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.

Martinez checked the site, and at the same time gave Doyle and Bonaby a crash course in pit bull training.

Near the back porch of the house was a water tank about six feet deep. Martinez explained that to increase a pit bull's stamina, a trainer will place a dog in such a tank, forcing the animal to swim or drown; often, a weighted collar increases the degree of difficulty. Martinez found just such a collar.

He also spotted treadmills on which dogs will run for hours at a time, and weighted pull-harnesses that resemble crude Nautilus machines. And he located spring poles that are hung from trees and used to strengthen a dog's jaw muscles. When the dog bites down on the device, he is suspended in the air as he refuses to let go.

Inside an oven in the garage, Martinez discovered a handwritten list with Davis's initials, charting several dogs' pedigrees and win-and-loss records.

Most alarming was a shed near the back of the property. Dried blood stains spotted the walls and the carpet. Martinez also observed that most of the remaining dogs were covered with scars on their heads and legs. He concluded that not only had Mark Anthony Davis been training dogs at Rebel Kennels, he had also been fighting them there.

To Doyle and Bonaby, that information seemed significant. Over the next six weeks, the homicide detectives continued to question Davis about the double murder at his house.

"We believed that the deaths had something to do with his business," says Doyle. "So that meant that whoever had killed his two employees had probably actually been after him. We warned him that he was still possibly in danger. But this had no effect on him."

Despite Davis's refusal to cooperate, the detectives kept working the few tips that came into the homicide office. Although each new lead brought the investigators to another dead end, all were connected in one way or another to dogfighting. Several tipsters mentioned a possible deal that Davis had been involved in with "a man from up north."

The detectives were stymied. Says Doyle, "We really couldn't just go search up north."

Meanwhile, the SPCA's Martinez was working the dog angle. The more Martinez investigated, the more he became convinced that Mark Anthony Davis was very serious about his dogs.

In the world of pit bulls, says Martinez, there are three levels of dogfighters. The first is the street fighter -- the knucklehead who has a couple of dogs in his back yard and doesn't observe any rules. Like some Ken-L Ration spokesman from hell, he simply thinks his dog is badder than your dog.

The second level comprises gamblers who may own a few pit bulls but are not totally consumed with dogfighting.

The third level -- the level where Davis seemed to belong -- is a full-blown, very organized and secretive subculture that transcends race, educational, professional and economic backgrounds. The participants produce their own journals, with names such as Your Friend and Mine, Sporting Dog Journal and Game Dog Times, in which they report the results of matches and advertise for stud services and the sale and training of dogs.

"It's a giant industry," says Martinez.
After HPD ran a routine check on a national criminal-information database, the police found that Davis had been rounded up with other third-level dogfighters in 1993; the Michigan authorities who made the bust called the aborted gathering "the Super Bowl of dogfighting."

Acting on a tip, Saginaw County lawmen had watched as dogfight aficionados gathered at a shopping mall parking lot in a suburban part of the county. From there, the group was transported by bus to a dogfight "convention" -- the site of which was known by only a select few before the match.

"No one just walks into a dogfight," says an investigator. "Only one guy knows the location. People are sent to various other locations and then are called at the last minute. If they don't think you're right, you don't get the call."

The conventions have the air of a county fair on the skids. There is food and drink, and there may even be musical entertainment. But the main attraction is the fights.

Prior to a match, the dog owners meet and formulate a "contract," in which they agree to have their dogs fight in a certain weight category. When the agreement is signed, both sides put up money that will be forfeited if one of the dogs does not come into the match at the specified weight.

The contracts are usually arranged at least six weeks prior to a fight. After the conditions and terms of the fight are settled, the owners, their dogs and the dogs' trainers enter into what is known as "the keep" -- the time during which the dog is intensively conditioned for the match.

In the Saginaw County case, the convention was held in a 30-foot-by-40-foot steel-sided barn located on the edge of a residential area. Inside the barn were bleachers and a fully stocked bar. The metal structure also concealed the pit -- a small arena with four sides and a plywood floor. Everything was ready for a typical dogfight.

Because owners have been known to put topical poison on an animal in order to make the competition ill, just prior to the fight, each owner is allowed to wash the other's dog. The owners then take their dogs to the pit.

Just as in a boxing match, the dogs are kept in opposite corners. In each corner is what's called the "scratch line." The dogs are held behind the scratch line with their rear ends to each other until a referee orders the owners to "face your dogs." The dogs are then turned around but held behind the scratch line until the referee says, "Release your dogs."

