Crackdown on the Dog Torturers

Michael Vick was just the beginning. The dogfighting underground is bigger and sicker than you can imagine. Meet the man who wants to wipe it out for good.

Six am, February 19. John Paul Goodwin is exactly where he wants to be: hiding with 20 cops among the Dumpsters behind a deserted shopping mall in Tucson, Arizona, freezing his butt off in the dark. For the next 18 hours he’ll be hard at work, identifying evidence, directing law enforcement – only to be grilled afterward by a room full of reporters. In his job as manager of the Humane Society of the United States’s animal-fighting campaign, nothing so far has deterred Goodwin from his crusade to put the country’s leading dog- and cockfighters out of business. Not the sweltering summer heat in Louisiana, not the bleak winter days in Ohio; not the long hours on the road, the near total lack of a personal life, the cruelty he routinely witnesses; not even the threats on his life from the vitriolic dogfighters he is pursuing. All this is worth it to Goodwin for mornings like this, hiding among the Dumpsters behind a deserted shopping mall in Tucson, Arizona, freezing his butt off in the dark.

At the moment it’s crucial that the group stay hidden from sight. They don’t want anyone to tip off the six suspects, including two alleged dogfight­ers famous in the pit bull community, about to be raided. At 6:50 the sun rises, and the SWAT team springs into action. With black wool masks pulled over their faces and their pistols drawn, eight dep­uties storm a tidy two-bedroom house a few blocks from the mall, smashing the front windows to dis­orient its occupants: Robert Smith and his room­mate, Terry Williams. At 52, Williams has a reputation as a dogfighting kingpin and owns the All-American Dog Registry, which certifies the pedigree of pit bulls, while Smith, 55, allegedly breeds and trains fighting dogs at his nearby kennel, also about to be raided this morning.

Because Goodwin isn’t a law enforcement of­ficial, he can’t participate in the actual bust, and must wait until the property is secured, but he arrives on the scene in time to see Wil­liams, his long gray hair in a ponytail, sitting on the front porch in handcuffs. It doesn’t get better than this. Inside, Goodwin joins several officers looking for evidence. It isn’t hard to find. The entire house appears to be a shrine to dog- and cockfighting. Files full of dog sale and breeding records. Boxes of wheels used to make train­ing treadmills used to build animals’ stamina. Pictures of champion dogs on the walls.

Goodwin’s cell phone rings. “He’s in custody!” reports an excited Chris Schindler, Goodwin’s deputy at the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). Schindler, as Goodwin knows, is at the rural desert home of Mahlon “Pat” Patrick, 50 miles away. Putting Patrick out of business has been Goodwin’s top priority for this day, indeed for years. Believed by Goodwin to be a major breeder of fighting dogs since the late 1960s, Patrick, 63, bred pit bulls on his property and sold them all around the country. (Patrick’s attorney, Mark Resnick, says Patrick made everyone he sold dogs to sign a statement that the animals would not be used for fighting.) His dogs Bolio and Tombstone had sired champion fighters. Those were the really tough dogs who could fight for an hour or more, even when they were injured and bleeding. According to Goodwin, Patrick continued to breed the dogs’ offspring, still so cherished by dogfighters that they pay up to $10,000 for the lineage.

Over on Patrick’s property, deputies found row after row of individual three-by-four-foot dog kennel crates, each with a pit bull inside – 115 total, all confined in crates or chain-link cages, many standing in their own waste. Schindler says that some were fearful and cowered in their cages; others were animated, tails wagging, desperate for human touch. Three litters of pit bull puppies were kept in separate fenced-off areas, their mothers nowhere in sight. At least 10 dogs showed signs of being fighting dogs, with scars on their faces, necks, and front legs. The feet of several dogs were swol­len and infected from standing in urine. In the dilapidated barn, deputies found more dogs in crates, vials of steroids, and what they immediately recognized as a “rape stand,” for forcibly restraining females unwilling to mate.

By 10 am the morning’s four raids were over. More than 100 animals had been rescued, and six people with alleged links to orga­nized dogfighting had been arrested, five of them charged with dog­fighting and animal cruelty, a felony carrying a potential one-year prison sentence and $150,000 fine. With Williams and Patrick out of business, Goodwin hoped the supply of new fighting dogs would shrink dramatically.

The incriminating evidence on Patrick’s property was typical of dogfighting operations nationwide, only on a larger than usual scale. The Humane Society estimates there are about 40,000 dogfighters in the U.S., with organized, professional fights largely operating in the rural South, where the pursuit took root in the late 19th century. Many are small, but a few house 100 or more dogs. In the last decade, street dogfighting has expanded.

