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Page last updated at 11:28 GMT, Friday, 31 August 2007 12:28 UK

Dog-Fighting Undercover

By Steve, Undercover Reporter
Panorama

Dogs fighting
An old carpet was proudly unrolled to show me the blood stains
I was approached by the BBC 18 months ago with the idea of trying to infiltrate a dog-fighting ring in the UK.

My views on animal welfare have always been strong and the thought of people fighting dogs makes me sick to the stomach. I wanted to expose these people. This was an investigation that needed doing.

But where would I begin? The people involved in this barbaric so-called sport are so close knit that a stranger on the scene arouses instant suspicion. And as for the scene - where was the scene? Where do these people meet? Where do they fight the dogs? How do you recognise a dog-fighter?

I knew very little about dog-fighting and my knowledge of the dog they used - the pit bull terrier - was limited. My priority was to research the pit bull terrier and drill myself on the dog's characteristics. I tested myself over and over again until every detail was etched on my brain. It had to be.

Pit bull training camp

An anonymous source had given me information about one of the largest dog-fighting gangs in the UK - The Farmers' Boys. They're based in a small town in County Armagh, Northern Ireland called Tandragee and have been dog-fighting for years. The Farmers' Boys seemed to thrive during The Troubles - obviously the police had to concentrate on other things.

Tied to every tree was a 42-teethed pure American pit bull terrier, trying its hardest to break its chain and eat its neighbour
From contacts in the military, I also knew that for this gang to operate in those parts there could possibly be a paramilitary link. My military skills and tactics would be needed, not just to infiltrate, but to stay alive.

The research at this point was showing that Finland was a main player in the fighting pit bull breeding chain so, in June 2006, I headed there with reporter Mandy McAuley and a BBC crew, travelling to Helsinki to visit a pit bull breeder called Paul Dunkel.

IRISH RULES
A chained pit bull

I had corresponded with Paul Dunkel for a few weeks beforehand with a view to buying a pit bull with tested fighting ability. This was not a problem I was told as he always has between 30 and 40 dogs available. Placing an order on a tried and tested fighting pit bull with a good pedigree would be key to infiltrating The Farmers' Boys.

Paul Dunkel's kennels, or yard, as pit bull people call them, was an hour's drive from Helsinki. As we pushed further into the forest it became clear that Mandy and I were in the middle of a pit bull training camp. Tied to every tree was a 42-teethed pure American pit bull terrier, trying its hardest to break its chain and eat its neighbour.

Paul knew every dog's name, weight, date of birth and fighting style. Once he'd quizzed me on what style of fighting dog I wanted he narrowed his search and took me to view three or four that would be suitable.

This visit opened my eyes to the dog-fighting underworld and made me realise that there was massive amounts of money to be made in animal cruelty. I detested this man, but over the next year would have to become his close and trusted friend.

"We're going for a ride"

Back in the UK, my anonymous source gave me information about where these dog-fighting groups congregate. It came under the disguise of terrier and lurcher shows held throughout the UK and Ireland. So, on with the combat jacket and wellies and keep the fingers crossed.

I attended an advertised show in Ireland - pit bulls are legal there - and amazingly within minutes I had recognised a leading figure in The Farmers' Boys, a man called Stephen Barriskill. I approached him with a script that had been rehearsed so many times it was tattooed on my brain. I engaged him in small talk and led him to believe that we had already met at a previous show, this he strangely seemed to remember. I then informed him that I had bought a dog in Finland and was waiting for it to be shipped over. This made his ears prick up and he became slightly looser in conversation.

The owners opened their hearts to me about how many fights their dogs had won, pointing out every scar
The following week I attended another terrier and lurcher show this time in Northern Ireland - where the pit bull is a banned breed - in the Farmers' Boys' backyard. What was to happen here brought the investigation on leaps and bounds.

On arriving I noticed Stephen Barriskill, the Farmers' Boy, that I had been speaking to the week before. He noticed me and a friendly recognition followed. This was seen by a lot of people attending and broke down a big stranger-danger barrier, but what was to happen next would test my pit bull knowledge to the limits.

This godfather of the dog-fighting underworld asked me if I would judge the heavy dog show, aka pit bull terriers! This took me by surprise but I answered yes and my research was tested to the limit.

Bizarrely, the owners opened their hearts to me about how many fights their dogs had won, pointing out every scar it had. My knowledge had been tested and The Farmers' Boys were impressed. I was invited to their pub of choice - The Paddock bar in Tandragee - for a drinking and bonding session.

Entering The Paddock a few hours later I didn't know what to expect. Had I been rumbled? Was I going to get the hiding of my life or worse?

The Farmers' Boys and their molls were all seated in the corner of the bar. I was recognised as soon as I entered and a beer automatically appeared. I was informed that I was their guest and would not pay for anything - and they meant anything.

