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The fighting "pit" was a metal box, prosecutors say. The matchup was between a pit bull named Roho and another named Josey.

It was just after New Year's Day 2009, and a small crowd had gathered to watch this bloody spectacle at a rural residence in Leasburg, Mo., about 75 miles southwest of St. Louis, authorities say. A man with the nickname "Missouri Mike" acted as referee. Another man known as "Teddy Bogart" held the wagers.

Roho lost that night in the ring. And so the female dog was later killed.

The gruesome scene - one of dozens that allegedly played out in recent years at hidden locations across the Midwest - was painted in a federal indictment of a multi-state dogfighting ring described as the largest in the country.

Twenty-six men were arrested Wednesday, including five from Missouri and five from Illinois, plus others in Texas, Oklahoma, Iowa and Nebraska. They were accused of participating in a conspiracy to operate kennels and training facilities to breed and condition dogs for fights, as well as to run the dogfights.

The arrests came just weeks after former NFL star Michael Vick was released from prison after serving nearly two years for his role in an East Coast dogfighting ring in the nation's most famous dogfighting case. The Vick case led to a renewed focus and a new federal law on animal fighting.

In this newest case, authorities described a secretive band of men who bought and sold pit bulls, sometimes using steroids and treadmills to prep the animals for their bouts, and who held dogfights in towns such as Washington Park in the Metro East; Leslie in Franklin County; and Gilman City in northwest Missouri. Thousands of dollars were bet on "contract" fights. Others were just "rolls" - short bouts used to test dogs.

"Dogfighting is more senseless than the most senseless crimes," Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeff Jensen said.

More than 350 dogs were seized. Most of the animals were being treated and held by the Humane Society of Missouri at a temporary facility at an undisclosed site.

The investigation began with the state's Humane Society, which passed the information to federal and state investigators including the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Office of Inspector General, undercover Missouri Highway Patrol officers and the FBI.

Officials declined to describe how they learned about the ins and outs of dogfighting's hidden world, although one indictment refers to a confidential source and two undercover FBI agents - all wired for sound and video.

Humane Society spokeswoman Jeane Jae said the wide geographic scope of the case and possibly the number of dogs seized made it the largest operation of its type.

Humane Society president Kathy Warnick said: "The way animals used in dogfighting are abused, at the hands of people for profit, is absolutely abhorrent."

The men accused of participating in the January dogfight in Leasburg had gathered for other dogfights in Hannibal, Mo., and Leslie, authorities said.

On Sept. 27, 2008, they met in Leslie for a bout between two pit bulls identified as Freak and Bo. The indictment does not make clear what happened to the dogs that night.

The five men indicted in U.S. District Court St. Louis were Michael "Missouri Mike" Morgan, 38, of Hannibal; Robert Hackman, 55, of Foley; Teddy "Teddy Bogart" Kiriakidis, 50, of Leasburg; Ronald Creach, 34, of Leslie; and Jack Ruppel, 35, of Eldon. They face at least one felony county of conspiracy to commit federal offenses. Morgan, Hackman and Ruppel also face at least one animal fighting charge.

Prosecutors say Hackman ran the Shake Rattle and Roll Kennel, Ruppel ran Ozark Hillbillys Kennel, Morgan ran Cannibal Kennel, and Creach ran Hard Goodbye Kennel.

On Wednesday, Creach waited for a ride home outside the courthouse after a preliminary hearing. He declined to comment, other than to say, "I guess it's still America. I'm innocent until proven guilty, right?"

Morgan told U.S. Magistrate Judge Audrey Fleissig that he is a self-employed contractor. His lawyer declined to comment after the hearing.

Hackman told Fleissig that he was unemployed and had been receiving disability benefits since 1995.

At Hackman's home on Highway 79 between Winfield and Foley, investigators hauled away boxes and crates of evidence. Neighbors said they knew Hackman kept dogs on his land, but never suspected he was involved in dogfighting.

"I cannot see him fighting dogs," said Billy R. Smith, 26, of Foley.

Five Illinois men were charged with conspiracy to commit unlawful activities of dogfighting: William Berry, 34, of Lebanon; Derrick Courtland, 42, of Cahokia; and John Bacon, 36, Julius Jackson, 40, and Joseph Addison, 40, all of East St. Louis.

Addison and Jackson co-own Back Street Truez kennel, the complaint says.

Berry arranged for a Nov. 15, 2008, dogfight behind his house in the 2200 block of North 50th Street in Washington Park that was attended by about 40 people, the complaint says. Berry charged $20 a head. Addison refereed and Bacon attended, the complaint says.

On April 18, 2009, Bacon, Addison, Jackson and Courtland fought their dogs at a series of fights on Lakewood Place in East St. Louis, the complaint says.

Diane Rainwater, who works at a horse stable next to the Lakewood Place property, said she was unaware of any dogfighting taking place there.

"The gentleman who owns it, his girlfriend told me they apparently pulled some boards out with blood on it," Rainwater, 45, of Belleville, said. "If I had known that I surely would have called somebody, because I don't believe in that kind of crap. It's a dirty shame."

The federal indictments provided a glimpse at the lengths that dogfight organizers go to keep their operations underground - away from prying eyes of neighbors or the curious.

Back in January, minutes before a dogfight in Oklahoma, Jerry S. Chism, one of the men charged in Texas, met three men in a rural area near Talequah, Okla.

Chism gave the three the location of an initial meeting in a phone call, then led them down a private road, through a locked gate and then into a parking area by flashlight, the indictment says.

But Chism didn't know who his three guests were: an informer and two undercover FBI agents. All three were wearing hidden recording devices.

The first fight that night, between two 32-pound pit bulls, lasted 69 minutes.

The winning dog's owner made $3,000.


ROBERT PATRICK • • 314-621-5154

TODD C. FRANKEL • • 314-340-8110

JOEL CURRIER • • 636-255-7210