"We'd pull the plug at the cost of having to suck our egos and go on," Mills says. "Once that referee says, 'Release your dog,' and they make contact, the case is made. From then on we're looking for an excuse to end this fight. Like anything, we're very competitive guys and we wanna win. But it wasn't about that."

"If our dog was out there getting hurt, we'd pick it up," Heath adds. "We had some story: 'That dog's worth a lot to us for breeding purposes. He's obviously winning the fight, but he's more valuable for me to take him home.'"

But on this November night it was someone else's dog — and someone else's $2,000 — on the line. Surrender wasn't an option.

A rescued pit bull named Fay had her lips amputated by her owner, leaving her with a permanent scowl.
Jennifer Silverberg
A rescued pit bull named Fay had her lips amputated by her owner, leaving her with a permanent scowl.

By all accounts the two dogs fought until neither had anything left to give. They were lying on the floor of the pit exhausted, their jaws still locked on each other's bodies. Joseph Addison, the referee, remembers Heath and Mills trying to find a way out.

"They was asking to call it a draw, call it even," he remembers. "For some reason they wouldn't call it a draw. Whenever one goes that long — which is rare, I've never seen it — obviously both dogs are in great shape. Neither was giving an inch. Usually they say, 'I'm going to lose my dog and you'll lose yours — let's stop it.'"

The detectives say the ailing owner's dog had the upper hand, and in his absence the decision to resign was Black's alone.

John Bacon, a spectator that night, remembers it differently.

"They let it go on and on until that dog just died," Bacon says. "It was ridiculous. They could have stopped it any minute, but they had $2,000 on the line. Both of those dogs was lying on the ground almost dead. They let it go on too long."

Instead of calling it quits, Black did something totally unexpected: He picked up his dying dog without a word and fled.

A posse quickly formed, bent on extracting the welsher's $2,000.

"We jumped up and chased him," Mills recounts. "His dog's hurt. There's only a few places where he can take his dog there over in Washington Park, and we knew he was going to stay close."

The chase ended at a house six blocks away from the fight site, with Black inside and Mills, Heath and their handler/informant in their SUV, along with several dogfighters.

"The other guys, they just wanna charge in there, kick Black's butt and take his money," Heath recalls. "We know very well that, this being Washington Park, there's going to be guns. In fact, Black came up to the porch with a gun in his hand."

"We're standing there, kind of waiting to see what they're going to do," Mills says. "We're certainly not going to charge the house, because we know if there's any exchange of anything, we're now the police and it's over, the investigation is done early on."

They sent in their informant to negotiate a truce. Black invited the man into the house and escorted him to the basement, where his dog lay on a countertop, barely alive. Meanwhile the detectives were left on the front lawn to talk their angry associates into going home empty-handed — without blowing their cover. They succeeded.

"I don't think [Black] had the money, to be honest with you," Mills says. "And if he's standing on the porch with a gun, it's not like we're going to go take it from him. Although that's what these guys would have done."

Heath says the wild night bolstered their standing in the dogfighting community.

"In the long run it helps us out," Heath says. "We got credibility from it. People called up and said, 'Yeah, I heard about that fight, I heard what he did to you. We don't agree with that either.' We'd find out where we were going to fight and say, 'If [Black] is going to be there, we're not coming.'"

"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 USDA, 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.

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