Saving man's best friend from dog's worst enemy

Adding to the unmistakable mixed odor of blood and wet dog in the room came the bitter scent of burning. “They left it too long, and you could actually smell the burning—I don’t want to say flesh of the dog—but you could tell it was burning. The dog had been dead for some time, it wasn’t moving.”

After attending nearly 86 matches during his year-long stint undercover investigating a dog-fighting ring, Terry Mills describes the merciless end to many dog fights.
“Ever seen jumper cables? The clips look like the end of jumper cables, reduced in size about 2 or 3 inches. They’ll hook those wire ends up to a 110 [electrical outlet] and they’ll clip usually the lip and the flank. They’ll take a washcloth and wet them down, and then plug it in to the 110. It’s pretty gruesome.”

Over the course of a year leading up to mid-2009, Mills worked as an undercover officer investigating a dog-fighting ring for the Missouri State Highway Patrol. The case ultimately became what is thought to be the largest dog-fighting operation in U.S. history, and helped shut down a dog-fighting circuit connected across eight states. Today, three of the individuals who worked the case are part of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals’ (better known as the ASPCA) newly conceived Blood Sports unit. The new unit, formed six months ago under the organization’s Field Investigations and Response team, a cruelty branch with the ASPCA, was created to better assist local law enforcement agencies across the country in dog-fighting and cockfighting investigations.

8-state dog-fighting investigation

In 2008, the Missouri State Joint-Terrorism Task Force got a tip that a local dog-fighting ring might be involved in a terrorism protection group. Terry Mills, a Missouri State Highway Patrol trooper at the time, did some undercover digging only to find out there was no terrorism activity taking place. The JTTF investigation was halted. However, the undercover look at the dog-fighting circle brought new horrors to light, and a state patrol investigation went on to survey the scene and develop intel on the individuals involved, as well as the variety of criminal activity abed in the group. “The scope was much larger than anybody had ever dreamed,” Mills says.
Mills spent more than 30 years with the Missouri State Highway Patrol, where he investigated major crimes and participated in undercover operations involving narcotics, terrorism and gang-related activities. After 18 months of investigation and more than 100 individuals documented, police carried out a large-scale raid across multiple states to collect evidence and rescue the animals involved, all in simultaneous operations.

“What that case exposed really was how widespread animal fighting is — not only in Missouri — but nationwide,” says Rickey, who worked closely with Mills on the Humane Society of Missouri side for the duration of the case. “This is an investigation that spanned eight states, and it became very obvious very soon ... that this was a highly organized industry and had much more people involved in it than we had originally thought.” In addition to the animal cruelty and dog-fighting crimes taking place, a bevy of related criminal activity was also uncovered. In the raid on July 9, 2009, investigators found marijuana grow operations, methamphetamine and crack cocaine. Approximately $60,000 in stolen property was seized, as well as 100 guns, three vehicles and three boats. Mills explains that the organized criminal nature of blood sports rings lends itself to breed further crime, which multiplies the danger — but also the value to public safety when the cases are investigated.

A total of 407 dogs were rescued, with an additional 107 puppies born to pregnant fighting dogs after the raid.

Elevated awareness

The dog-fighting problem in the United States was brought to the front and center of national news in 2007, linking pro football star Michael Vick’s name with the underground sport when he was indicted for financing and running a dog-fighting ring and convicted in December of that year, seven months after the Animal Fighting Prohibition Enforcement Act was passed nationwide making the blood sport a felony.

As was revealed in the Vick case and later through other investigations, including the MSHP investigation, several elements drive the dog-fighting industry.

“Of course, it’s all about money and ego,” Mills says. The gambling aspect of the blood sport is a key ingredient, though spectators can sometimes pay a fee to watch (which Mills says is around $20), the real money exchange happens between the two handlers with dogs in the fight. A typical contract bet between the owners is around $5,000 each, Mills says, and side bets among spectators are also common. Dog-fighting criminals have a lot of pride and ego attached to their kennel and have usually financed their operation with a goal to build a blood line, breeding from winning dogs for more aggressive traits and virility in the ring. Mills says breeders can fetch large sums for prime offspring, valued for their parents’ record in the pit. In one case Mills paid $1,000 for a champ puppy. This highlights another tragic element of dog fighting. Prior to the trauma dogs ultimately face in the pit, the animals are victims at birth due to the bloodlust behind the breeding. Many can never be placed in a traditional home as a family pet because of the inherent aggressive behavior bred into the animals. The ASPCA notes surviving dogs, including puppies born after the ring was raided, are adopted to special rescues for blood sport-bred dogs.

Dog-fighting culture

During his stretch posing as a dogfighting enthusiast and gambler, Mills learned a lot about the illegal activity’s culture. Most of the fights he attended took place after dark on a Saturday, and the venue was often changed multiple times because organizers were paranoid about law enforcement surveillance. Fight locations included garages, barns and in one instance, a bedroom, where typically a 16-by-16-foot “pit” is built in the corner using plywood, lumber, chicken wire or other materials. Crowd size can range between five or six, including the handlers and referee, up to about 50, which was the largest group Mills saw at a fight.

