By Keegan Hamilton Thursday, Sep 2 2010
The grainy footage shows two snarling pit bulls in a dimly lit barn, staring each other down through a haze of cigarette smoke. Walled in by a makeshift ring of three-foot-high plywood planks, the collarless dogs twitch and wag their tails, expending nervous energy like prizefighters shadowboxing in the ring moments before the opening bell.
Both dogs are males and have a tan coat and a white belly, which makes it difficult to tell them apart. They’re about 10 months old — young for fighters. This is their first taste of combat.
Each dog has a handler who grips it by the scruff of the neck and positions it opposite its foe in the corner of the 16-by-16-foot ring. When they’re released, the pit bulls collide with a dull thud. One dog lands on its back, and the other pounces, grabbing hold with its jaws. The two animals spend the next several minutes growling and panting, locked in a ferocious struggle.
John Bacon, who owns the dog that’s on top, bends at the waist and rests his hands on the knees of his baggy overalls, hovering close to the tangle of fur and flesh. He cajoles his pit bull to release its bite and improve its position. The dogs tumble over each other, and Bacon jumps out of the way. “There you go!” he shouts. “That’s where you want to be!”
The other dog is getting mauled. It emits a piercing squeal, followed by a whimper. Laughter ripples through the crowd. Joseph Addison, a spectator who wears his hair in a jumble of chin-length braids, suggests it’s time to stop the match.
“This motherfucker through, man,” he says to Bacon. “He’s done.”
Using a small, wedge-shaped piece of wood called a break stick, Bacon pries open his dog’s jaws, releasing its opponent. The animals are separated and taken back to their respective corners to “scratch.” If they charge again, the fight continues. If one dog refuses, it will be branded a “cur” — an almost certain death sentence.
At the moment of truth, the vanquished dog cowers while Bacon’s dog attacks without hesitation, biting down and thrashing its powerful neck to inflict maximum damage. Again the handlers separate the dogs. The fight is over.
Someone in the crowd asks the losing dog’s owners what they plan to do with it.
“I’ll take ‘im home,” one says.
“Take him home?” comes the incredulous reply. “Look at this shit! You’ll take him home?”
“Yeah,” the man repeats, declining the offer to use an impromptu electric chair: an extension cord rigged with alligator clips attached to one end. “I’ll take ‘im home.”
A year and a half later, Bacon describes the scrap in the East St. Louis barn as “just a little wrasslin’ match.” In dogfighting parlance it’s known as a “roll” — a brief sparring session used to gauge whether a pup has the fighting spirit known simply as “game.”
“A contract fight is something you prepare for,” Bacon explains. “A roll is just ten, maybe 15 minutes. The dogs ain’t gettin’ hurt too much.”
He’s a carpenter by trade, but Bacon knows a lot about dogfighting. Still, there was one thing he didn’t know on March 22, 2009.
He was unaware that his dog’s opponent, Hammer, was property of the United States government.
The dog was purchased, trained, and brought to the fight by Terry Mills and Jeff Heath, veteran Missouri State Highway Patrol officers who were conducting an extensive undercover investigation into the secretive and brutal world of organized pit-bull fighting and breeding. Both men wore video- and audio-recording equipment concealed in their clothes.
Four months after the fight in the barn, a multiagency task force conducted a series of raids in eight states. Agents arrested 26 dogfighters, including Bacon, and seized more than 500 pit bulls — the largest dogfighting bust in American history. To make their case, investigators had spent a year and a half taking part in the same gruesome activities for which they would later make the arrests.
In early 2008, Terry Mills was working on a domestic-terrorism task force headed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The unit had received a tip that a “known domestic terror group” was standing guard at dogfights in rural Missouri.
“We already knew that in Texas, a particular well-known outlaw motorcycle gang was providing security at dogfights,” Mills says over a cup of coffee in his hometown of Cape Girardeau, Missouri. “So for an organized militia group to be doing that, it wasn’t really surprising.”
