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Four months after the fight in the barn, a multi-agency 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. In order 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 Cape Girardeau, his hometown. "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 fellow highway patrolman 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.'"