After about an hour I noticed a lot of eye contact and whispering going on. This made me start to feel uneasy and my get out plan was starting to take shape in my head.

Then one of the other leading players in The Farmers' Boys, Tom Bell, stood-up and said to me: "Let's go, there's a car outside and we're going for a ride". I didn't know what to do. Getting into a vehicle in the middle of bandit country with this guy would break all the rules.

I asked him where we were going, he replied to see his dogs and that his brother was outside in the car to drive us.

Had I been compromised or was this another test?

Invitation to a fight

After 10 minutes driving further and further into the country, we arrived at a rural farm complex. I could not believe what I was seeing; American pit bull terriers straining on chains attached to car axles staked into the ground. The scene was one I had only ever seen in pictures of places like Texas or Kentucky, not in the UK where this breed of dog has been banned since 1991.

Reporter Mandy McAuley with Nipper
It's too easy to bring a fighting dog into the UK
We made our way to an out-building with a rusty corrugated tin roof. This is where the dog-fighting took place and was called the "The Party House". I was shown the struts in the walls, where a ring could be erected in minutes. There was an old carpet rolled against the wall that he proudly unrolled to show me the blood stains.

I left feeling stage two complete, but I knew I was still a long way from infiltrating Europe's biggest and tightest dog- fighting syndicate.

Over the next few months I spent many weekends socialising with The Farmers' Boys and I was beginning to be accepted as one of the gang, but still not enough to be trusted to go to a fight, but things were about to change.

One afternoon I was summoned to The Paddock bar by Stephen Barriskill. I arrived not really sure what was going on but pretty confident that I hadn't been rumbled.

As I walked through the side door and over to "doggy corner" their faces lit up and I knew that all was ok. The Farmers' Boys had returned from a fight in Dublin and Tom Bell, like a proud new father, took me through how their dog had won in 26 minutes with little injury to itself.

He relived the fight in detail and spoke of guys from Liverpool who had travelled over to watch. Tom also informed me that very shortly he would be hosting a fight. He wouldn't let slip where it was going to be held but said it wouldn't be to far from their Tandragee base.

Was this an invite for me to attend? It turned out that it was.

Life or death

I had made the decision not to wear covert recording equipment for this fight but to treat it as trial run.

I arrived at The Paddock and called Tom. He told me to stay put and someone would pick me up. Shortly a Farmers' Boy called Hammy appeared and beckoned me outside to a Ford Transit. I jumped in the back where there were already 10 guys from Belfast, Liverpool, Teesside and Holland chatting in a nervous excited manner.

When the Transit stopped and the doors opened I realised we were in Tom Bell's farm complex. I had been there before.

I walked to The Party House where what looked like security staff covered the door. Before entering everyone was patted down. Thank God I hadn't worn my covert camera. The barn had changed appearance since my last visit - there was now a 15 by 15 foot ring, or pit as dog-fighters call it, in the middle. I followed the rest of the guys and found a position around the pit. There was no shortage of beer and drugs on offer.

Barriskill entered the barn and climbed into the pit carrying two buckets of water with sponges and placed them in opposite corners. He got everybody's attention by raising his voice and said that from now on the only people that could talk were the dogs' handlers. With that silence fell, and in came the first handler carrying his dog. This guy was known to me as the man from Dublin.

His dog looked to be about 40lbs in weight and ready to go. He was having trouble keeping hold of it in his corner. The next person to enter the pit took me totally by surprise. It wasn't one of the tattooed skin heads that I had expected, but a young female dressed in a waterproof top and bottoms.

These animals fight to the death for their handlers and this is how they're repaid
With both handlers in the pit the dogs were turned to face each other. They were shaking with excitement but hardly making a noise. The referee entered the pit and stood in the middle - a Dutch man called Peter. The Scousers were doing their last minute betting with one stake at 2,500.

Peter gave the command: "Release the dogs" and the dogs tore from opposite corners of the ring and clashed like a steam train hitting a wall. They hit so hard that they were spun in the air and the sound of skull on skull was stomach churning. Then the mouth action started. Both dogs began ripping chunks out of each other, both twisting and turning trying to get a better hold on the other.

Within minutes it was a blood bath.

How could I stay and watch this barbaric act? Easy. If I had dropped my act for one second I would be dead. The look on the faces in the crowd indicated that they loved this cruelty and abuse. This was life or death, so shamefully I copied the rest and endured the horror.

The man from Dublin's dog won. The other dog was so badly injured it couldn't move. I'm not sure what happened to it but I had heard of what The Farmers' Boys call the Tandragee bath.

The "bath" is apparently world famous in the dog-fighting circuit, it consists of placing the loser or a badly injured dog in a barrel of water and holding it under until it drowns.

These animals fight to the death for their handlers and this is how they're repaid.

"A super dog... who has been tested"

Next it was back to Finland for me and the crew to purchase our match-tested pit bull from Paul Dunkel. We were going to expose how easy it is to import one of these fighting-machines into the UK.

