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The agents quickly realized that the region's dogfighters were a tight-knit 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 tradeoff 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. There was a crack dealer in East St. Louis, a high school football coach in Texas, a schoolteacher in Iowa, 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.
"Nah," Mills can be heard saying when the lethally rigged extension cord comes his way. "I like to get rid of mine at home."
Though Hammer survived, investigators say Joseph Addison, the man who brought the electrical cord, killed one of his own dogs later that night.
"Addison stated that he did not have 'chain space,' for a dog who lost," reads an indictment filed that summer. "Addison attached an alligator clipped cable to the female dog's lip and rear flank. [The owner of the barn] handed Addison the end of the extension cord. Addison electrocuted the dog."
Occupying two and a half square miles along the northeast border of East St. Louis, Illinois, the village of Washington Park is home to approximately 5,000 residents and no fewer than seven strip clubs. This past April the mayor was robbed and shot to death after stopping on one of the town's two main drags to offer a pedestrian a ride.
It was dark by the time Mills, Heath, their informant and two other dogfighters arrived in Washington Park on the evening of November 15, 2008. The undercover officers steered their SUV to a rundown white clapboard house with a junk-strewn lawn on the outskirts of town. The fighting pit was in the back yard, surrounded by a group of about 40 people. Everyone paid $20 to William Berry, the show's promoter, better known by his street name, Black.
One of the night's main events was a $2,000 showdown between Black's dog and a pit bull owned by a dogfighter from St. Louis who'd been boarding the dog at the highway patrol agents' kennel. (Mills will not divulge the man's name because he has yet to be charged.) The man had intended to handle the dog himself, but he was ill and had asked the agents' snitch to stand in for him.
The fight was a grueling one that dragged on for more than two hours. Pit bulls in top condition are relentless, and in the frenzy of battle they're impervious to virtually anything short of heat stroke. Heath and Mills tell of seeing dogs fight through broken legs.
"The only reason a pit bull will quit fighting is because it's hot," Mills says. "It's not because of the pain. It'll fight for you for love and loyalty. It won't quit because it's hurtin'."
In addition to steroids, some owners inject their dogs with epinephrine or, foolishly, methamphetamine and cocaine to increase their fighting drive. The stimulants can kill fighting dogs; they die from kidney or heart failure, or heat exhaustion.
And yet, contrary to popular belief, pit bulls rarely fight to the death. Not only is it unnecessary — the dominant animal usually proves itself before fatal wounds are inflicted — it's imprudent. If a dog is game and descended from a reputable bloodline, its offspring will be valuable commodities. The detectives say this often provided a convenient excuse to end fights before their dogs sustained serious injuries.
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