By Terrence McCoy
By Scott Fishman
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Allie Conti
By New Times Staff
By Ryan Pfeffer
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Kyle Swenson
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 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 10 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 16-by-16-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 each other, 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 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 dogfighting 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 15 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. 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.
In early 2008, Terry Mills was working on a domestic-terrorism task force headed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The unit had received a tip that a "known domestic terror group" was standing guard at dogfights in rural Missouri.
"We already knew that in Texas, a particular well-known outlaw motorcycle gang was providing security at dogfights," Mills says over a cup of coffee in his hometown of Cape Girardeau, Missouri. "So for an organized militia group to be doing that, it wasn't really surprising."
Mills, a burly 55-year-old whose soft eyes and stubbled cheeks are set off by a bushy gray goatee, cultivated a source who had ties to Bob Hackman, a renowned breeder of fighting pit bulls in the Midwest. The confidential informant worked as a "yard boy," feeding and watering the dogs and "shaping" them for upcoming fights with a variety of training exercises.
Mills and FBI agent Bob Hoelscher outfitted their snitch with a wire and eavesdropped as he attended a series of dogfights in northeast Missouri. But after three months of sleuthing, they'd made no headway in the domestic-terrorism probe.