Thursday, September 2, 2010

To pull off the biggest pit bull fighting bust in U.S. history, investigators went deep undercover. So did their dogs.

By Keegan Hamilton Wednesday, Sep 1 2010

The grainy footage shows two snarling pit bulls in a dimly lit barn, staring each other down through a haze of cigarette smoke. Walled in by a makeshift ring of three-foot-high plywood planks, the collarless dogs twitch and wag their tails, expending nervous energy like prizefighters shadowboxing in the ring in the moments before the opening bell.

Both dogs are males and have a tan coat and a white belly, which makes it difficult to tell them apart. They're about ten months old — young for fighters. This is their first taste of combat.

Each dog has a handler who grips it by the scruff of the neck and positions it opposite its foe in the corner of the sixteen-by-sixteen-foot ring. When they're released, the pit bulls collide with a dull thud. One dog lands on its back and the other pounces, grabbing hold with its jaws. The two animals spend the next several minutes growling and panting, locked in a ferocious struggle.

John Bacon, who owns the dog that's on top, bends at the waist and rests his hands on the knees of his baggy overalls, hovering close to the tangle of fur and flesh. He cajoles his pit bull to release its bite and improve its position. The dogs tumble over one another and Bacon jumps out of the way. "There you go!" he shouts. "That's where you want to be!"

The other dog is getting mauled. It emits a piercing squeal, followed by a whimper. Laughter ripples through the crowd. Joseph Addison, a spectator who wears his hair in a jumble of chin-length braids, suggests it's time to stop the match.

"This motherfucker through, man," he says to Bacon. "He's done."

Using a small, wedge-shaped piece of wood called a break stick, Bacon pries open his dog's jaws, releasing its opponent. The animals are separated and taken back to their respective corners to "scratch." If they charge again, the fight continues. If one dog refuses, it will be branded a "cur" — an almost certain death sentence.

At the moment of truth, the vanquished dog cowers while Bacon's dog attacks without hesitation, biting down and thrashing its powerful neck in order to inflict maximum damage. Again the handlers separate the dogs. The fight is over.

Someone in the crowd asks the losing dog's owners what they plan to do with it.

"I'll take 'im home," one says.

"Take him home?" comes the incredulous reply. "Look at this shit! You'll take him home?"

"Yeah," the man repeats, declining the offer to use an impromptu electric chair: an extension cord rigged with alligator clips attached to one end. "I'll take 'im home."

A year and a half later, Bacon describes the scrap in the East St. Louis barn as "just a little wrasslin' match." In dog-fighting parlance it's known as a "roll" — a brief sparring session used to gauge whether a pup has the fighting spirit known simply as "game."

"A contract fight is something you prepare for," Bacon explains. "A roll is just ten, maybe fifteen minutes. The dogs ain't gettin' hurt too much."

He's a carpenter by trade, but Bacon knows a lot about dogfighting. Still, there was one thing he didn't know on March 22, 2009.

He was unaware that his dog's opponent, Hammer, was property of the United States government.

The dog was purchased, trained and brought to the fight by Terry Mills and Jeff Heath, veteran Missouri State Highway Patrol officers who were conducting an extensive undercover investigation into the secretive and brutal world of organized pit bull fighting and breeding. Both men wore video- and audio-recording equipment concealed in their clothes.

Four months after the fight in the barn, a multiagency task force conducted a series of raids in eight states. Agents arrested 26 dogfighters, including Bacon, and seized more than 500 pit bulls — the largest dogfighting bust in American history. In order to make their case, investigators had spent a year and a half taking part in the same gruesome activities for which they would later make the arrests.

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