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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 six-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."
One by one the dogs underwent extensive behavioral analysis. In one trial the pit bulls were presented with lifelike stuffed-animal replicas of various dog breeds. Some reacted with indifference. Others revealed how vicious they had become.
In one court document, prosecutors describe how a dog that belonged to Derrick Courtland, one of Addison's Backstreet Truez partners, "would not release the stuffed dog even when presented with food. A pan was struck with a stick near her ear, and when one of the handlers tried to pry her teeth away from the stuffed dog with a break stick she was unsuccessful. [The dog] required a second handler to pry her mouth, with some blood shed, off of the stuffed animal's face."
In the end roughly half of the 500 pit bulls passed the tests and found new homes. The rest were put down. (Click here to read more about local efforts to rehome abused pit bulls as pets.)
To date 17 of the 26 suspects arrested in the 2009 raids have pleaded guilty and are serving time in federal prison. Authorities netted an additional 34 convictions in state courts and 18 more at the federal level in the cases of dogfighters who were arrested or charged in the weeks following the July bust. Eighteen cases are pending in U.S. District courts.
Altogether the investigation targeted 107 suspects. Eleven of those escaped prosecution on misdemeanor charges of spectating at a dogfight because the probe extended beyond the statute of limitations. Two men were tried, convicted and sentenced to lengthy prison terms on charges unrelated to dogfighting. One was deported.
Among those currently incarcerated are Bacon, sentenced to sixteen months, and Addison, who got two years. In an interview at his family's home in Washington Park a few weeks after the sentencing, Bacon questions the lengths to which investigators were willing to go in order to put him and his cohorts behind bars.
"It's like they broke the law to get what they wanted," Bacon says. "They were actually in the box with blood on them, fighting dogs. They was in knee deep. They're no better than the ones who got convicted."
Asked to back up his claims, Bacon provided Riverfront Times with three DVDs marked with the seal of the U.S. Department of Justice. The discs contain four digital recordings that depict Bacon, the investigators and several other individuals fighting dogs, touring a kennel and discussing dog weights in advance of a fight. Bacon says he was able to obtain copies of the undercover footage because he represented himself pro se during a portion of his trial. (Bacon also provided a sealed letter from the Humane Society to the court; all other documents cited in this story are public records.)
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