Michael Vick's journey to federal prison began when he was 18 years old.
At 10:45 a.m. on March 2, 1999, a blue Ford Econoline van with Virginia plates and a dangling pine-tree air freshener got stopped for speeding one mile north of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, going 65 in a 55 mph zone. The driver, Jose Rivera - who listed his occupation as dog breeder - was headed home to Surry County, he said. He grew nervous while Officer Mark Wendel asked questions, squirming in his seat, wiping his palms on his trousers.
When Wendel asked to search the van, Rivera stuttered, "S-s-sure,?VbCrLf records show. In the back, behind a built-in TV set, Wendel and other officers found two kilos of cocaine, worth $240,000 on the street, and a half kilo of heroin, worth $120,000.
Vick had no connection with this bust, nor with the three men in the van. He was the furthest thing from anyone's mind. The bust received little mention in the press, just another footnote in the New York-to-Tidewater drug flow.
Yet the stop would have everything to do with the fate of the young star.
It is a long road from New York City to the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. Rivera, and his companions who were not charged, had been driving on Route 13 since 4 a.m. A driver stares down the highway: The white line flashes up, accompanied by the asphalt's whine. It's easy to grow hypnotized, to let the speed creep up, to miss the watcher hidden beside the road.
On March 2, 1999, Vick had the whole world before him. His talent on the high-school gridiron had catapulted him from the crime-ridden projects of Newport News' East End, known in hip-hop culture as Bad Newz, to a scholarship at Virginia Tech. In his first game he scored three touchdowns in a little more than a quarter of play. The last TD ended in a flip, showmanship that injured his ankle and forced him out for the rest of the game. But in 2000, he'd propel the Hokies to the Sugar Bowl and finish third in Heisman Trophy balloting.
He was two years away from signing as a quarterback with the Atlanta Falcons in the 2001 draft, five years away from becoming the first player in National Football League history to rush 100 yards and pass for 250 yards in a single game. That same year, in 2004, he would sign a 10-year contract with the Falcons for $130 million, making him the highest-paid NFL player at the time.
He could not know that this bust would become the first in a series of incidents that would ultimately bring him down. No one foresaw that papers in the van would draw attention to a Surry dog breeder named Benjamin D. Butts; that one day Vick would hire Butts to train pit bulls for fights to the death; that along with his equipment and expertise, Butts would bring unwanted police attention to Vick's Surry County mansion.
The April 2007 search of Vick's property would result in his 23-month sentence in federal prison in Leavenworth, Kan., for involvement in an interstate dogfighting ring called Bad Newz Kennels and his loss of millions in canceled contracts, defaulted loans, and court-ordered payments and fines. The charges resulted in the firing of a respected narcotics officer and a flood of accusations alleging favoritism toward Vick by the county prosecutor and sheriff. Racism roiled this rural county. Reporters descended like flies; neighbor turned against neighbor. Butts would miss the excitement. By then, he was dead.
No one foresaw any of this. Route 13 is long, and drivers get careless. The voyage from poverty to millions passes fast, and one grows cocky. Blood sports are held at night, when the path is dark.
One rarely sees so far.
One recurring pattern in Benny Butts' life was his injudicious choice of friends. In 1999, Jose Rivera proved this true. Police found in the van insurance forms, a driver's license and other paperwork citing Rivera's address as either 800 Conway St. in Williamsburg or 831 Brownsview Lane in Surry County. The latter was the rural home of Butts and his family.
When Rivera was arrested, he said he'd lived in Williamsburg in 1997-98 with a man named Oscar Allen, then moved to Butts' home for five months in 1998-99. His only means of income was breeding and selling pit bulls, kept on Butts' property. The two men with him - Terrance Smith, 39, and Leudis Mendoza, 23 - said they'd come on this trip to check Rivera's dogs as breeding stock. They'd met him through the "fighting dog community,?VbCrLf they said.
In 1999, police were only beginning to understand the links between dogfighting, violence and illegal drugs. Merritt Clifton, of the animal-protection newspaper Animal People, said in the Oct. 2, 2002, New York Times that "dogfighting hit the crossover point in 1998,?VbCrLf the year that nearly every dogfighting statistic - people involved, dogs seized, drug or homicide arrests related - began to double and triple. It's a trend that, with few exceptions, has continued.
The Humane Society of the United States estimates that nationwide, 40,000 people and at least 250,000 pit bulls are involved in dogfighting. Another 100,000 street fighters - teenagers and young men who arrange dogfights in their neighborhoods but are not part of the professional circuit - are also involved. The Humane Society estimates that worldwide profits from puppy sales, stud fees and wagers soar into the hundreds of millions. Today dogfighting is illegal in all 50 states, and a federal law, enacted in May 2007, includes provisions against transporting dogs intended for fights across state lines.