At that point the dogs lunge toward each other, each desperately maneuvering to get the other's nose or throat or legs between its steel-trap jaws. The fighting is frantic and fierce. But while the human spectators howl and cheer, making side bets with every new twist of the match, the dogs themselves are oddly quiet. It's a trait of the breed: Pit bulls rarely utter a sound, even though they are bloodied and in obvious pain. Instead, the animals look out of the corners of their eyes for signals and encouragement from their masters, who are in the ring on their hands and knees, their heads inches away from the action.

The fight proceeds, sometimes for an hour or more, as long as each dog continues to attack the other. But if one of the dogs appears to retreat, the referee will rule that the animal has "turned." Once a turn has been called, the dogs are placed back behind the scratch lines. The dog guilty of the turn is then released first to see if he still has the desire to fight -- a quality dog owners refer to as "gameness," perhaps the most desired characteristic in a pit bull. One investigator recalls hearing a report of a dog that, although both of its front legs had been broken during a match, would continue to push itself back into the ring with his back legs.

But pity the dog who refuses to continue the fight.
"If a dog is not game, a lot of times an owner will shoot him right there in the ring," says an investigator. "These guys base their manhood on their dogs. It embarrasses them when their dog loses. If your dog is chicken, you're chicken, too."

The scratch process is repeated until one of the dogs either can't or won't fight. The owner of a winning dog can pocket as much as $50,000 for a bout. And the more successful the dog, the higher its stud and training fees.

But no money was won and no dogs were executed that November day in Saginaw County. The convention had only been in progress about 40 minutes when Michigan authorities raided the barn. Among those arrested was Mark Anthony Davis, who was charged with being a dogfight spectator -- a felony in Michigan.

In addition to Davis, most of the other 127 dogfighting enthusiasts arrested during the Saginaw raid were primarily from six states: Michigan, Maine, North Carolina, Kentucky, Florida and Texas. A half-dozen were from the Houston area -- a fact that authorities say is not surprising. The rural areas of Harris and surrounding counties are hotbeds of dogfight training camps.

During the investigation of the double murder at Rebel Kennels, Houston authorities noticed that Davis had never shown up for his arraignment in Michigan and arrested him for failing to appear. But not long after he posted bond, the charge was dropped when Michigan prosecutors declined to have him extradited.

"Unfortunately, a lot of law enforcement agencies don't take dogfighting seriously," says Lieutenant Mark Wachner with Saginaw County Animal Control. "They have too few people to deal with dogfighting when they've got homicides to worry about. And you really can't blame them there."

In Texas, it's a felony to organize or participate in a dogfight. But to Martinez's consternation, even with the evidence from Rebel Kennels, he could not convince either the Houston Police Department or the Harris County District Attorney's Office to bring criminal charges against Mark Anthony Davis.

The SPCA settled for a civil procedure: a court order allowing the organization to seize the animals that remained at Rebel Kennels. (Nothing could be done about the dogs Davis had removed from the kennel, since authorities didn't know where he had taken them.) In December, the SPCA hauled the remaining dogs to its shelter.

Davis appealed the seizure, and fought to get his dogs back. The county's lawyer argued that Davis had long been involved in dogfighting. Not only did he have training equipment in his yard, and not only had he been arrested in Michigan, he'd even been videotaped training dogs to fight.

Davis claimed that he'd left the dogfighting business, and that he was training his pit bulls not to fight, but to hunt wild boars. He said he was working to return the American pit bull to its British roots: the Staffordshire terrier, a dog bred for blood sport but not as temperamentally unstable as its American cousin.

Davis testified that the 34 pit bulls were worth $100,000 -- roughly $3,000 each. The county's lawyer seized on that price.

"Even Fifi the poodle isn't worth $3,000," says Terry O'Rourke, the assistant county attorney who handled the case. "The very fact that they contended that the dogs were worth so much meant that Davis had to be training them to fight."

Davis claimed great love for his dogs. At one point, while testifying about his affection for them, he broke down and cried.

O'Rourke says he has no doubt that, on some warped level, Davis loves the dogs. "I think of it in the same vein as the people who have sex with children. My feeling was of watching a sex offender who tells a social worker who is taking his kids away how much he loves the children."

"There is a dark side to us all," says the attorney. "The way we cheer a vicious hit at a football game. But this is beyond dark."

After Davis's appeal was denied, the dogs were destroyed. Davis's attorney, Brent Leidtke, wisecracks that he may be the only attorney in the country to have had 34 clients executed in one case.

