thursday to start a legal process that jeopardizes not only his career, but also his freedom.
The Atlanta Falcons quarterback was expected to appear at a bond hearing and enter a plea on dogfighting conspiracy charges. Vick is accused with three others of conspiracy involving competitive dogfighting, procuring and training pit bulls for fighting, and conducting the enterprise across state lines. Federal prosecutors allege the operation - known as Bad Newz Kennels - operated on Vick's property in rural Surry County.
The grisly allegations detailed in an 18-page indictment sparked protests by animal rights groups at the headquarters of the NFL and the Falcons, and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has barred Vick from training camp while the league investigates.
Falcons owner Arthur Blank said the team wanted to suspend Vick for four games, the maximum penalty a team can assess a player, but the NFL asked him to wait. Instead, Blank has told his embattled player to focus on his legal problems, not football.
The Falcons opened their first camp under coach Bobby Petrino on Thursday.
The case began April 25 when investigators conducting a drug search at the home found 66 dogs, including 55 pit bulls, and equipment typically used in dogfighting. Items such as a "rape stand" that holds aggressive dogs in place for mating and a "breakstick" used to pry open a dog's mouth in a fight were seized.
Vick contended he knew nothing about a dogfighting operation at the home, where one of his cousins lived, and said he rarely visited. He has since declined comment, citing his attorney's advice.
Attorney Lawrence Woodward of Virginia Beach, who has also represented Allen Iverson and Vick's younger brother, Marcus, has not returned several phone messages.
Animal rights organizations have seized on the case as an opportunity to raise awareness of the largely underground and always gruesome world of dogfighting, where dogs are trained to fight to the death.
Five hours before Vick's scheduled arraignment, animal rights activists, supporters of the athlete and the media gathered early Thursday outside the federal courthouse. About 40 people began queuing for a seat in the courtroom or an overflow courtroom.
Some members of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals dressed in dog costumes and carried signs, including one with the image of a battered pit bull and the words "Dogfighting Victim."
A trio of supporters from Boston wearing Vick's No. 7 jersey and Atlanta Falcons' hats made the nine-hour trip south to support Vick.
"It was time someone should step up and support him," said Nick Fontecchio, one of the three.
Downtown workers honked at the gathering crowd as they drove to their offices.
Streets near the courthouse were closed Wednesday night, and dozens of television trucks were already in place near the building. Court security was apparent as the crowd swelled early Thursday.
According to the indictment filed July 17, dogs not killed in the fighting pit were often shot, hanged, drowned or, in one case, slammed to the ground. The document alleges that Vick was consulted before one losing dog was wet down and electrocuted.
It alleges that the dogfighting operation began in 2001, not long after Vick parlayed a dazzling two-year run as the quarterback at Virginia Tech into the first overall selection in the NFL Draft. His first contract was for $62 million.
In 2004, he signed a 10-year, $130 million deal, then the richest in league history.
The indictment alleges the fights offered purses as high as $26,000, and Vick once paid $23,000 to the owner of two pit bulls that had beaten Bad Newz Kennels dogs.
That owner is one of four cooperating witnesses cited in the document.
Charged along with Vick are Purnell A. Peace, 35, of Virginia Beach; Quanis L. Phillips, 28, of Atlanta; and Tony Taylor, 34, of Hampton. They all face up to six years in prison, $350,000 in fines and restitution if convicted of both charges.