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"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 Missouri State Highway Patrol officer 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.'"
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 sixteen 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 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."