The brick houseAtlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick owned on Moonlight Road in ruralSmithfield, Va., is painted white. It has a white door, a white fence and ahuge white gate that opens on a spare front lawn holding a white birdbath. Inthe woods behind the house, out of view from the road, stand five smallerbuildings. These are painted black--not gray or charcoal, but pure black, as ifthey'd been dipped in ink. They are set off from the house by a fence, alsopainted black.
Kathy Strouse, ananimal control officer, was standing in front of those outbuildings as nightfell on April 25 when a simple question came to her: Why the black paint? Amoment passed before Strouse had an answer. At night, when most dogfights areheld, no one would know these buildings were here.
Strouse, 54, is amember of the Virginia Animal Fighting Task Force, a consortium of animalcontrol and law enforcement officials from around the state. She serves as anexpert witness in dogfighting trials and teaches investigative tactics toanimal control officers nationwide. As she and officers from the Surry Countysheriff's office probed each of the back buildings and the rest of the 15-acreproperty that night, she saw what she considers unmistakable evidence of aprofessional dogfighting operation.
In one building ascale hung from the ceiling. There were treadmills to exercise the animals anda "rape stand," a contraption that holds aggressive dogs in placeduring breeding. In other buildings Strouse found syringes as well asinjectable diuretics and nutritional supplements commonly given to fightingdogs. Stuck in the ground between two buildings was a metal shaft with atethering arm, designed to keep a dog walking in a circle. Like the treadmill,this setup can be used as part of what dogfighters call the "keep," thetraining regimen before a fight.
A long buildingheld numerous kennels, each of which contained at least one dog. Most wereAmerican pit bull terriers. Some had wounds on their ears, necks and frontlegs. Contrary to early reports, those 30 or so dogs were not emaciated, norwere the roughly 30 pit bulls found in the woods, tied to car axles buried inthe ground. "Give the dogfighter his due," Strouse says. "It is notin his interest to starve his dogs."
It was clear toStrouse, who has been an animal control officer for 22 years, that some of theanimals had been used in fights, but not until she climbed a stepladder to thesecond story of the largest of the black buildings was she convinced thatfights had been staged on the property. In a room about 16 feet square Strousefound blood: a smear on one wall, splashes near the base of walls, a spatteringon a jacket hanging from an air conditioner. She also found a dog tooth on abucket. Yet the most convincing evidence that this was the "pit"--thedogfighting arena--was the rectangular area in the middle of the room devoid ofblood. "Dogfighters put down carpet to give their dogs traction,"Strouse says.
Investigators wouldeventually find a bloodstained carpet elsewhere on the property, and laterStrouse would proclaim to a friend, "We got him. We got MichaelVick."
But neither thecase, nor Vick's connection to it, is so clear-cut. Since the raid, Vick, 26,has proclaimed his innocence and blamed family members who lived in the housefor what was found there. "It's unfortunate I have to take the heat,"he said to reporters in New York City on April 27, a day before the NFL draft."Lesson learned for me."
As of Monday, SurryCounty commonwealth's attorney Gerald Poindexter had not filed animal-welfarecharges against anyone in the case, including Vick and his cousin, 26-year-oldDavon Boddie, whose arrest on suspicion of drug possession sparked the raid.(Boddie gave police the Moonlight Road address as his place of residence; whensearching the property they found probable cause to seek a second warrantinvolving animal cruelty.)
Poindexter has saidhe's convinced dogfighting took place on Moonlight Road but also that he hasn'tyet found enough evidence to charge anyone. He said he has no eyewitnesses tofights there and noted that as many as 10 people might have had access to theproperty. Two schools of thought have thus emerged based on the informationuncovered so far: Vick is either, as some in the animal welfare communitybelieve, the financier of a large dogfighting operation and an aficionado ofthat blood sport, or, he is, as he said, a victim of poor choices made by thosearound him.