At first, Rivera said he knew nothing about the drugs in his van. He was delivering the Ford van to the real owner, a New Yorker he knew as Lucho, he said. As the investigation continued, a different story emerged. An informant told federal agents that, beginning in 1994, the informant bought a kilo of cocaine for $22,000 to $25,000 every two or three weeks from Rivera, Butts and Miguel Antonio Tavera, who sometimes stayed at Butts' home. All three were dogfighters, and Butts would deliver the cocaine in bags of dog food, the informant alleged.
As Rivera's court date approached, he changed his story. On Oct. 5, 1999, he pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Norfolk to felony cocaine and heroin possession, with intent to distribute. His sentencing was scheduled for March 2000, pending his cooperation with the law. On March 9, 2000, he told agents that he and Leudis Mendoza were actually partners, but that Terrance Smith knew nothing about the drugs. They'd been running narcotics to Tidewater for several years, and had increased their deliveries to once every two or three weeks. They'd take the drugs to Chesapeake, stay at a motel near Chesapeake Square Mall or with Butts in Surry County. They'd return $60,000 or $70,000 to their New York source every run.
Four days later, on March 13, Rivera was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison, plus four years of supervised probation. He was released Sept. 3, 2004, federal records show.
In February 2000, the informant had called Butts and asked to buy drugs. But Benny was being careful. He said he felt paranoid and dared not deal. "I don't feel like being in no conspiracy, you know what I mean??VbCrLf he said. On March 15, two days after Rivera's sentencing, Butts told the informant that federal agents had come to his house after Rivera's arrest. He told them that, although Mendoza and Smith were guests, he knew nothing about drugs. "I played real stupid,?VbCrLf he said.
Before Rivera's arrest, Butts was a minor blip on Surry County's criminal radar. Born in the Buckroe section of Newport News in 1964, he'd been found guilty in Hampton Circuit Court in August 1985 of one felony count of marijuana possession. In September 1990, he and his wife bought 5.7 acres on Brownsview Lane for $63,318. In 1994 and 1995, he worked at Carroll's Farms in neighboring Sussex County, but resigned after a history of attendance problems. In 1995 and 1997, he was slapped with misdemeanor marijuana possession and assault charges in Surry County, but both charges were dismissed.
The only hint of his future role with Vick was a noise complaint on Jan. 14, 1995, about dogs. Surry County Deputy B.A. Kyttle arrived at Butts' house and found Miguel Tavera unloading bags of dog food from a flatbed truck into a backyard shed. They were feeding the dogs, Tavera said. Kyttle told him of the complaint and left. Sometime that summer, an animal control officer inspected Butts' kennels in the back and found 38 pit bulls, one pregnant female and five puppies. All seemed healthy. Butts had a valid kennel license that did not require annual inspection, records said. The officer saw a building in the back, but was not allowed in.
Tavera would one day grab the attention of regional law enforcement - but not yet. On July 7, 1995, six months after his conversation with Kyttle, he was arrested in Tampa with $200,000 and 50 kilos of cocaine. He was charged with drug conspiracy, but was acquitted that December when a witness refused to testify. During the investigation, he told police he bred pit bulls in the Norfolk area. Yet none of that had meaning until Rivera's conviction.
Despite the lack of physical evidence, local law enforcement started paying serious attention to Butts by 2000. Unfortunately, court records do not paint a full portrait of the man, and repeated attempts to contact Butts' family for this report were unsuccessful.
Yet others got to know him. Bill Brinkman, the nine-year veteran of the Surry County Sheriff's Department who led the Vick investigation and lost his job as a result, was only then beginning his long interest in Butts. Brinkman was a narcotics officer respected for his tenacity; colleagues dubbed him Wild Bill for his unruly mop during undercover work. He didn't know much about dogfighting, but he was learning, partly from one of Butts' acquaintances. Although Brinkman vouched for this person, he emphasized that no identifying details could be revealed. To do otherwise would place the witness in danger. "You have to understand,?VbCrLf Brinkman says, "these people are vicious.?VbCrLf
Butts himself was not particularly violent, Brinkman says. But the acquaintance noted, "You couldn't back him into a corner, either.?VbCrLf At 5-foot-6 and 165 pounds, Butts was stocky and short; he sported a dream-catcher tattoo on his chest, a pit-bull tattoo on his biceps and a little gold cross around his neck. He also carried a knife in his pocket. His long dark hair was worn in a braid down his back. He said he came from Indian ancestry, citing a family name, Barefoot, as proof. "He didn't know what tribe he came from,?VbCrLf the acquaintance says, "but still he was proud of being an Indian.?VbCrLf
He was also, says the acquaintance, "very good with his dogs.?VbCrLf
Bill Brinkman agreed. "Odd as it may seem,?VbCrLf he says, "Benny Butts loved his dogs. Of course, you have to know what happened to those that didn't fight.?VbCrLf They were killed.
