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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 tightknit 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 trade-off 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, and included a crack dealer in East St. Louis, a high school football coach in Texas, a schoolteacher in Iowa and 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 in order 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.