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"I don't actually know what happened to the dogs in the end," Mills adds. "I think they both died. They just can't sustain that type of trauma."
At 6 a.m. on July 9, 2009, agents from the FBI, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Missouri State Highway Patrol, the U.S. Marshals Service and myriad local police departments raided 29 properties in 8 states. They seized more than 200 firearms and arrested 26 people, charging them with more than 100 felonies in all.
Terry Mills and Jeff Heath watched the day's events play out from the FBI's mobile command center in St. Louis. Mills says the FBI had kept tabs on the case and agreed to get back onboard a few months before the raids, "when they saw how good it was going to be." An FBI spokesperson declined to comment for this story.
Headed by Tim Rickey, teams from the Humane Society and the ASPCA accompanied the law-enforcement officers as they served the search warrants. Altogether the crews collected 407 dogs in Missouri and Illinois and 100 more from properties in Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Iowa, Mississippi and Arkansas.
Because the raids had to be kept secret until the last minute, Rickey says, his workers and volunteers had no idea they'd be dealing with fighting pit bulls. "They thought they were coming in to do a large animal-hoarding case," the soft-spoken animal-welfare worker chuckles. "I remember seeing the amazement in their faces when I told them."
The rescuers had little to fear. Although fighting pit bulls are fiercely hostile toward other dogs, they are remarkably submissive to people. Handlers won't tolerate being bitten and typically kill dogs that are aggressive toward humans.
Rickey remembers one dog in particular — later dubbed Fay — that startled and disturbed his staff. Its lips had been mangled in a fight and amputated, leaving it with a permanent scowl.
"My team member approached me and said, 'This dog is aggressive, it's showing its teeth,'" he recalls. "I immediately realized it was not aggressive. It came out and greeted me and was one of the friendliest dogs I've ever had the pleasure of meeting."
The workers uncovered other atrocities, including several dogs that were missing eyes, ears and limbs. At Joseph Addison's Backstreet Truez kennel in East St. Louis, they found 33 dogs, including one that was subsequently christened Stallone. In a sealed letter to the court, the Humane Society of Missouri wrote that the 6-year-old dog "was a mangled mass of swollen, gaping infected wounds — eyes, ears, muzzle, lips, nose, chin, neck — no part was left unscathed." Injured beyond rehabilitation, Stallone was euthanized.
Rickey, however, points out that not every dogfighter was so callous.
"I will say overall the health of most dogs was pretty good," the animal-welfare worker says. "They weren't receiving the level of care of my dogs or other animals, but they take good care of them — up to the point they put them in the pit."
The rescued dogs were transported to a makeshift shelter in a St. Louis warehouse. Twenty-one of the dogs were pregnant; they eventually gave birth to 153 puppies.
In previous major dogfighting busts (prior to the St. Louis case, the largest haul came in a 2007 bust in Ohio that netted 64 dogs and 9 indictments), nearly all of the seized pit bulls were euthanized. Debbie Hill, vice president of operations at the Humane Society of Missouri, says her agency hoped to set a new standard.
"People have a hard time believing these dogs aren't absolutely ruined for life, that they'll always be animal- or people-aggressive," Hill says. "That's not true. If they're treated differently, given different opportunities, we found a good number of them could adapt."