Dogmen (as they call them­selves) resent Goodwin even more than the cops. Though dogfight­ing has been illegal in most states for ages, until recently most local officials didn’t take the crime seriously, and dogfighters grew accus­tomed to operating under the radar. Things started to change in 2005, when the HSUS launched its national animal-fighting campaign, with Goodwin as its chief. A 35-year-old native of Memphis, Goodwin is a former animal rights radical with a string of vandalism and civil disobedience arrests who’s as tenacious and aggressive as the pit bulls he rescues. To his colleagues in the animal protection community, “JP,” as they call him, is a visionary – equal parts strategist, lobbyist, and crusader. Goodwin himself sees his fight as a modern civil rights movement for a powerless, underrepresented constituency.

“John has a laserlike focus on his targets and an incredible passion for animal protection,” says HSUS president Wayne Pacelle, who hired Goodwin despite his criminal record. “And that’s the combina­tion of traits I wanted in our leader on animal-fighting issues.”

To help nail Williams and Patrick, Goodwin and Schindler grilled informants and cultivated a valuable new one with inside knowledge of Patrick’s operation. Goodwin monitored dogfighter chat rooms to determine who was buying Patrick’s dogs and spent late nights de­ciphering the coded fight results in underground magazines like Sporting Dog Journal andScratch Back. To most it would be tedious work, but Goodwin found it fascinating. The smallest detail could bring him closer to hammering the dogmen.

Goodwin has only to log on to the main dogfighting blogs under an alias to find himself vilified by his targets. “John Paul Goodwin…is listed on the FBI’s domestic terrorist list,” claimed one post, falsely. “He is an…activist/zealot with a demented agenda who will stoop to any means to get that agenda enforced.”

And now Goodwin’s opponents can put a face to the name. Last summer he was all over the news, talking about the man who’d sud­denly awakened the rest of the country to dogfighting: NFL star Michael Vick.

The Vick case, in which Goodwin played a crucial role, changed the game forever, thrusting the secretive world of dogfighting into the national spotlight and shocking the press and public with grue­some details of the blood sport: eight of Vick’s dogs hanged, drowned, or electrocuted. Today, when HSUS staffers tell people what they do, “they invariably bring up the Vick case,” says Ann Chynoweth, a lawyer and the senior director of HSUS’s animal-fighting division.

Set back from a busy road in Gaith­ersburg, Maryland, the animal campaign’s headquarters of the HSUS is a large, two-story gray concrete office building set in a clearing of birch and maple trees. no hunt­ing and no trapping signs are affixed to several trees to protect the deer and foxes living in the woods. In the far parking lot sits a mammoth, multiton truck that was used to rescue animals in New Orleans af­ter Hurricane Katrina.

Waiting for John Goodwin in the lobby, I almost looked straight past the clean-cut, impeccably groomed man who walked to­ward me. Having heard he was a punk rocker – green Mohawk and the whole nine – I was unprepared for the man with short brown hair in a conservative gray suit, crisp blue button-down shirt, and floral tie. There’s an immediate intensity about Goodwin. He has a compact build, ramrod-straight posture, and a controlled, military bearing. Goodwin is a vegan, never wears leather, and believes that “animals are sentient beings with a rich emotional capacity, and they deserve to live as much of a natural life as possible without being subjected to unnecessary cruelty.”

There is not a single book, video, wall hanging, or photograph in his office that does not relate to dog- or cockfighting. His desk and walls are overfilled with souvenirs from previous raids, including two thick, chewed-up leather dogfighting collars and a collection of gaffs, razor-sharp steel hooks cockfighters attach to fighting roosters. On one wall is a list of animal-fighting bills pending in Congress. In the hall outside his office is a huge pit bull named Winston, rescued a year ago by the department’s assistant. Goodwin is immersed.

Goodwin takes a call from J.J. Darby, a lobbyist in South Carolina. “Well, ya know it’s one congressman at a time,” Goodwin says in his southern drawl. “It’s like when Lyndon Johnson tried to pass the Civil Rights Bill. All those southern guys balked and screamed, but even­tually they came around.”

After he hangs up, we talk about his transition from civil resister to law-abiding corporate manager working within the system, a cal­culated decision he made 10 years ago, and the origins of his passion for saving animals. “When I was four I lived on my grandmother’s farm, and she taught me that treating animals humanely was a fun­damental value.” Goodwin lived with a menagerie of chickens, dogs, peacocks, goats, and a miniature horse – none of which were slaugh­tered for food or even chained. “I grew up seeing these animals as members of our extended family,” he says.