Seven or eight weeks prior to the fight, the gender and weight of the dog are agreed upon by the opponents and a forfeit deposit is usually given to the referee or another party. Several rituals take place on fight night, including weighing and washing the animals. Even a quarter pound above the weight class will result in a forfeit, but typically the wager is renegotiated and a fight will still take place. After the dogs are weighed, they’re washed. Mills explains this is to be sure no chemicals are put on the animals to sway the fight in one’s favor. For example, a foreign substance that tastes bad, like liquid nicotine, might cause the dog to let go on a bite.
In documents describing the gruesome, cruel nature of the fights, the Federal Bureau of Investigations states “sponge men” were needed to mop blood from the dogs and handlers for the fight’s duration. The FBI also describes how two dogs were shot after a fight using a .22-caliber rifle and then tossed into plastic containers, culminating one of the fights that took place during the 2008-2009 investigation.

By the time the dogs are killed or the bloody victors are brought home, the animals have undergone immense trauma. When a dog is training for the fight, it may be fed steroids and put through extreme physical training, but there is also an element of the pre-fight phase that makes pit bulls, the most commonly bred blood sport dog, a perfect victim.

“During that training process, [the dog] was probably kept in the house. He was taken care of, fed the best he’s been fed his whole life, got the most attention he’s ever got, and he fights for that handler or owner,” Mills says. “The dog was his best friend when he walked in there. That’s part of the fault of the pit bull breed; they’re loyal to a fault.”

Kyle Held, Midwest regional director for FIR says the degree of injury dogs can physically sustain in a fight is astounding. Held has a veterinary background and was brought into the Missouri dog-fighting investigation early on from the state humane society for his medical knowledge. “As you can imagine, these dogs are a trainwreck when they come out of these fights,” Held says. “Most are in some degree of shock, a lot are in some degree of failure. And then just the ripping and tearing. They would have broken bones, open lacerations all the way down to the bone. Torn ears, torn lips, you name it. Every range of damage that could be done to a dog, both internally and externally, would happen during a fight.”

Establishing a new ASPCA branch

After the multi-state raid in July 2009, law enforcement officials and animal cruelty investigation specialists with groups like the Humane Society and the ASPCA recognized they had a good thing going with the dual cooperation.

“The concept of the program was really developed because of the Missouri case, and because there was such good cooperation between law enforcement and animal welfare agencies,” Rickey says.

The case’s success was the foundation that led to establishing the ASPCA’s Blood Sports unit, which Rickey currently works with from the animal welfare side under the organization’s FIR team, and Mills leads as animal fighting specialist. In addition, Held joined the ASPCA as its Midwest regional director under the FIR team. Mills, Rickey and Held’s individual expertise and mutual respect for one another’s field during the Missouri dog-fighting investigation carried over to their present day roles with the ASPCA’s new branch. The three say they are proof the collaboration works.

“The collaboration itself is the biggest benefit to law enforcement and [animal welfare groups],” Held says. “It gets both of our goals accomplished: collaborating and pulling together the experts in both fields to prosecute and rescue in as many of these cases as we can.”
Mills says the unit is looking to provide specialized training, consultation and resources to police nationwide. Since the organization is non-profit and it recognizes the great need for resources nationwide, it also does not charge agencies any fees for any of its help “because it is a terrible problem throughout the United States, and it’s one that local resources are just not available for,” Rickey explains.

Mills also points out the joint venture between multiple law enforcement-related agencies was key in the operation’s victory. In addition to Mills with the Missouri State Highway Patrol and his patrol partner, Sgt. Jeff Heath, also participating in the investigation were the Humane Society of Missouri, the United States Department of Agriculture and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. With the resources of all these organizations honing in on the Missouri dog-fighting ring, the convicted parties were handed sentences that exceeded federal guidelines, with a Missouri judge citing “extraordinary cruelty” as a factor in the landmark sentencing.

Canine CODIS

In addition to the Blood Sports unit, a new technology has also been developed to help combat dog fighting.

Because bloodlines and breeding are such a facet in organized rings, identifying a dog’s DNA and lineage can help trace the reach of a dog-fighting operation, connect evidence and help build a stronger case. Identifying the value that a dog DNA database could provide investigators, the ASPCA, the Humane Society of Missouri and the Louisiana SPCA established Canine CODIS. Canine CODIS, a DNA database designed to help the criminal justice system investigate and prosecute dog-fighting cases, is maintained independently from the animal welfare groups by the University of California-Davis Veterinary Genetics Laboratory in Davis, Calif. According to the university, the lab has one of the largest sample databases in the world, which is crucial for estimating the rarity of a DNA profile, calculating match probability or assigning parentage, all of which can help connect the dots in an investigation.

Cooperation today

“Animal cases can be very different from other criminal cases ... one of the things that can be helpful is to have somebody who ... can come in and work side by side,” Rickey says. Today the Blood Sports unit and the FIR team want to help law enforcement train to recognize and investigate animal cruelty crimes, and provide consult or resources to the culmination of a case. In addition speaking at a Blood Sports conference taking place in early March in Gainesville, Fla., both Rickey and Mills will travel to agencies across the United States at no cost to the hosts to hold a training seminar and share their experience in the 2009 dog-fighting case, as well as share today’s ongoing investigations techniques.

As Held puts it, he continues to get up every day to work against animal cruelty because he says, if he and the other ASPCA team didn’t do it, he’s not sure who would. “For me, it sounds simple, but it’s the animals,” Held says. “And the ASPCA has got the simplest way of putting it: We are their voice. If I wasn’t out here doing this to the best of my ability, I don’t know who would be. And that bothers me. And that keeps me coming back every day.”

Editor’s note: For more information on upcoming training courses, assistance or resources on animal fighting, contact Terry Mills at terrym@aspca.org or 917-284-2172. For more information on Canine CODIS, visit the UC-Davis Veterinary Genetics Laboratory Web site at www.vgl.ucdavis.edu/forensics/CANINECODIS.php.

Loading