Vick's dogfighting was an open secret
By ALAN JUDD
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 09/05/07
Michael Vick's name kept popping up in the unlikeliest places.
In a South Carolina police detective's talks with a confidential informant. On an animal protection group's anonymous tip line. Around the edges of a murder case in Texas.
Paul Jasienski/Getty Images
Michael Vick's name was widely rumored in dogfighting circles, but no one shared that information with the Falcons before they drafted him.
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Vick's deep engagement in dogfighting was widely rumored in certain circles long before the guilty plea last week that will send him to prison and may end his professional football career.
But no one, apparently, shared those rumors with Vick's employer, the Atlanta Falcons, according to interviews with animal advocates and law enforcement officials in several states.
The advocates say they feared telling the Falcons would only drive Vick's dogfighting activities deeper underground.
Investigators, meanwhile, say they either lacked the evidence to expose Vick or considered him irrelevant to the cases they were pursuing.
Even those who could link Vick to dogfighting didn't share that information with each other before news broke of the criminal case against the Falcons quarterback.
Inadvertently, they helped Vick keep his open secret.
"With this sort of crime," said John Goodwin of the Humane Society of the United States, "it's always complicated."
Informant drops name
As the prosecutor for South Carolina's animal cruelty task force, William Frick learned that dogfighting thrives on secrecy.
"You don't get information from dog fighters, usually," said Frick, a former assistant attorney general.
But in late 2003 or early 2004, Frick said, a confidential informant began naming dog fighters for the task force's investigator. Without prompting, Frick said, the informant gave up a prominent name: Michael Vick.
The informant said Vick had a "dog yard" in South Carolina where he kept animals between fights, Frick said. Authorities never verified the report, Frick said, and found no evidence that Vick had attended or sponsored fights in the state.
In his guilty plea last week, Vick acknowledged entering a pit bull named Big Boy in a 2003 fight in South Carolina.
At the time, though, the allegations about Vick in South Carolina "just evaporated," Frick said last week. "If we had seen anything that had Michael Vick's name on it, we would have pursued it, just like we would have with anybody else."
The South Carolina tip roughly coincided with reports to at least two animal protection groups. Both groups, however, received incomplete accounts.
One organization's sources gave specific information about Vick's dogfights but couldn't say where they took place. The other group heard from tipsters who knew where the fights occurred but few other details.
The groups â€” the Humane Society and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals â€” did not share the reports with each other.
Since 2004, several anonymous people had called PETA claiming dog fights were being staged on Vick's property in Surry County, Va. Vick bought the land in 2001 specifically to set up a dogfighting operation, federal authorities now allege.
The tips were "not specific enough that we or anyone else could do anything else with it," said Dan Shannon, PETA's assistant program director. But "when the name Michael Vick is involved, it perks your ears up."
The organization passed the information to law enforcement officials in Virginia, Shannon said. Even then, he said, he knew it was too vague for police to obtain a search warrant.
Surry County Sheriff Harold Brown did not respond to a request for an interview.
The Humane Society first heard Vick was involved in dogfighting from a paid informant, also in 2004, said Goodwin, the organization's deputy manager of dogfighting issues. The informant had provided information that led to arrests in another dogfighting case.
The informant gave a detailed description of Vick's interest in dogfighting, Goodwin said, and said the quarterback was the subject of widespread discussion in "the game dog world."
Other people with knowledge of dogfighting passed similar reports to the Humane Society, Goodwin said. "It wasn't just one person," he said. Hearing about Vick's involvement put Humane Society officials in a quandary. Sharing the information with either the Falcons or law enforcement authorities might have alerted Vick, Goodwin said, allowing him to hide evidence from investigators. Keeping the information private, though, would enable Vick to maintain the secrecy so crucial to his activities.
Ultimately, the Humane Society said nothing.
Goodwin continued getting reports on Vick from South Carolina and from Texas, where a suspected dog fighter had been killed shortly after one of his animals was said to have defeated a grand champion to win a $100,000 purse.
As authorities in Liberty County, Texas, near Houston, investigated that 2006 homicide, they repeatedly talked to people who mentioned Vick's role in dogfighting, Sheriff's Department Capt. Chip Fairchild said.
"We heard his name, along with many other names, throughout our investigation," Fairchild said last week. His office did nothing with the allegations about Vick, Fairchild said, because the quarterback had nothing to do with the murder case, which remains unsolved. Fairchild declined to comment further.
Earlier, Fairchild reportedly told The Associated Press: "When we were in Dayton, they mentioned it there. In Atlanta and Pittsburgh, too. They all knew about Michael Vick being into it and sinking big dollars into it.
"That wasn't a trail we needed to go down," he added, "because there was no indication that he had ever been here or knew our guy. But our guy certainly knew people who knew Michael Vick."
The Humane Society had heard Vick had put his fighting dogs on "hiatus," Goodwin said.
But this spring, he said, the group received information about a carpenter who purportedly discovered signs of dogfighting while working at Vick's Surry County home. Again, the Humane Society kept quiet.
Then in April, authorities searched Vick's property after his cousin, who lived there, was arrested on a drug charge. Officers found dozens of pit bulls, equipment to train fighting dogs, and a bloodstained pit where fights were staged.
At PETA's headquarters in nearby Norfolk, Shannon said, "it did not come as a surprise."
No warning signs
The Falcons found nothing troublesome in Vick's background before drafting him in 2001, according to current and former team officials.
And during a news conference last week, Falcons owner Arthur Blank insisted that Vick had kept his dogfighting secret.
"Nobody â€” nobody â€” had any inkling, any ideas, any feelings about this," Blank said. "Nobody did. So I don't know what else we really could have done."
The degree to which the team monitored off-the-field activities of its highest-paid player is not clear. Reggie Roberts, a spokesman for the Falcons, declined to comment.
For several years the team assigned former player Billy "White Shoes" Johnson to help Vick deal with a litany of relatively minor predicaments.
They included Vick's failure to appear in court for parking violations and allegations that his friends stole an airport worker's watch.
Blank said the Falcons would look for players with "the appropriate balance between athletic ability and character."
But Rich McKay, the Falcons' general manager, said at the news conference that a team couldn't manage every aspect of a player's life.
"You try to do everything you can," McKay said. "[But] you're bringing a young man in who at no time in his life has he had a lot of free time and he probably never had a lot of money. And you're giving both to him."
In other instances of player misconduct, McKay said, team officials got an early warning they didn't receive on Vick. At least not that the Falcons recognize.
"I'm sure there's going to be something when we go through it all where we say, 'Boy, if we had looked at this or thought of that,' '' McKay said.
"But I'm not sure what it is."