A source close toVick with links to the NFL told SI last week that those two characterizationsoversimplify the situation. "Mike really loves dogs," said the source,who asked not to be named. "It's the country side of him coming out. Hedoesn't believe he's doing anything wrong. It's a cultural thing for him thatgot worse as he got the means to support his friends who are more into[dogfighting] than him.... He's heavily influenced by a dogfighting culturethat travels to Baltimore, [Washington] D.C. and Virginia for fights." Thesource also said that Vick was frequently at the Moonlight Road house in pastoff-seasons.
Two other Vickassociates told SI.com's Don Banks that the quarterback knew about thedogfighting at the house on Moonlight Road and cited his "affinity" forthe dogfighting subculture. On Sunday, ESPN's Outside the Lines aired aninterview with a confidential source who said he personally saw Vick gamblingon his own dog at a fight in 2000 and that Vick was "one of theheavyweights" of the dogfighting world.
Vick has declinedfurther comment, citing the advice of his attorney, Larry Woodward, who did notrespond to messages left by SI. In his comments after the allegations arose,Vick said, "It's a call for me to really tighten down on who I'm trying totake care of. When it all boils down, people will try to take advantage of youand leave you out to dry."
Accused athletesoften claim they're targets of smear campaigns. In this case Vick indeed seemsa marked man. To Strouse and others, including officials from the HumaneSociety of the United States (HSUS), who have seen dogfighting grow into whatthey call a multimillion-dollar industry with its own magazines, undergroundhighlight DVDs and even music (videos by rappers such as DMX and Jay-Z payhomage to the sport), seeing Vick implicated in a dogfighting case would belike landing the great white whale. They've been building a case against Vickin the press and have forwarded material to Surry County law enforcement tohelp the investigation. Their motives are twofold: They believe Vick wasinvolved, claiming they've heard from informants for years that he was intodogfighting. And, perhaps more important, an indictment filed against one ofthe NFL's signature stars would boost their broader efforts to combat thegrisly pastime of dogfighting, which is a felony in every state but Idaho andWyoming (where it is a misdemeanor).
"There exists adogfighting subculture in the NFL and NBA," says Wayne Pacelle, presidentof the HSUS. "And to have an athlete of [Vick's] stature charged would bean enormous wake-up call to everyone in professional sports who has dabbled inor dived into the underworld of dogfighting."
Dogfighting casesare often difficult to prove and are largely built on circumstantial evidence,says Mark Kumpf, an expert who has testified in several high-profile trials.When Poindexter met with investigators on May 21, the bulk of the evidence hereviewed was likely what was seized during the raid--the rape stand, the"break stick" used to pry open a dog's jaws, the "keep"schedule written on the wall of one building. According to a search warrantexecuted on the Moonlight Road property, three envelopes addressed to "M.Vick" were also seized.
After the raid,authorities discovered that VicksK9Kennels.com, which offered pit bulls andpresa canarios for sale, listed an address on Moonlight Road and was registeredto one of Vick's companies, MV7 LLC. (The site has since shut down, and Vickput the Moonlight Road property up for sale.) The transport of dogs acrossstate lines for the purposes of fighting is a federal offense, and an officialfrom the United States Department of Agriculture, the federal agency thatinvestigates dogfighting, attended the meeting between Poindexter and thecounty sheriff's department last week. Earlier Poindexter said "not to ruleout" the possibility that federal authorities could play a role in theinvestigation.
Law enforcementofficials are not the only ones attempting to ascertain Vick's involvement. TheNFL is "taking this very seriously" according to league spokesman GregAiello. NFL security has offered its services to Surry County investigators,and the league has been questioning people with ties to the case.
The dogfightingallegations arise at a time when NFL commissioner Roger Goodell is crackingdown on players who run afoul of the law. "I was very clear withMichael," Goodell said after meeting with Vick on April 28. "Peopleliving in your house and people on your property [are] your responsibility. Heneeded to make sure he surrounded himself with people who were going to treathim properly and represent him the way he wanted to be."
Goodell hasreceived letters from Pacelle and from U.S. congressman Tom Lantos (D.,Calif.), who urged the commissioner "to act swiftly and forcefully" inthe case. In addition the commissioner was compelled to address comments madeby Washington Redskins running back Clinton Portis, who excused dogfighting inan interview with Norfolk TV station WAVY. "It's [Vick's] property; it'shis dogs. If that's what he wants to do, do it," Portis said. He added thatif Vick were convicted of dogfighting, he would be "behind bars for noreason."