A pit bull owner hides his face from a reporter
Dog-fighters are like a virus: extremely difficult to eradicate
I arrived at Dunkel's and this time he took me deeper into the woods, to a specific dog - Nipper - this was the one for me. He told me it was: "A super dog... who has been tested." This means it has been matched against another dog to see if it has the "gameness" required of a fighting pit bull. I was assured it was game.

Paul and his wife Jonna made it quite clear to me that they are experts at exporting these fighting dogs and they knew what to put on the paper work: "We don't put the dog's breed down as American pit bull, we say it's a labrador-cross boxer".

In no time Nipper was on his way. He arrived at Dublin and was taken to the government approved kennels to be checked over. Two days later I crossed from the Irish Republic into the UK. No border control, no green or red channels to go through just a change in road signs lets you know you're over. It's as easy as that to bring a fighting dog into the UK.

But that wasn't the end of my visits to Finland.

I had made contact with another big name in the fighting scene who was based in Finland: Bobby Gonzales.

I spoke to Bobby on the phone and he invited me to call at his place anytime I was in the country. Well, I didn't want to be rude so Mandy and I looked him up. After all I was now a Farmers' Boy and that opens dog-fighter's doors.

Nothing was happening with the Farmers' Boys, as they'd had 28 dogs seized by the USPCA. A member of the public had given the police information after the tragic death of Ellie Lawrenson in Merseyside. I know from the inside that this information hit the dog-fighters hard.

When I spoke to Tom Bell, he told me that The Farmers' Boys were having a break, but a new venue had been found. I was to wait for the call. Dog-fighters are like a virus: extremely difficult to eradicate.

But for now nothing was happening - cue Bobby Gonzales.

I told him that The Farmers' Boys had temporarilly gone to ground and that there was no action to be found. No problem, he said, come to Finland to watch some action. Could other Farmers' Boys come? No problem.

I put the word out.

It didn't take long for the responses to come back. Two of the Farmers' Boys were up for it. Our old mate Chris Hamil (Hammy) from Tandragee and Gary Adamson from Teesside, both who were at the fight at Tom Bell's farm.

A long and bloody night

We drove to Bobby's place so the guys could get a full tour, this I openly recorded with a camcorder, selling it as a "lads on tour" kind of thing.

We were booked into a B&B about five miles from Bobby's place. I needed to get back there to connect my covert camera equipment, but no one else wanted to leave this place. They thought they'd found the Holy Grail.

By the time I returned the place was electric. Bobby's friends had arrived - a group of neo-Nazi skin heads. They were sorting out the pecking order for the fights and unloading dogs from cars and crates. This was going to be a long and bloody night.

Bobby and another guy came into the pit carrying two 10-month-old pups. I thought at first that they were joking - these dogs are the canine version of toddlers.

I took a chance and took out my camcorder. This lasted about 30 seconds before Bobby saw it and stopped me: "It's not allowed... too risky," he said.

Those pups tore into each other like they'd been fighting for years, without any hesitation they pulled and ripped at each other, squealing with pain.

After 15 minutes they were replaced with fresh dogs, getting older and bigger as the night progressed. There were seven fights in all. It was if a conveyer belt was moving them between the woods and the pit. Some dogs - I think two of them - had to fight twice and even though they were near dead through exhaustion they kept the pace up solely to impress their human master.

At last the final fight and the big dogs, weighing in at over 50lbs.

They clashed like two bowling balls - an instant shower of teeth shot into the air followed by the noise; the ripping, popping, slashing and grinding. The blood was uncontrollable. All I could focus on was getting this on camera. I don't know what I would have done if I didn't have to worry about getting footage. Surely I would have given the game away - that I wasn't enjoying this and I detested the company I was in.

After 46 minutes Bobby's dog could not move out of its corner and stood staring at the other dog who was being restrained and was still game to go - but it wasn't the dog that moved in for the kill.

Bobby picked up the injured dog and left the ring. He took it to a side building where I thought he would give it medical attention. Then all of a sudden the lights went out and everybody froze. Bobby went running outside to the fuse box.

After a few seconds the lights went on.

Bobby had not taken the dog out to care for it, but to kill it. He had attached crocodile clips to the dog's tail and ear and poured a bucket of water over it in an attempt to electrocute it. That's what had blown the fuses.

This dog, that had fought till it couldn't move any longer, was being rewarded with death by electrocution and, if this couldn't get worse, it hadn't died. Bobby had to carry it to the house to finish it of with a stronger electric current.

I thought I had seen all dog-fighting had to offer but I wasn't prepared for that.

The visiting Farmers' Boys said it was the best night they'd had in years.

SEE ALSO
GAA star 'dog fight ringleader'
30 Aug 07 |  Northern Ireland
Relative denies dog death charge
10 Aug 07 |  Merseyside

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