Mills, a burly 55-year-old whose soft eyes and stubbled cheeks are set off by a bushy gray goatee, cultivated a source who had ties to Bob Hackman, a renowned breeder of fighting pit bulls in the Midwest. The confidential informant worked as a “yard boy,” feeding and watering the dogs and “shaping” them for upcoming fights with a variety of training exercises.
Mills and FBI agent Bob Hoelscher outfitted their snitch with a wire and eavesdropped as he attended a series of dogfights in northeast Missouri. But after three months of sleuthing, they’d made no headway in the domestic-terrorism probe.
“The FBI said, ‘OK, we’re done. We’re pulling out completely,’ ” Mills recalls. “To Bob Hoelscher’s credit, he did everything he could do to try to get the case assigned to an organized-crime squad there within the FBI — anything to keep the case alive. He, like us, felt there was more to this case. We knew there was a lot more dogfighters out there. But the FBI said, ‘No, we’re out of it.’ “
Where the FBI saw a dead end, Mills and Missouri State Highway Patrol officer Jeff Heath sensed an opportunity.
The Michael Vick case had concluded less than a year earlier, when the former Atlanta Falcons quarterback pleaded guilty to a felony animal-fighting conspiracy charge and was sentenced to 23 months in federal prison. Vick’s high-profile indictment — complete with grisly descriptions of how he and his associates hanged, drowned, electrocuted, and shot several dogs — thrust dogfighting into the national consciousness. Congress passed a new law, the Animal Fighting Prohibition Enforcement Act, which took effect in May 2007 and made dogfighting a felony punishable by up to three years in prison.
Convicting dogfighters, however, requires that they first be apprehended.
The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) estimates that roughly 40,000 professional dogfighters are operating in the United States. The Humane Society of the United States says pit bulls and pit-bull mixes comprise a third of all dog intake at animal shelters nationwide; in some urban areas, the figure is as high as 70 percent. At the same time, the two nonprofits contend, law-enforcement agencies both local and federal are reluctant to devote resources to an offense that doesn’t affect humans and involves insular criminal networks that are difficult to infiltrate.
Infiltrating is precisely what Mills and Heath had in mind. But to gain access to any dogfighting ring, they knew they’d have to be active participants.
“We would have never been invited — never gotten anywhere close to them,” Mills says. “Especially after Michael Vick, they went from being ‘Let’s have everybody over and have a good time’ to ‘If you don’t have a dog in the fight, you don’t have any business here.’ “
Within the ranks of the Highway Patrol, Mills recalls, the decision to put agents and dogs in harm’s way was reached only after “grave discussion. It was one of those matters where it went all the way to the top.”
Ultimately, the Highway Patrol’s involvement in the case hinged on the support of the Humane Society of Missouri.
“Frankly, we didn’t know how the public would respond,” says Tim Rickey, who at the time headed the Humane Society’s animal-cruelty task force. “We just jumped into it. For me, it was about doing the right thing.”
Adds Rickey: “It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. They don’t utilize these types of resources very often.”
Terry Mills spent 16 years working undercover narcotics details. For two years in the late ’80s, he lived in rented apartments in western Missouri — “Just going to bars and buying dope,” he says — as part of a prolonged probe of a biker gang called El Forasteros. He proudly recounts how he started with virtually no knowledge of motorcycles and finished a Harley devotee.
Jeff Heath, a stern-faced 46-year-old who sports a hoop earring and goatee and wears his brown hair pulled back into a shoulder-length ponytail, got his start with the St. Louis County Police Department and worked narcotics before joining the Highway Patrol. He was eventually assigned to the agency’s criminal-investigations unit, where he partnered with Mills and the region’s Major Case Squad to solve murders across the state.
But both men knew next to nothing about the finer points of dogfighting.
“You saw Michael Vick on TV?” Heath asks rhetorically. “That’s about what we knew going in.”
Enter Tim Rickey and Kyle Held, animal-cruelty investigators with the Humane Society of Missouri. The pair had more than ten years of combined experience breaking up animal-fighting operations in the Show-Me State. They helped school the detectives on rules and jargon — terms like “fanged,” which describes a dog’s incisors piercing through its own lips during a fight.
