Blood Sport

The Vasquez cousins were dead; the dogs were alive. Neither made a sound as two HPD detectives investigated the murder scene. In fact, it would be hours before Sergeant Butch Doyle and officer J.C. Bonaby noticed the 78 dogs in the back yard -- and even longer before they realized the pit bulls' significance.

Doyle and Bonaby had arrived at the one-story, wood-framed house close to midnight on a Monday last November. Near the front driveway a small, weathered sign proclaimed the site as the location of Rebel Kennels.

Inside, on the floor of the den, the homicide detectives observed the two dead men: Juan Molina Vasquez and Demetrio Vasquez. Both were Mexican nationals in their twenties. Both had been shot execution-style, in the head at close range. And both worked for Mark Anthony Davis, who lived at the house and had discovered the bodies that night after returning home with his girlfriend.

Doyle and Bonaby canvassed the house. They found no evidence of a forced entry, and surmised that the Vasquez cousins had known their killer. One of the dead men still had $500 in cash in his pockets; the detectives ruled out robbery as a motive.

The investigators questioned Davis and his girlfriend. Davis, with wide eyes and a devilish goatee, had no idea why anyone would want to kill the two men -- at least, that's what he said. But the detectives sensed that he knew more about the killings than he was telling.

The next morning -- Tuesday -- the detectives returned to the murder scene. They were surprised to find Davis in the back yard, loading dozens of caged pit bulls onto a flatbed trailer. It was the first time the detectives had noticed the eerily silent dogs.

Davis claimed that following news reports of the double murder, someone had stolen two of his pit bulls. He was moving the rest to a safer location. As the detectives continued their search of the property, Davis loaded 44 of the animals -- his best -- onto the truck.

Eventually, Doyle and Bonaby were joined at the murder scene by Richard Martinez, then the chief inspector of the Houston Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Martinez informed the detectives that Davis was a major player in the dogfighting business -- a mean, lucrative netherworld. The crime scene that the detectives were probing, Martinez explained, was not only Davis's residence but also an illegal dogfight training camp.

In his 15 years of investigating murders, Butch Doyle, a serious man who slicks back his thinning hair, had come across almost every vile aspect of the American underbelly. Dogfighting, however, had somehow escaped his attention. But with Martinez's help, Doyle and his partner would soon know more than they cared to.

As he inspected the homicide scene, the soft-spoken Martinez explained to Doyle and Bonaby that he had been interested in Rebel Kennels even before the Vasquez cousins had gotten themselves murdered.

On November 22 -- four days before the double homicide -- SPCA investigators were contacted by the owner of an auto-parts salvage yard. He had just received a call from someone interested in purchasing a large number of used car axles.

The parts dealer knew that axles are often used to train fighting dogs. The trainer buries an axle vertically in the ground, leaving one wheel hub exposed. A pit bull is then chained to that hub, which rotates as the dog moves around the yard.

The man interested in the car axles had not given the parts dealer his name, but he had left his phone number. SPCA investigators traced it to Rebel Kennels.

An inspector was assigned to conduct limited surveillance and drove by Rebel Kennels on November 26 -- the day before the murders. Even to a trained observer, dogfight training camps aren't easily detectable, and Rebel Kennels was no exception. Player Street, in south Houston, isn't a heavily traveled road. The kennel was surrounded on three sides by trees and overgrown vacant lots. Passersby couldn't see the back yard that extended at least two acres behind the main house.

Despite the obstructed view, the SPCA investigator discovered that Rebel was no ordinary kennel. The combination of crudely constructed conditioning equipment and several pit bulls hinted at dogfighting.

The investigator kept his distance. As Martinez explained, the SPCA doesn't approach such places for two reasons: first, because the investigators don't want to tip their hand before they're ready to make a case; second, because organized dogfighters have been known to be dangerous.

Even so, the inspector didn't know how dangerous this place, in particular, could be.

The next day, after hearing of the double murder on the radio, the inspector phoned Martinez. The chief inspector arranged to meet the homicide detectives at the kennel on Wednesday -- one day too late to stop Mark Anthony Davis from removing the best of his stock. At the kennel, Martinez found only 34 pit bulls -- plus one rottweiler, two chickens and a pair of homicide investigators with more questions than answers.