A father of six, Bacon has a round baby face that prompted his grandmother to nickname him "Dumpling," later shortened to "Dump." At trial he testified that he dropped out of high school a few months shy of graduation and made a career out of rehabbing houses. In 2002 he founded a rap label called Lock 'Em Down Records. The venture went sour in 2007 when his cousin and co-CEO Dewanzel "Jazz" Singleton pleaded guilty to felony cocaine-conspiracy charges. (For more see "Lock 'Em Down, Lock 'Em Up," in the January 9, 2008, issue of Riverfront Times, available online.)

Bacon says he took good care of his dogs and provides a copy of a recent vet bill to prove it. (He paid the $118 tab in cash and used an alias.) He says dogfighting is viewed differently in his community, that the lives of animals are not valued the same as those of humans. But again and again he returns to the question of how the authorities can justify their dogfighting exploits while condemning him for his.

"How can the Humane Society keep letting you do these dogs like that, if it's so wrong?" he asks bitterly. "The officers have dogs, OK. But how far do you let it go? You're setting people up at the expense of a dog's death. And not just one — you're going from state to state. Evidently you don't care about the dogs neither."

A one-eyed dog seized from the kennel of James Milburn, a pit bull breeder and dogfighter in southern Illinois. Click here for undercover video footage from the investigation.
A one-eyed dog seized from the kennel of James Milburn, a pit bull breeder and dogfighter in southern Illinois. Click here for undercover video footage from the investigation.
A crowd gathered behind this house Washington Park, Illinois, to watch a series of dogfights on November 15, 2008. Click here for undercover video footage from the investigation.
Keegan Hamilton
A crowd gathered behind this house Washington Park, Illinois, to watch a series of dogfights on November 15, 2008. Click here for undercover video footage from the investigation.

Mills says the dogs the investigators acquired for their kennel were eventually turned over to the Humane Society for adoption. Callahan, the U.S. Attorney, says there's no hard and fast rule that determines when and if an undercover investigation should be halted.

"It's always a balancing act and judgment call that you make, and that's made as honestly as one can," he says. "If you cut off an undercover investigation too soon, you foreclose on the possibility of discovery of a wider range of criminal activity. At some point if you wait too long, you've allowed something to go on that shouldn't be allowed to go on. Somewhere in between you make your best judgment."

Peter Joy, director of the Criminal Justice Clinic at Washington University's School of Law, says the boundaries for undercover agents are typically determined on a case-by-case basis. Still, he notes that "they have to have limits to what they can do" and points to several instances in which undercover officers blurred the lines between right and wrong, including a case in Cleveland where drugs that were initially sold by police to suspects later turned up at a local high school.

"There's an almost psychological, sociological dimension to this," Joy says. "When you embed an officer deep in certain kinds of criminal activity, does that somehow change the character of the officer?"

Local attorney Albert Watkins, whose client Ricky Stringfellow received a yearlong sentence for his role in hosting fights and electrocuting Addison's dog, maintains that Mills, Heath and their bosses pushed the envelope too far.

"It's one thing being an undercover officer selling narcotics as part of a sting," Watkins contends. "It's a whole other thing to be participating in the very crime for which others are being charged. It would not be unlike an undercover agent in a prostitution sting actually engaging in sex activities across state lines with a minor."

The investigation has been almost universally applauded by animal-welfare organizations. Mills, Heath, Rickey and Held were named the ASPCA's Law Enforcement Officers of the Year in 2009; Rickey left the Humane Society of Missouri to become the ASPCA's senior director of field investigations and response.

"Hopefully it will be duplicated," Rickey says of the landmark case. "We saved more than 400 animals and a countless number of their offspring from being born into a life of torment and torture. Even more impressive long term is the message that we sent to dogfighters throughout the country. This case really shook the dogfighting community up. They realized law enforcement is serious about this and remain very nervous that they are being infiltrated."

The sentencing precedent set during the court cases in southern Illinois (one of five district courts in which the dogfighting cases were tried) might make dogfighters even more apprehensive.

In 2008, the year after Congress cracked down on dogfighting, another new federal law upped the maximum sentence for animal fighting to five years. Federal guidelines, however, still specify that only zero- to six-month sentences should accompany typical convictions. The exception: crimes accompanied by acts of "extraordinary cruelty."

In Southern Illinois district court, Judge Michael Reagan composed what amounts to a 22-page research paper on the history of dogfighting. The document includes 125 footnotes and touches on everything from the "immense" popularity of the activity among American policemen and firefighters in the early 1800s to the current dogfighting craze in Afghanistan, where fights in Kabul now "draw as many as 2,000 people" and "betting pots run as high as $10,000."

Because the guidelines don't take into account factors like the number of dogs involved or whether the defendant was deeply involved in dogfighting as promoter or breeder, Reagan created a three-tier system of "professionals," "hobbyists" and "streetfighters." He decided that the pros — especially ones who kill, maim or mistreat dogs outside the ring — deserve the most severe sentences. He also ruled that the men must seek permission from the court if they want to own dogs as pets after their release.

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