The agents say passing themselves off as dogfighters to breeder Bob Hackman proved to be the key to their initial success. They describe Hackman as a dogfighting “guru” who amassed a small fortune selling a highly regarded bloodline of fighting pit bulls known as Boyles out of his Shake Rattle and Roll kennel in the town of Foley, about 40 miles northwest of St. Louis.
“At one point [Hackman] told us he’d sold 70 puppies that year,” Mills says. “Those are going for at least a $1,000 a pop, and some of ‘em were $1,500. They were the offspring of a champion. And everybody wants a champion dog.”
When the breeder’s kennel flooded in a storm, Mills and Heath brought in a trailer and helped him move his animals and equipment. To cement the relationship — and to help get their own kennel up and running — they purchased several of his Boyles dogs.
“He’s the man,” Heath sums up. “Once we walked in the door with Hackman, no one is going to question that. I mean no one.”
Guided by their snitch, the investigators made the rounds to prominent pit-bull breeders in the state. In Missouri, it’s illegal to own a fighting dog, which meant Mills and Heath could get a suspect to incriminate himself and spare their pit bulls a stint in the fighting pit simply by expressing interest and asking him to demo a dog.
“He’d pull another dog out of his kennel and get them together for a short period of time,” Mills explains. “It might be a minute; it might be two minutes. Then the case is made. He doesn’t have to say anything about money or entertainment. As soon as those two dogs are fighting, you’re done.”
The agents say they asked the breeders to include emaciated or injured dogs as “freebies” in the deals, which in some instances totaled $5,000.
“We’d tell him we were going to take it back to our kennel and try to nurse it back,” Heath says. “We would immediately turn it over to the Humane Society. It didn’t cost us anything, but the dog would have a much better life.”
Eventually the investigators were the proud owners of 40 full-grown, healthy fighting dogs, along with a dozen puppies.
Acquiring and outfitting a kennel proved to be something of a challenge.
“As soon as you tell that landlord that you’re going to move 40 pit bulls onto that property, he says, ‘Oh no you’re not,’ ” says Mills. “We had to lease-to-purchase acreage under [Heath's] undercover name. We had to buy it — or at least enter under the pretense of buying it.”
They settled on a parcel of remote farmland on a hillside in east-central Missouri. After installing a mobile home on their spread and building a storage shed, they purchased doghouses, chains, dogfighting gear, and pallets of pricey high-protein dog food.
“We joked with our bosses early on when we’re talking about what we’re going to do and how we’re going to do it,” Mills recalls. “They’d always go, ‘Don’t reinvent the wheel. Do this and do that.’ We’re going, ‘Reinvent the wheel? This has never been done before. We are inventing the wheel!’”
When it comes to housing, fighting pit bulls are afforded no luxuries. Their habitats are designed solely for the purposes of increasing strength, resilience, and aggressiveness toward other animals. Many breeders and keepers refer to their setups as “yards” — an apt description. The dogs are almost always kept outdoors. Heavy chains, chosen specifically to build neck and shoulder muscles, restrict their movements. The distance between where the animals are staked down is carefully measured so that they can come within a few feet of each other but never actually touch.
“They crave human contact so much,” Mills says. “They would go the length of their chain and turn around so their tail is facing you, just so you’ll brush it when you go by. They just love to be petted and touched.”
The detectives had to train their dogs to fight. To keep them lean and to maintain their weight class (dogs are matched against each other according to weight and gender), they put the animals on a diet that consisted of noodles and ground beef in the weeks leading up to a match. On the chain, the pit bulls would play tug of war with a length of fire hose, an exercise called “shake shake” designed to strengthen their jaws and neck muscles and, as Heath puts it, to “increase their sense of win.”
“We couldn’t really expose dogs and not have them at least be in shape,” Mills says. “If you’re going to put on a front, you can’t be a laughingstock.”
Adds Heath: “It’s like a prizefighter or a football player. You’re going to have to take the extra weight off. You got to put wind in them. You run them, or swim them — that’s an excellent training method. For weight training, we put a harness on them and had ‘em pull chains or some kind of weight around.”
U.S. Attorney Richard Callahan says his office decided what the dogs could be subjected to based on “thoughtful discussions with both the state and national humane societies, those individuals involved and with the undercover agents.”
