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The House on Moonlight Road
George Dohrmann
June 04, 2007
Though Michael Vick insists he knew nothing of alleged dogfighting on a Virginia property he owned, the case has cast a shadow over the star quarterback, alarmed the NFL and called attention to pro athletes' involvement in the grisly pastime
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June 04, 2007

The House On Moonlight Road

Though Michael Vick insists he knew nothing of alleged dogfighting on a Virginia property he owned, the case has cast a shadow over the star quarterback, alarmed the NFL and called attention to pro athletes' involvement in the grisly pastime

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Animal control officials call this the "just dogs" mentality. "It's 'just dogs,'" explains Strouse, "so why does it matter?"

There are three types of dogfighters. One is the street fighter, who usually owns a single dog and fights it "off the chain" in alleys or vacant lots. Another is the hobbyist, who might own a few dogs, squaring them off against other animals owned by close associates. And then there is the professional, who pays as much as $40,000 for a dog, breeds animals from past champions and and participates in well-organized, high-stakes fights often planned months in advance, with purses of up to $100,000.

In one case investigated by the HSUS, dogfight attendees were told to meet miles from the fight's location. They then had to relinquish their car keys and cellphones before being bused to the fight. Such secrecy explains why police are rarely able to raid live fights. Most busts--including one in March in southern Ohio involving 64 dogs--result from investigations of other crimes, typically involving drugs or guns.

One of the few law enforcement officials to penetrate a professional dogfighting ring is Jim Ward, an agent for the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. The operation he infiltrated involved former NFL running back LeShon Johnson, who pleaded guilty in 2005 to dogfighting in a case in which more than 200 dogs were seized and 20 people convicted. ( Johnson received a five-year deferred sentence.) Ward attended two fights, the first a high-stakes match and the second a series of training fights during which 30 to 40 people, including Johnson, were "rolling" dogs--trying them out to determine if they were "game" enough to fight. Both sets of fights were staged in a greenhouse, in a pit made of hinged plywood so that the walls could be folded down and the carpet rolled up in a moment.

"I was amazed at how all sorts of people from all sorts of backgrounds went to these fights," Ward, 36, says. "There was a kid there who was eight or nine years old, and there were some teenagers and then older men. But there were also women who had come with their boyfriends, as if on a date."

On the first night of fights, Ward witnessed matches with purses as high as $10,000. The evening was officiated by someone identified as a sanctioned "game dog" referee, who weighed the dogs and ensured they were a good pairing. The dogs were then bathed, a precaution against the practice of putting poison or other substances on a dog's coat to debilitate or repel the opponent. The two dogs were placed in opposite corners of the pit and released simultaneously.

"You know that sound of a dog ripping into meat? That is what you hear, and it is horrible," Ward says. "And a true fighting dog doesn't just bite. It holds on and shakes." Ward considered calling in agents who were performing surveillance to put an end to the carnage. "But I thought if I stayed and we got everyone involved, then maybe we could really put a stop to these people."

During one fight Ward watched as a red brindle female named Star was ripped apart. After her defeat, her owner pulled out a gun and announced he was taking Star outside to kill her. Concerned that his surveillance team would hear the shot and move in, Ward quickly offered to buy the animal. He paid $60.

"I took her to the vet that night, and she needed more than 40 stitches," Ward says. Once home, he found her to be loyal and loving. But in the presence of another animal--his Labrador retriever or one of his horses--she attacked. "It's what the dogfighters call 'gameness,' that 'game blood,'" Ward says. "Eventually I had to put her down."

Ward saw firsthand how prominently Johnson, a 1994 draft pick out of Northern Illinois who played five seasons for three NFL teams, figured in the dogfighting world. His Krazyside Kennels had been a well-known and sought-after breeder; his dogs were branded with a "5," which law enforcement officials say may have been a reference to the number of victories a dog needs to be labeled a grand champion. The kennel's most famous dog, Nino, is a legend. In a lengthy testimonial on one breeder's website, riospitbull.com, Nino's exploits are described in a laudatory narrative signed by "Krazyside Kennels." The narrator writes of finding Nino in 1997 and fighting him in North Carolina, Arkansas, Kansas and, finally, New York. In Nino's last match, according to the account, he won a fight that lasted one hour and 48 minutes, despite having his ankle snapped in the first 30 seconds. (Some dogfights last as long as four hours.) "Everyone who doesn't believe this brutal stuff goes on should read that essay," Ward says.

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