ST. LOUIS (AP) - Dogfighting is bad enough, but a former police officer who spent years working undercover to stop the practice says it is often the tip of the iceberg.
"Dogfighting is a haven for organized crime, gangs and drug dealers," said Terry Mills, a former Missouri Highway Patrol officer who now heads up the Blood Sports division of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. "And officers might be stepping right over these things because they don't know what to look for."
Mills was in St. Louis this past week training city police officers about investigating and prosecuting blood sports.
The 57-year-old, who worked undercover as part of a team that took down a dogfighting ring in 2009, said dogfighting happens all over the state - in out-of-the-way rural areas and on city streets.
St. Louis police Officer Louis Naes, who invited Mills to conduct the training, said keeping an eye out for evidence of dogfighting can help add more criminal charges against suspects.
"These guys don't just go out and buy a pit bull and start fighting it," said Naes, who became the city's sole animal abuse investigator in September.
"There's a language, steroids, equipment, and a lot of police officers have no clue at what the dynamics and culture is all about."
Mills spent more than 30 years with the patrol, much of it spent undercover investigating narcotics, terrorism and gang-related activities. He was part of an FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force investigating one of the largest dogfighting operations ever busted in the U.S.
For about 15 months, Mills posed as a dogfighter from a property in rural Missouri. He trained pit bulls to fight and attended dogfighting events, including in the St. Louis area and in southern Illinois.
"It was difficult to see the torture and total disregard to these animals and their lives," he said. "At the end, when you turn around and look at it, it's pretty shocking ... It's a brutal form of animal abuse."
Mills said dogfighters transcended racial and socioeconomic boundaries. Among those arrested in the sting were high school football coaches, business owners and even a registered nurse.
Dogfighters are part of a secret society, but Mills said they often wear T-shirts and hats bearing the names of their kennels and pictures of their dogs.
"They are extremely competitive and have huge egos," Mills said. "They talk constantly about their dogs, the training, the medical treatment even though they are in competition with each other. I mean, drug dealers don't share information with each other like that."
Since joining the ASPCA in October 2010, Mills has led 25 training workshops for law enforcement and animal welfare professionals.