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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 expressing interest and 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."
The agents say they asked the breeders to include emaciated or injured dogs as "freebies" in the deals, which in some instances totaled $5,000.
"We'd tell him we were going to take it back to our kennel and try to nurse it back," Heath says. "We would immediately turn it over to the Humane Society. It didn't cost us anything, but the dog would have a much better life."
Eventually the investigators were the proud owners of 40 full-grown, healthy fighting dogs, along with a dozen puppies.
Acquiring and outfitting a kennel proved to be something of a challenge.
"As soon as you tell that landlord that you're going to move 40 pit bulls onto that property, he says, 'Oh no you're not,'" says Mills. "We had to lease-to-purchase acreage under [Heath's] undercover name. We had to buy it — or at least enter under the pretense of buying it."
They settled on a parcel of remote farmland on a hillside in east-central Missouri. After installing a mobile home on their spread and building a storage shed, they purchased doghouses, chains, dogfighting gear and pallets of pricey high-protein dog food.
"We joked with our bosses early on when we're talking about what we're going to do and how we're going to do it," Mills recalls. "They'd always go, 'Don't reinvent the wheel. Do this and do that.' We're going, 'Reinvent the wheel? This has never been done before. We are inventing the wheel!'"
When it comes to housing, fighting pit bulls are afforded no luxuries. Their habitats are designed solely for the purposes of increasing strength, resilience and aggressiveness toward other animals. Many breeders and keepers refer to their setups as "yards" — an apt description. The dogs are almost always kept outdoors. Heavy chains, chosen specifically to build neck and shoulder muscles, restrict their movements. The distance between where the animals are staked down is carefully measured so that they can come within a few feet of each other but never actually touch.
"They crave human contact so much," Mills says. "They would go the length of their chain and turn around so their tail is facing you, just so you'll brush it when you go by. They just love to be petted and touched."
The detectives had to train their dogs to fight. To keep them lean and to maintain their weight class (dogs are matched against one another according to exact weight and gender), they put the animals on a diet that consisted of noodles and ground beef in the weeks leading up to a match. On the chain, the pit bulls would play tug of war with a length of fire hose, an exercise called "shake shake" designed to strengthen their jaws and neck muscles and, as Heath puts it, to "increase their sense of win."
"We couldn't really expose dogs and not have them at least be in shape," Mills says. "If you're going to put on a front, you can't be a laughingstock."
Adds Heath: "It's like a prizefighter or a football player. You're going to have to take the extra weight off. You got to put wind in them. You run them, or swim them — that's an excellent training method. For weight training we put a harness on them and had 'em pull chains or some kind of weight around."
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."