To pull off the biggest pit-bull-fighting bust in U.S. history, investigators went deep undercover. So did their dogs. 

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"How can the Humane Society keep letting you do these dogs like that, if it's so wrong?" he asks bitterly. "The officers have dogs, OK. But how far do you let it go? You're setting people up at the expense of a dog's death. And not just one — you're going from state to state. Evidently you don't care about the dogs neither."

Mills says the dogs that the investigators acquired for their kennel were eventually turned over to the Humane Society for adoption.

Callahan, the U.S. attorney, says there's no hard and fast rule that determines when and if an undercover investigation should be halted.

"It's always a balancing act and judgment call that you make, and that's made as honestly as one can," he says. "If you cut off an undercover investigation too soon, you foreclose on the possibility of discovery of a wider range of criminal activity. At some point if you wait too long, you've allowed something to go on that shouldn't be allowed to go on. Somewhere in between you make your best judgment."

Peter Joy, director of the Criminal Justice Clinic at Washington University's School of Law, says the boundaries for undercover agents are typically determined on a case-by-case basis. Still, he notes that "they have to have limits to what they can do" and points to several instances in which undercover officers blurred the lines between right and wrong, including a case in Cleveland where drugs that were initially sold by police to suspects later turned up at a local high school.

"There's an almost psychological, sociological dimension to this," Joy says. "When you embed an officer deep in certain kinds of criminal activity, does that somehow change the character of the officer?"

Attorney Albert Watkins, whose client Ricky Stringfellow received a yearlong sentence for his role in hosting fights and helping electrocute Addison's dog, maintains that Mills, Heath and their bosses pushed the envelope too far.

"It's one thing being an undercover officer selling narcotics as part of a sting," Watkins contends. "It's a whole other thing to be participating in the very crime for which others are being charged. It would not be unlike an undercover agent in a prostitution sting actually engaging in sex activities across state lines with a minor."

The investigation has been almost universally applauded by animal-welfare organizations. Mills, Heath, Rickey and Held were named the ASPCA's Law Enforcement Officers of the Year in 2009; Rickey left the Humane Society of Missouri to become the ASPCA's senior director of field investigations and response.

"Hopefully it will be duplicated," Rickey says of the landmark case. "We saved more than 400 animals and a countless number of their offspring from being born into a life of torment and torture. Even more impressive long term is the message that we sent to dogfighters throughout the country. This case really shook the dogfighting community up. They realized law enforcement is serious about this and remain very nervous that they are being infiltrated."

The sentencing precedent set during the court cases in southern Illinois (one of five circuit courts in which the dogfighting cases have been tried) might make dogfighters even more apprehensive.

In 2008, the year after Congress cracked down on dogfighting, another new federal law upped the maximum sentence for animal fighting to five years. Federal guidelines, however, still specify that only zero- to six-month sentences should accompany typical convictions. The exception: crimes accompanied by acts of "extraordinary cruelty."

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