Wednesday, September 16, 2009
By Robert Patrick
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
With no lips and layers of fighting scars, Dog 118 lapped her tongue across bare teeth at the Humane Society of Missouri.
She's now called Fay, and she's a heartbreaking first look at the results of a massive dogfighting ring authorities broke up two months ago.
Fay used to live behind a red trailer with an ominous warning — "What you see here, hear here, stays here" — before Humane Society workers and state and federal investigators swooped in on July 8 to rescue the animals.
The 5-year-old American pit bull terrier was just one of 407 dogs — some of which may yet be adopted or euthanized — seized in raids at sites across Missouri and Illinois, the Humane Society says.
About 100 more were seized in raids in six other states — the largest dogfighting raid and rescue in U.S. history. The Humane Society has another 100 puppies born since the raids.
bullet GALLERY: See more images of the rescued dogs
bullet VIDEO: Footage shows condition of rescued dogs
The raids followed an 18-month investigation and resulted in charges against more than two dozen people in Missouri, Illinois and other states. Tim Rickey, director of the Humane Society's Animal Cruelty Task Force, said more may be charged.
Four of those charged pleaded guilty in federal court in St. Louis on Monday to dogfighting-related charges and agreed to forfeit the dogs, training equipment and any weapons found.
Teddy "Teddy Bogart" Kiriakidis, 50, Michael "Missouri Mike" Morgan, 38, Robert Hackman, 56, and Ronald Creach, 34, all pleaded guilty to a charge of conspiracy to violate federal animal fighting laws. They joined Jack Ruppel, 35, who pleaded guilty Sept. 4.
Morgan, Hackman and Ruppel also pleaded guilty to an additional animal fighting charge.
With the guilty pleas, all of those indicted in the eastern half of Missouri have pleaded guilty and await sentencing. The men charged in Illinois, western Missouri and other states have pleaded not guilty and await trial.
KILLED FOR FAILING
Hackman, of Foley, operated Shake Rattle and Roll Kennel; Ruppel, of Eldon, operated Ozark Hillbillys Kennel; Morgan, of Hannibal, operated Cannibal Kennel; and Creach, of Leslie, operated Hard Goodbye Kennel.
Each of the men admitted breeding, training and giving away or selling the dogs. They also admitted attending or participating in dogfights in Missouri and the Metro East area.
In his plea, Ruppel admitted that at an Aug. 11, 2008, practice fight, or "roll," at his home, he said he killed dogs that would not fight or fight hard enough, prosecutors said.
In their pleas, Hackman and Creach said that after a Jan. 3 fight in Leslie, Kiriakidis helped electrocute the losing dog, a female pit bull named Roho.
In his plea, Creach admitted that he said he killed a dog named Shady because she didn't perform well in a practice fight earlier that day.
Hackman boasted of being one of the Midwest's most recognized dogfighting figures, with contacts across the country.
Under federal sentencing guidelines, each man is likely to face from probation to six months in prison, although proof of animal cruelty and other factors could increase that sentence.
Outside the courtroom, Hackman's attorney, Joel Schwartz, said that notwithstanding the use of the dogs for fighting, Hackman's dogs were "incredibly well taken care of" and most were very healthy when seized.
Schwartz said Hackman began as a breeder and only later became involved in dogfighting. Schwartz declined to allow Hackman to be interviewed. In court, Hackman told U.S. District Judge Carol Jackson that some of his dogs were sold as pets.
Attorneys for Ruppel, Morgan and Creach declined to comment. Kiriakidis' lawyer did not return messages seeking comment.
The Humane Society would not say where Fay, or Julie, a 2-year-old pit bull with scars on her face and legs, were taken until the court formally seizes them from their owners.
They and the other dogs among the 500 seized are now being held in a secret local facility.
Specialists have evaluated all the dogs. Their report, which will determine which dogs must be euthanized and which can live a life of special care and attention, will be filed in court in coming weeks.
Many of the dogs showed battle scars typical of fighting dogs — missing ears, legs, scars on top of scars, said Debbie Hill, the society's vice president of operations and head of the shelter.
Nellie and Belle, two 8-week-old puppies born to fighting dog parents, competed for a reporter's attention in their first public showing Monday. Hill said even the puppies need special care because they are the product of generations of breeding for aggressive traits.
The adult dogs are a danger to virtually any other animal but generally people-friendly. Julie never stopped wagging her tail or trying to leap into Hill's lap during a visit Monday with a reporter. Fay, whose muzzle looks like she could star in a horror movie, "is a licker," Hill said with affection.
Hill and Rickey said that the same men who kill dogs that don't fight hard enough also kill those that are aggressive toward people.
The dogs' handlers want to make sure that they are safe in the ring.