Callahan says the dogs did not receive performance-enhancing drugs but declines to specify what other training methods were off-limits. “To discuss those things could jeopardize any investigations that might be going on in other parts of the country or endanger the undercover agents who are part of those investigations,” he notes. “To give a laundry list of what we allow and don’t allow would only help the criminal element.”
Though the investigators began by arranging dogfights in Missouri and southern Illinois, by January 2009, they found themselves “hooked” for matches as far from home as Oklahoma and Texas. By their own tally, they eventually made more than 150 undercover contacts and attended 86 dogfights.
“We ended up being involved and going to fights way more than a real fighter would,” Mills says. “Most only did two or three, and some of them only did one or two a year, because it’s so intense in the training process.”
The agents quickly realized that the region’s dogfighters were a tight-knit group. Conducting raids and making arrests in distant locales and returning home to continue business as usual was out of the question.
“In Oklahoma, by the time we got done and back to our motel that night, everybody in Missouri knew if we won or lost,” Mills says. “They all knew. We couldn’t talk to anybody without somebody else knowing.”
The tradeoff was extraordinary, nearly unfettered access to a world that had formerly been inaccessible to law enforcement.
“All you got to do to get a dogfighter to talk about his dogs, once he’s comfortable, is say hello,” Mills says. “They want talk about their dogs — the medical problems, the yard accidents, the diseases that will wipe out your yard — I mean, they talk about it all.”
Heath and Mills were surprised to discover that the dogfighters they were mingling with came from all walks of life. Suspects ranged from a registered nurse to a convicted killer out on parole. There was a crack dealer in East St. Louis, a high school football coach in Texas, a schoolteacher in Iowa, a firefighter in Oklahoma. The agents even encountered a veterinary technician who hooked up his dogs to IVs to rehydrate them after fights.
“They’re sociopaths,” says Tim Rickey, the former Humane Society of Missouri agent who took part in the probe. “That type of person that can live a fairly normal existence, portray themselves a lover of the breed, and go to church — and then stand around and cheer at one of the most barbaric acts you’ll ever see. They spend months with a dog and smile before a fight and talk about how good they are. And then they execute them in a second when they don’t fight well.”
Troubled by the mortality rate of castoff dogs, the detectives began offering to take the losers rather than witness their execution.
“Most of the time, they wouldn’t even let you have the injured dog,” Mills says. “They did not want their bloodline getting out of the kennel. They [suspected] we’d nurse that dog back to health” and breed it.
They also had to get creative to avoid executing their own losing dogs on the spot. While their hidden cameras captured the scene in East St. Louis in March 2009, Mills was able to rebuff the offer to dispatch the dog they’d named Hammer.
“Nah,” Mills can be heard saying when the lethally rigged extension cord comes his way. “I like to get rid of mine at home.”
Though Hammer survived, investigators say Joseph Addison, the man who brought the electrical cord, killed one of his own dogs later that night.
“Addison stated that he did not have ‘chain space’ for a dog who lost,” reads an indictment filed that summer. “Addison attached an alligator clipped cable to the female dog’s lip and rear flank. [The owner of the barn] handed Addison the end of the extension cord. Addison electrocuted the dog.”
Occupying two and a half square miles along the northeast border of East St. Louis, Illinois, the village of Washington Park is home to about 5,000 residents and no fewer than seven strip clubs. This past April, the mayor was robbed and shot to death after stopping on one of the town’s two main drags to offer a pedestrian a ride.
It was dark by the time Mills, Heath, their informant, and two other dogfighters arrived in Washington Park on the evening of November 15, 2008. The undercover officers steered their SUV to a rundown white clapboard house with a junk-strewn lawn on the outskirts of town. The fighting pit was in the backyard, surrounded by a group of about 40 people. Everyone paid $20 to William Berry, the show’s promoter, better-known by his street name, Black.
One of the night’s main events was a $2,000 showdown between Black’s dog and a pit bull owned by a dogfighter from St. Louis who’d been boarding the dog at the Highway Patrol agents’ kennel. (Mills will not divulge the man’s name because he has yet to be charged.) The man had intended to handle the dog himself, but he was ill and had asked the agents’ snitch to stand in for him.