His radical side emerged at 15, when he was a leader of the Mem­phis punk rock scene and embraced its anarchist views. “The music laid the groundwork for J.P.’s activism,” recalls Memphis friend James Pizzirusso. A 60 Minutes segment on the fur trade that Goodwin saw at age 18 inspired his activist career. “From then on he was very militant and idealistic when it came to animals, and it took over his life,” Pizzirusso says.

Goodwin’s commitment deepened. In 1991 he started picketing Memphis fur stores with a group of activist friends. Soon they were pouring superglue into the locks of fur stores and chucking vegeta­bles full of paint at display windows, hitting all 10 of the city’s fur stores again and again, until Goodwin, then 19, and his pals were finally arrested in 1992. Charged with multiple counts of vandalism, he served three weeks of a one-year prison sentence (though he remained under electronic monitoring for another three years).

Half a dozen arrests followed. Through the organization Goodwin started, the Co­alition to Abolish the Fur Trade, he orches­trated sit-ins, blocking sidewalks and entryways outside Macy’s and Neiman-Marcus stores in Dallas. Though the pro­tests garnered news attention, Goodwin saw that “they weren’t really saving any animals’ lives.”

In 1998 Goodwin was living in Dallas when he read about the National Rifle As­sociation defeating a gun-control ballot initiative in California. He recalls thinking, “I’m doing all this radical stuff, but where is it getting us?” With his stack of books about political campaign tactics growing (his favorite: Master of the Senate, Robert Caro’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Lyndon Johnson), Goodwin recalls that he “looked around at the groups who were winning and getting their agendas through in Wash­ington: the NRA, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, AARP. None of them were smashing windows.”

Lydia Nichols, an animal-rights activist Goodwin lived with in Dallas for five years, witnessed his transformation. “I watched him evolve out of his radical phase, leaving a lot of good friends behind, and grow into this mature person who taught himself how to get his message out.”

That year Goodwin shifted his focus to the political and legislative arenas. His first target: the Dallas Gun Club. Every year, members of the club staged a pigeon shoot. “They had them trapped somewhere, then brought all the cages in and let them go, and then they’d shoot them.” Goodwin got a judge to issue an injunction, and the club sub­sequently canceled the shoot. “By working through the system,” Goodwin says, “we saved 20,000 birds in one day.”

One man in particular was impressed by Goodwin’s success: HSUS president Wayne Pacelle, who hired him in 2000 as a lobbyist in the organization’s government affairs department. “I was lucky, because Wayne believes in redemption,” says Goodwin with a chuckle.

“If you had asked me in 1990 where J.P. would be in 10 years, whether he would be doing all this political stuff, I would have said absolutely not,” says Pizzirusso. “But he realized that true change comes from within the system.”

In 2004 Goodwin saw a dogfighting operation for the first time. Invited to the property of a dogman interested in becoming a paid informant, Goodwin saw a litter of five-week-old pit bull puppies, and picked one up. “I held him for a while, figuring he would ap­preciate the warmth,” he says. “And I thought of what would happen to this puppy. He would probably end up bleeding to death in some pit. That really got to me.”

Goodwin soon learned every detail about fighting dogs’ grueling, sadistic existence. When they are 15 months old, the dogs are put through a series of practice “rolls” with older dogs, generally starting at five, then 10, then 15, then 30 minutes. Months of hours-long train­ing on treadmills follows. As an incentive, some trainers hang a small cage just above the treadmill with a bait animal, a cat or a rabbit, inside. Afterward, some trainers have been known to feed the small animal to the pit bull as a reward.

Then come real bouts, with dogs in their prime, in a 14-by-14-foot carpeted, woodpaneled pit. Each fight tests a dog’s ability to keep fighting no matter what injuries are sustained- its “gameness.” Pit bulls that survive are known as “match dogs,” competing in 35- to-55-pound weight classes for prizes ranging from $1,500 to $10,000. “Grand champions” like Michael Vick’s leading dog, Lucas, can draw up to $13,000 stakes and have an unbroken streak of five wins, meaning they either killed or incapacitated their opponents. Losers are sometimes killed.

Before the Arizona busts, Goodwin’s greatest success was helping indict Michael Vick. It was the Vick bust that brought dogfighting into the national discussion, and gave Goodwin’s campaign a shot of adrenaline that has carried through to the arrests of Patrick and Williams, and beyond. Few people outside the animal welfare community know how close the case came to falling apart.

