A man was sentenced Friday to serve two decades after being found guilty of running a dogfighting operation out of his Cherokee County home, officials said.

Randall Larry Thaxton, 59, was found guilty Dec. 8 of nine counts of dogfighting and seven counts of cruelty to animals. He was sentenced to 20 years with the first five in prison, the Cherokee County District Attorney’s Office announced in a news release.

“This was a challenging case to present to a jury, involving not only presenting extensive evidence but also educating average citizens about the complex world of dogfighting,” Assistant District Attorney Rachel Murphy said in a statement. “While this defendant only had nine dogs at the time of his arrest, there was evidence that for decades he contributed to the vicious cycle of breeding and selling dogs for the purpose of dogfighting.”

The Cherokee marshal’s office began investigating Thaxton after a man he was selling dogs to was arrested in Paulding County. During a wellness check at Thaxton’s home on Union Hill Road in November 2022, officials noticed several code violations, DA spokeswoman Cyndi Crossland said. It was also during that visit that the marshal’s office found signs that Thaxton was possibly involved in dogfighting.

His arrest warrant states that authorities were unable to find any food for the dogs and that bowls were filled with a mixture of water, mud and rocks. Dog feces was also observed throughout the property and inside kennels, the warrant states.

Crossland said eight of Thaxton’s dogs were tethered outside with heavy logging chains “commonly used by dogfighters,” and that the dogs were chained just outside of reach from each other in order to build up aggression.

The Cherokee sheriff’s office’s SWAT team and marshal’s office returned in early December 2022 to execute a search warrant and found several items confirming that Thaxton was involved in dogfighting, Crossland confirmed. A break stick, which is used to pry a dog’s mouth open when it won’t let go of another dog, documents linking Thaxton’s dogs to other known dogfighters, steroids and medical supplies for treating wounds were just some of the items Crossland said were located.

All of the dogs were examined and a veterinarian found them to have skin infections, rashes around their necks from their collars and swollen paw pads. One had a growth hanging from their stomach and another was pregnant, Crossland added.

“The average person doesn’t realize how prevalent dogfighting still is. But the more we talk about this issue and educate the public, the more people will understand that dogs aren’t ‘just’ property, and you cannot treat them in this way,” Cherokee Chief Marshal Jamie Gianfala said.

During Thaxton’s trial, the state called 11 witnesses and presented more than 300 exhibits, including photos, items found in the defendant’s home, heavy logging chains and the collars the dogs wore. The jury deliberated for about three hours before finding Thaxton guilty.

At Friday’s hearing, the state recommended that Thaxton be sentenced to 20 years with eight years to serve, while the defense argued for only two years to serve in prison. Superior Court Judge Tony Baker settled on five years, but also ordered Thaxton to pay $45,000 in fines and complete 360 hours of community service.

Thaxton is also forbidden from owning, possessing or breeding dogs, and is not allowed to contact any dogfighters or individuals linked to dogfighting in any capacity.

“It is time as a society that we step up and stop the abuse and mistreatment of innocent animals,” District Attorney Susan Treadaway said.