The fight was a grueling one that dragged on for more than two hours. Pit bulls in top condition are relentless, and in the frenzy of battle, they’re impervious to virtually anything short of heat stroke. Heath and Mills tell of seeing dogs fight through broken legs.
“The only reason a pit bull will quit fighting is because it’s hot,” Mills says. “It’s not because of the pain. It’ll fight for you for love and loyalty. It won’t quit because it’s hurtin’.”
In addition to steroids, some owners inject their dogs with epinephrine or, foolishly, methamphetamine and cocaine to increase their fighting drive. The stimulants can kill fighting dogs; they die from kidney or heart failure or heat exhaustion.
And yet, contrary to popular belief, pit bulls rarely fight to the death. Not only is it unnecessary — the dominant animal usually proves itself before fatal wounds are inflicted — it’s imprudent. If a dog is game and descended from a reputable bloodline, its offspring will be valuable commodities. The detectives say this often provided a convenient excuse to end fights before their dogs sustained serious injuries.
“We’d pull the plug at the cost of having to suck our egos and go on,” Mills says. “Once that referee says,’Release your dog,’ and they make contact, the case is made. From then on, we’re looking for an excuse to end this fight. Like anything, we’re very competitive guys, and we wanna win. But it wasn’t about that.”
“If our dog was out there getting hurt, we’d pick it up,” Heath adds. “We had some story: ‘That dog’s worth a lot to us for breeding purposes. He’s obviously winning the fight, but he’s more valuable for me to take him home.’ “
But on this November night, it was someone else’s dog — and someone else’s $2,000 — on the line. Surrender wasn’t an option.
By all accounts the two dogs fought until neither had anything left to give. They were lying on the floor of the pit exhausted, their jaws still locked on each other’s bodies. Joseph Addison, the referee, remembers Heath and Mills trying to find a way out.
“They was asking to call it a draw, call it even,” he remembers. “For some reason, they wouldn’t call it a draw. Whenever one goes that long — which is rare; I’ve never seen it — obviously both dogs are in great shape. Neither was giving an inch. Usually they say, ‘I’m going to lose my dog and you’ll lose yours — let’s stop it.’ “
The detectives say the ailing owner’s dog had the upper hand, and in his absence the decision to resign was Black’s alone.
John Bacon, a spectator that night, remembers it differently.
“They let it go on and on until that dog just died,” Bacon says. “It was ridiculous. They could have stopped it any minute, but they had $2,000 on the line. Both of those dogs was lying on the ground almost dead. They let it go on too long.”
Instead of calling it quits, Black did something totally unexpected: He picked up his dying dog without a word and fled.
A posse quickly formed, bent on extracting the welsher’s $2,000.
“We jumped up and chased him,” Mills recounts. “His dog’s hurt. There’s only a few places where he can take his dog there over in Washington Park, and we knew he was going to stay close.” The chase ended at a house six blocks away from the fight site, with Black inside and Mills, Heath, and their handler/informant in their SUV, along with several dogfighters.
“The other guys, they just wanna charge in there, kick Black’s butt, and take his money,” Heath recalls. “We know very well that, this being Washington Park, there’s going to be guns. In fact, Black came up to the porch with a gun in his hand.”
“We’re standing there, kind of waiting to see what they’re going to do,” Mills says. “We’re certainly not going to charge the house, because we know if there’s any exchange of anything, we’re now the police, and it’s over; the investigation is done early on.”
They sent in their informant to negotiate a truce. Black invited the man into the house and escorted him to the basement, where his dog lay on a countertop, barely alive. Meanwhile, the detectives were left on the front lawn to talk their angry associates into going home empty-handed — without blowing their cover. They succeeded.
“I don’t think [Black] had the money, to be honest with you,” Mills says. “And if he’s standing on the porch with a gun, it’s not like we’re going to go take it from him. Although that’s what these guys would have done.”
Heath says the wild night bolstered their standing in the dogfighting community.
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