Sources familiar with the case say the NFL star’s dogfighting operation could have been exposed much earlier had it not been for footdragging by Surry County, Virginia, commonwealth attorney Gerald Poindexter.

On April 24, 2007, Hampton, Virginia, police searched the car of Vick’s 26-year-old cousin, Davon Boddie, and reportedly found a bag of marijuana. Boddie gave Vick’s Surry County house as his home address. The next day Detective Bill Brinkman, at the time a Surry County narcotics officer, and other detectives searched Vick’s house under a warrant to look for drugs. They heard dogs barking and soon discovered evidence of a dogfighting operation, including rape stands, pry bars used to separate dogs, treadmills, a blood-stained carpet, and 66 dogs (55 of them pit bulls), some malnourished, scarred, or injured.

On April 26, Chynoweth telephoned Poindexter to offer assistance. “He just screamed at me,” she recalls. “He told me, ‘I won’t turn this into a witch hunt.’ ” (Calls to Poindexter’s office were not returned.)

Vick claimed he was innocent and knew nothing of the operation. On May 23, Brinkman and other investigators were headed to Vick’s house with another warrant, this time to dig up the remains of buried dogs, believing that forensic tests might reveal fighting injuries, when “Poindexter called off the search,” says Brinkman. “He said Michael Vick still owns the house, and we’re not going to do this.” (Soon after, according to Brinkman, Poindexter and the local sheriff fired him.)

Goodwin and others in the animal protection community started working the phones, contacting FBI agents they knew and every informant they could think of. Explains Goodwin, “I was able to put a key source who knew about the Vick operation in the hands of some federal agents.” The informant also gave Goodwin a crucial tip: Vick had had a recent falling out with his friend Tony Taylor, who had worked on Vick’s property until Vick kicked him out. That made Taylor an ideal candidate to roll over on Vick. Which, by all indications, he ultimately did.

The FBI and U.S. attorney’s office in Richmond soon took over and indicted Vick on charges of bankrolling a dogfighting operation. Vick’s fall was swift and costly; he got 23 months in prison.

Since the Vick case, Goodwin appears to be winning. According to the HSUS, raids on dogfighting operations increased from 27 between January and April of 2007 to more than 73 in the same period of 2008. The number of arrests has tripled. Kennel sales are drying up; some dogfighters are laying low; others are getting out altogether. “They can’t find anyone to buy their dogs because everyone’s scared,” says Goodwin.

Legislatures in 11 states passed stronger laws against dogfighters; 26 more considered legislation to increase penalties. Wyoming and Idaho, the last holdouts with misdemeanor penalties, made dogfighting a felony. In May 2007, President Bush signed the Animal Fighting Prohibition Enforcement Act, providing stiff penalties for crossing state lines to engage in dog- or cockfighting .

The Vick case also piqued the interest of law enforcement. This year, more than 1,000 cops have received training in animal-fighting prevention and enforcement. The public has become more engaged : Responding to complaints, Amazon.com, Circuit City, and Best Buy pulled the video Hood Fights Vol. 2: The Art of the Pit, which is about exactly what it sounds like. Once afraid to report on neighbors for fear of retaliation, people all around the country, motivated by HSUS rewards of up to $5,000 for information leading to dogfighting arrests, now flood Goodwin’s department with as many as 100 tips a month.

“I am now more optimistic than ever that we can make a real change in how we treat animals,” says Goodwin. ” The number of raids spiked, and police and state legislators stepped up to the plate to send a message to dogfighters. And in my own little world, I finally had a chance to go on a date or two.”

In Pima county, Arizona, Patrick, Williams, Smith, and the three others raided in February await trial. Smith and Williams’s lawyer, Roberta Jensen, said in June, “They’re crucifying our clients and they haven’t done anything wrong.” After the raid, someone claiming to be Patrick blasted the HSUS and Arizona authorities on the Pit Bull Family blog, referring to them as “greedy scum.” The person added, “We do not fight dogs and I think the beautiful condition of our dogs…tells it all.” Patrick’s attorney also disputes the allegations against his client.

“We all stand behind you,” someone posted. “We will keep you in our prayers.” Signing off, the blogger Mason wrote, “It makes you wonder who’s next.”

Goodwin knows who’s next. “He will go to the ends of the Earth to stand up for what he believes in,” notes Lydia Nichols. He won’t have to go that far, or wait long; Goodwin keeps a list of the top dogfighters he plans to bring down. He can’t say who the next target is, or where he or she may live, only that one of the operations will be raided, and soon.

Published in MEN’S JOURNAL