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After decades of crime, drugs, violence and prison, Jesse Gonzalez is trying hard to stay on the straight and narrow.

He has a fiancée, his own construction company and the backing of family and friends. But more than anything, he draws strength from two unlikely supports — mixed martial arts and the love of a pit bull named Bella.

Training has taught him discipline and the rewards of patience. Bella has taught him about unconditional love.

“I've never been happier, man. She's not our dog. She's our kid,” he said.

The story of Gonzalez and Bella will be featured Saturday at 8 p.m. on the Animal Planet TV show “Pit Bulls and Parolees.” The show is based on the activities of Tia Torres, the owner of the Villalobos Rescue Center near Los Angeles, the biggest rescue operation in the country for pit bulls.

Torres hires ex-convicts to help train and rehabilitate pit bulls that were abused or used in dog-fighting, and she also chooses ex-convicts to adopt her canine charges.

Gonzalez, a fan of the TV show, called Villalobos last winter, shortly after his release from prison. He had served seven years, on and off, for felony assault and drug possession. Gonzalez, 33, makes no secret of his violent, criminal past.

He said he was always in trouble and had a long, “disgusting” record of assaults. He used and dealt methamphetamine and was shot four times over the years, but when he got out of prison last January, he wanted a change. And he wanted a pit bull.

“I didn't want any part of the show,” he said. “ I just wanted a dog.”

But the producers of “Pit Bulls and Parolees” were so impressed by his life story, and by his dedication to cage fighting as a way of overcoming his criminal past, that he was tentatively chosen to be featured on the show. They ended up flying him out to Villalobos, where they filmed him selecting a dog.

In truth, Gonzalez said, Bella chose him. He had already looked at some dogs by e-mail and didn't think he was interested in Bella — his shortened version of her full name, Annabell. When he showed up at Villalobos, none of the dogs he met made any connection with him, until Bella appeared.

“The minute she saw me she just come barreling up there and she put her paws on my leg and started licking my face,” he said. Bella had been used as a “bait dog,” thrown into a ring to be attacked by fight dogs, to get them ready for their bouts.

Torres said in a phone interview that Bella “just melted into his lap. ... She just poured herself like molasses all over him.”

Torres said she chose Gonzalez for the show because “he's just absolutely sincere.” She said people harbor the same prejudices about parolees that they do about pit bulls, and just assume an ex-con is going to want a big, bad “ghetto dog.”

“And then Jesse picked a dog named Annabell. Are you kidding me?” she said. “There's nothing more manly for me,” she added, “than a guy who doesn't have to act like a macho mutt.”

After Bella and Gonzalez chose each other, a film crew accompanied Gonzalez to the Los Angeles gym of “Big” John McCarthy, the celebrity referee with UFC, Ultimate Fighting Championship, the top promoter of mixed martial arts fighting. Gonzalez did some training there and made some contacts that he hopes will give a boost to his fighting career.

After Bella received a few more months of training, Torres' two daughters came to Billings in late April and formally gave her to Gonzalez after his cage-fighting title fight at the Shrine Auditorium in July. He lost the fight but gained a companion.

For the next week, Torres' daughters and a large film crew basically filmed Gonzalez all day every day — on the job, working out, interacting with Bella — to compile footage for the show that will air this weekend.

“It was crazy, it was huge,” Gonzalez said, momentarily at a loss for words. “It was like TV.”

Gonzalez said he got into cage fighting after his release from prison because his half-brother, Robert Hill, runs a gym called 5 Star MMA. As he tells it, he said to himself, “What's the worst that could happen? I get beat up and get paid for it.”

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The connection with dogs came from another cellmate of his — his little brother, Higinio “Gino” Gonzalez. Gino was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of a convenience store clerk in 1996, when Gino was 16. Gonzalez hadn't seen his brother in nearly 14 years when, toward the end of Jesse's imprisonment, they were assigned to the same cell at the state prison in Deer Lodge for four months.

Jesse Gonzalez makes no excuses for his brother's crime, but he said Gino has spent all of his adult life in prison and has had lots of time to think. It was those four months in Deer Lodge with his brother that persuaded Jesse to turn his life around.

“He helped me realize life is really short,” Gonzalez said. “We talked about our shortcomings and what we could do to become better men.”

After Jesse Gonzalez was released from prison, his brother was sent to the Crossroads Correctional Center in Shelby, where he is involved in the dog-training program. When he's with Bella, Jesse Gonzalez said, he thinks of his brother, and of his commitment to make a new life for himself.

He runs his own business, J&A Concrete (for “Jesse and Annabell”), and he is engaged to Cynthia Shedd. He has regular contact with his three children and he says he hasn't touched drugs for three years.

His mother, Carmen Gonzalez, has endured too much disappointment to believe that her son is out of the woods yet, but she said he is trying, which is all he can do.

“He's done a lot of damage in this town, but now he's trying to do good,” she said.

“We all fall short of the glory of God,” Jesse Gonzalez said. “It took me 25 years to get this messed up. It's going to take a lot longer than 25 years to get better.”

Contact Ed Kemmick at ekemmick@billingsgazette.com or 657-1293.

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Contact Ed Kemmick at ekemmick@billingsgazette.com or 657-1293.

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