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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 MSHP'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 Kansas City 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 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."