By Cheryl Wittenauer
ST. LOUIS — Undercover agents tipped off by informants infiltrated the illegal world of dogfighting by attending underground fights, leading to the arrest of at least a dozen people in several states, court documents show.
Federal raids last week in Missouri, Iowa, Illinois, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Nebraska and Texas led to charges against 26 people. About 500 dogs, mostly pit bulls, were rescued in the largest dogfighting seizure in U.S. history.
Documents filed recently in federal court in Kansas City, Mo., show informants began introducing federal investigators to breeders, promoters, referees, gamblers and fighters in Missouri, Iowa, Illinois and Nebraska in October 2007. The agents later infiltrated dogfighting operations run by those people.
In January 2008, undercover officers from several agencies began attending fights and spending time at participants' homes and rings. They used hidden audio and visual equipment to record the sights and conversations.
The agents discovered records in spiral notebooks and computers and found items used in the sport, including bloodstained carpets, digital scales, harnesses, treadmills, breeding schedules, fight-breaking sticks, contest ribbons and rifles for killing dogs, documents show.
One agent described how spouses and children egged on fighters at one rural Missouri home where matches were held in a tan metal building attached to the house. Fights drew as much as $5,000 in bets, the agent said in an affidavit.
Some dogfighters offered to help undercover officers buy dogs and obtain steroids to enhance their strength, the affidavit said.
Aerial photographs of dogfighting compounds taken by federal investigators showed dirt patches where dogs were chained on short tethers to stakes in the ground.
Agents got much of their information from an eastern Missouri man who had been involved in dogfighting for 12 years and participated in fights around the U.S. He introduced the agents to many of his associates.
An informant in western Missouri talked to a Missouri State Highway Patrol sergeant, who'd been getting citizen complaints about alleged fighter Rick Hihath of St. Joseph as long ago as 2000. Hihath was charged after last week's raids with conspiracy to travel in interstate commerce to sponsor a dog in a fight and two counts of sponsoring or exhibiting an animal in an animal fighting venture.
Hihath, who teaches physical education at a state school for the severely disabled, went by the name "the schoolteacher" when discussing dogfighting online, the affidavit said. The Highway Patrol learned from the Humane Society of the United States in 2007 that Hihath was known as a conditioner of fighting dogs whose work is referenced in dogfighting publications.
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His attorney did not return a phone call seeking comment.