In January -- about two months after the murders at Rebel Kennels, when the Vasquez murder investigation seemed to have stalled for good -- Doyle received a call from a pair of Chicago detectives. They were investigating a dope deal gone bad. On a street in south Chicago, a man and woman had been shot. The man, Jodie Murray, died from his wounds; the woman, Crystal Jackson, was left paralyzed -- but still able to answer questions.

Jackson told the Chicago detectives that Murray had gone to Houston around Thanksgiving. He returned with a couple of dogs and claimed to have killed two men.

"Obviously, we were interested in talking to this woman ourselves," says Doyle. Along with Bonaby, he was soon en route to Chicago.

Crystal Jackson told the Houston detectives that her late boyfriend had once worked for Mark Anthony Davis in Houston, helping him with his dog business. At one point, Murray lived in one of the front bedrooms of Davis's house.

While working for Davis, Murray accompanied him to a dogfight in Louisiana. There they met a suspected dope dealer from Chicago, Herman Matthews -- known to federal authorities as Yum Yum. In addition to drugs, Yum Yum also dabbled in pit bulls, and had been interested in buying a couple from Davis. The two men became friends, Jackson told the detectives, and even traveled to Mexico together to attend a dogfight there.

When the two men returned from Mexico, Yum Yum agreed to pay Davis $4,000, in two installments, for one of his dogs. But before Yum Yum actually took custody of the dog, Davis would train the animal for him.

For some reason, even after the dog had been paid for in full, Davis kept coming up with excuses why he couldn't send the animal to Chicago. Yum Yum was not pleased.

Yum Yum was hardly the only person on the outs with Davis. The dog trainer had also fallen out with Murray, who went to Chicago to work for Yum Yum. It wasn't long before the drug dealer had a special assignment for his new employee: to go take the dog from Davis.

Yum Yum provided Murray with a pistol, two men to assist him, and a prostitute to keep him company. The Chicago delegation piled into a van and headed to Houston.

After arriving, they checked into a motel. Murray and one of his helpers drove the van to Rebel Kennels.

They parked down the road from the kennel. Wearing hoods, they made their way through the weeds, grass and debris in an adjacent vacant lot, then climbed over the chainlink fence on the south side of the house.

Murray apparently decided to take another dog, as well as the one he'd been assigned to retrieve -- perhaps as a little bonus for Yum Yum. But as Murray and his partner were about to make their getaway, they were confronted by the Vasquez cousins. And one of them was carrying a rifle

Murray's partner made a dash back to the van. But since he knew the cousins, Murray pulled off his mask, identified himself and went inside the house to talk things over with his old friends.

According to Crystal Jackson's scenario, Murray soon got the drop on his former co-workers and shot each of them in the head. He and his three traveling companions immediately drove back to Chicago.

Though Yum Yum now had two dogs for his $4,000, the low-profile drug dealer was not pleased. A double homicide investigation was not something he wanted to be part of.

About six weeks after Murray returned to Chicago from Houston, Yum Yum dispatched Murray and his girlfriend, Jackson, to complete a drug transaction. But as they were exchanging the dope for money, the couple was shot by their two male customers.

The shooting left Jackson paralyzed from the waist down. In her hospital room, she told the cops that she believed the drug deal was a setup to eliminate Murray -- the only person who could connect Yum Yum to the Vasquez murders.

Doyle believed her.
"Why would she come up with this story about a guy going to Houston and killing two Mexicans down here?" he asks.

In Houston, the Vasquez case is closed. o Yeah, Doyle admits, there is a possibility that Herman Matthews, a.k.a. Yum Yum, told Murray to do whatever was necessary -- including murder -- to get the dog. After 15 years in the homicide division, sometimes a detective just has a feeling about a case.

"We believe that Matthews knew," says Doyle. "I believe he may have in fact sent these people here to kill Mark Anthony Davis. Unfortunately, there is no way I can prove it. Because the only person he gave the gun to is a dead man."

Yum Yum is currently incarcerated in a Chicago jail, waiting to be tried on federal drug distribution charges. Since no arrests have been made in Murray's murder, Chicago police refuse to comment on their investigation.

Rebel Kennels appears defunct. The kennel's phone is disconnected, and the elderly woman who owns the property claims to have no idea where Mark Anthony Davis is these days. She says he still maintains the place for her but no longer lives there.

Last summer, several pit bulls were spotted in the back yard of what used to be Rebel Kennels. But no dogs were visible during another peek over the fence in late October.

Davis has dropped out of sight. Presumably, he and the 44 missing pit bulls are together, somewhere, waiting for their next match. Despite his claims to the contrary, animal-cruelty investigators have no doubt that, wherever he is, Mark Anthony Davis is still fighting dogs. In his business, death is just part of the overhead.

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Steve McVicker