Animal controlofficials call this the "just dogs" mentality. "It's 'justdogs,'" explains Strouse, "so why does it matter?"
There are threetypes of dogfighters. One is the street fighter, who usually owns a single dogand fights it "off the chain" in alleys or vacant lots. Another is thehobbyist, who might own a few dogs, squaring them off against other animalsowned by close associates. And then there is the professional, who pays as muchas $40,000 for a dog, breeds animals from past champions and and participatesin well-organized, high-stakes fights often planned months in advance, withpurses of up to $100,000.
In one caseinvestigated by the HSUS, dogfight attendees were told to meet miles from thefight's location. They then had to relinquish their car keys and cellphonesbefore being bused to the fight. Such secrecy explains why police are rarelyable to raid live fights. Most busts--including one in March in southern Ohioinvolving 64 dogs--result from investigations of other crimes, typicallyinvolving drugs or guns.
One of the few lawenforcement officials to penetrate a professional dogfighting ring is Jim Ward,an agent for the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. Theoperation he infiltrated involved former NFL running back LeShon Johnson, whopleaded guilty in 2005 to dogfighting in a case in which more than 200 dogswere seized and 20 people convicted. (Johnson received a five-year deferredsentence.) Ward attended two fights, the first a high-stakes match and thesecond a series of training fights during which 30 to 40 people, includingJohnson, were "rolling" dogs--trying them out to determine if they were"game" enough to fight. Both sets of fights were staged in agreenhouse, in a pit made of hinged plywood so that the walls could be foldeddown and the carpet rolled up in a moment.
"I was amazedat how all sorts of people from all sorts of backgrounds went to thesefights," Ward, 36, says. "There was a kid there who was eight or nineyears old, and there were some teenagers and then older men. But there werealso women who had come with their boyfriends, as if on a date."
On the first nightof fights, Ward witnessed matches with purses as high as $10,000. The eveningwas officiated by someone identified as a sanctioned "game dog"referee, who weighed the dogs and ensured they were a good pairing. The dogswere then bathed, a precaution against the practice of putting poison or othersubstances on a dog's coat to debilitate or repel the opponent. The two dogswere placed in opposite corners of the pit and released simultaneously.
"You know thatsound of a dog ripping into meat? That is what you hear, and it ishorrible," Ward says. "And a true fighting dog doesn't just bite. Itholds on and shakes." Ward considered calling in agents who were performingsurveillance to put an end to the carnage. "But I thought if I stayed andwe got everyone involved, then maybe we could really put a stop to thesepeople."
During one fightWard watched as a red brindle female named Star was ripped apart. After herdefeat, her owner pulled out a gun and announced he was taking Star outside tokill 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 tothe vet that night, and she needed more than 40 stitches," Ward says. Oncehome, he found her to be loyal and loving. But in the presence of anotheranimal--his Labrador retriever or one of his horses--she attacked. "It'swhat the dogfighters call 'gameness,' that 'game blood,'" Ward says."Eventually I had to put her down."
Ward saw firsthandhow prominently Johnson, a 1994 draft pick out of Northern Illinois who playedfive seasons for three NFL teams, figured in the dogfighting world. HisKrazyside Kennels had been a well-known and sought-after breeder; his dogs werebranded with a "5," which law enforcement officials say may have been areference to the number of victories a dog needs to be labeled a grandchampion. The kennel's most famous dog, Nino, is a legend. In a lengthytestimonial on one breeder's website, riospitbull.com, Nino's exploits aredescribed in a laudatory narrative signed by "Krazyside Kennels." Thenarrator 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 theaccount, he won a fight that lasted one hour and 48 minutes, despite having hisankle snapped in the first 30 seconds. (Some dogfights last as long as fourhours.) "Everyone who doesn't believe this brutal stuff goes on should readthat essay," Ward says.
When Johnson wasarrested at his apartment in Tulsa in May 2004, agents found a calendar thatdetailed when he fought and bred his dogs. Fights were listed so far back thatinvestigators believe Johnson fought dogs while still in the NFL. When a lawenforcement agent asked Johnson if other football players were into the bloodsport, "he avoided answering the question," Ward says. "It was likehe was saying there were, but he didn't want to be the one to talk aboutthem."
Johnson is one of ahandful of athletes who have faced charges for dogfighting or spoken openly oftheir links to the practice. Former NBA player Qyntel Woods was accused in 2004of staging fights at his home outside Portland and pleaded guilty tofirst-degree animal abuse. Former Dallas Cowboy Nate Newton was arrested at afight in Texas in 1991. (Charges were later dropped.) Former boxer GeraldMcClellan would watch tapes of dogs fighting before his own bouts and admittedputting his dog into fights. And former NFL player Tyrone Wheatley praised thespirit of fighting dogs in SI in 2001. But for all those identified, scores ofothers go unnamed, according to animal control officials and pro athletesinterviewed by SI.
"[Fightingdogs] is a fun thing, a hobby, to some [athletes]," says an NFL Pro Bowlrunning back who asked not to be named. "People are crazy about pit bulls.Guys have these nice, big fancy houses, and there is always a pit bull in theback. And everyone wants to have the biggest, baddest dog on theblock."
Certainly mostathletes who own pit bulls, a breed that's growing in popularity across theU.S., keep them strictly as pets. "People who don't know anything about pitbulls see one and immediately think people are fighting them," says SeanBailey, a University of Georgia football player with a breeding operation inAlpharetta, Ga. "I breed blue pit bulls, and the 'gameness' dogfighterstalk about has been bred out of them."
Still, HSUSofficials, who pay for information that leads to a conviction, say theyregularly get tips about athletes' participation in dogfights and pass leads onto local law enforcement. Two weeks ago John Goodwin, the HSUS's animalfighting expert, received a tip that a former NBA player ran a fighting ring inVirginia not far from Vick's property. "We hear about athletes all thetime," Goodwin says.
"There's a fineline between having a dog as a macho display and having that animal displaythose characteristics in a fight setting," says Pacelle, the HSUSpresident. "Athletes get pulled into the subculture. These are competitivepeople. They are competitive on the football field and on the basketball court,and they get competitive about their dogs."
Or, as the Pro Bowlrunning back put it, "Sometimes you just want to see how tough a dog yougot."
Kathy strouse willlong remember the pit bulls she helped remove from Moonlight Road. Most wereshort, stocky and ferocious looking, but when she approached them and gave themtreats, they were gentle and loving. "Those dogs were so happy, sodelighted to have human contact," Strouse says. The animals were split upand sent to shelters around Virginia, the locations undisclosed for feardogfighters might try to steal them. Eventually the animals will be euthanized."These dogs can't be adopted," says Strouse. "You don't want dogslike these living next door. The only thought that gives me some comfort is, Iwould rather have them die while being held by someone who cares about themthan in a fighting pit."
She pauses,composes herself and returns to the stack of papers she calls the latestresearch on the case. "There's so much here, I've barely had time to gothrough it all," Strouse says, sorting through pages of material she hopeswill help reveal the truth of what went on in those blackened buildings onMoonlight Road.
One animal control officer surmises that the rear buildings at the Smithfieldcompound were painted to hide them at night.
Bred for "gameness" in the pit, fighting dogs can sell for up to$40,000--but some don't survive past one match.
Investigators found more than 60 dogs on the property, some in kennels, somechained to car axles. Too violent to be adopted, the animals will eventually beeuthanized.
After his drug arrest, Boddie (far left) told police he lived at MoonlightRoad; Poindexter (middle) is being pressured by Strouse (right) and otheranimal control officers to pursue Vick himself.
Newton (left) was arrested at a dogfight in '91 (charges were later dropped);Johnson (middle) fought animals that bore the marking "5"-- a possiblereference to their status as champions.
Vick (posing with his dog while in college, right) has been under mediascrutiny for much of the off-season; now the NFL is taking an active interestin the dogfighting issue.