To an outsider, a dogger's psychology is incomprehensible. He says he loves his dogs while he sends them out to die. Money is a factor, as is a chance of fame in an underground world. Brinkman and others say the draw is cultural, but where that once meant young black men in the inner city, it now includes Hispanics and rural whites. All three identify with a dog's gameness - its refusal to stop fighting even at death's door. To doggers, pit-bull battles are heroic. They are survivors in a harsh world, an image dog men like to assign to themselves.
Yet even such a tribute cannot hide the pit's brutality. A passage from "The Complete Gamedog?VbCrLf - a book about dogfighting - describes the death of a dog named Jolene. Her opponent "had destroyed her face so badly that her sinuses were crushed, her whole face was pulsing up and down as she breathed and air was bubbling out of the holes in her muzzle and around her eyes.?VbCrLf
"The owner plays God to a degree,?VbCrLf Brinkman says. "When it comes to dogfighting, these people are well-educated.?VbCrLf They know how to stitch a dog's gaping wounds, know how doses of vitamin B-12, steroids, hormones, weight-gain supplements, cocaine and meth affect a dog's performance in the ring. "They look at a dog and say, ?~I can get that dog back [from death].' For them, life and death is the ultimate control.?VbCrLf
Butts' arrest was almost godlike, descending from above. During a state police overflight, three marijuana plants were spotted on his property. On Aug. 31, 2000, Brinkman and other officers served a search warrant on Butts' home. They found in the back the marijuana, but also spotted telltale signs of dogfighting: 33 pit bulls in one pen, pups in another, treadmills, medical supplies, assorted dogfight magazines and records. Brinkman also spotted dead animals, he says.
"I went to get a search warrant, but while I was at the magistrate, Butts showed up and gave his consent to search?VbCrLf his house, Brinkman recalled. "I turned around [because of the consent] and didn't get the search warrant.?VbCrLf
On Sept. 6, 2000, Butts was charged with 33 counts of animal cruelty and organized dogfighting, plus possession of marijuana. The dogs were confiscated. That same day, Butts wrote and signed this statement:
"I, Ben Butts, give this statement to Deputy W. Brinkman at the Surry County Sheriff Department concerning dog charges. Mainly the 33 dogs located at my resident [sic] which were either involved in dogfighting or being raised for dogfighting. Not all these dogs belong to myself, I do bored [sic] pitbull for other people, I do have knowledge of other people, places, and activity.?VbCrLf
It seemed open and shut, all ends tied. But when the case went to court on Feb. 7, 2001, all charges were dismissed. The judge declared the search illegal. Most of Butts' dogs and equipment were returned. He went home a free man.
Even today, Brinkman shakes his head. As far as he knew, Butts was the area's premier dogfighter until Michael Vick arrived. "If we'd dealt with him then,?VbCrLf Brinkman says, "Benny Butts would have been shut down, and all of this with Michael Vick would not have happened.?VbCrLf
What went wrong?
Put simply, Surry County Commonwealth's Attorney Gerald G. Poindexter did not believe in consent searches, and still doesn't, he says. He calls the practice "bootstrap justice,?VbCrLf open to coercion and abuse, especially in a rural county where people may not be aware of their legal protections.
When the charges came to court, Poindexter did not argue in favor of Butts' consent for the search of the property.
"I can't remember being confronted with one good case decided by a consent to search,?VbCrLf Poindexter said in an interview, reflecting on his 12 years as a prosecutor.
His is a liberal take, hearkening to the image of prosecutors as "gatekeepers of justice.?VbCrLf On the whole, prosecutors aggressively seek convictions, and most honor consents. In the United States, a consent is the simplest and most common type of warrantless search. By giving it, a person voluntarily waives his Fourth Amendment rights to the need to prove before a magistrate the probable cause justifying a search. Yet because of the consent, Brinkman had not gotten a warrant, and without either in hand, the judge had no choice but to declare the search illegal.
"I think it was a prosecutorial mistake,?VbCrLf says Victoria Time, an associate professor of criminal justice at Old Dominion University specializing in criminal law. "You have to show proof of coercion to deem the consent search invalid.?VbCrLf Yet she adds that consents are a gray area, one of the leading issues in higher-court appeals concerning illegal search and seizure and arrests resulting from racial profiling. "There are different ways to construe coercion - a stern look, the uniform intimidates people,?VbCrLf she says. "I am intimidated by guns. Every semester I tell my students I can give up any information when confronted by someone with a gun.?VbCrLf
When Poindexter later said he proceeded slowly in filing dogfighting charges against Vick because he'd been "burned?VbCrLf in an earlier case, this was the case to which he referred. Yet to understand his actions and its consequences, one must understand Poindexter's significance in Surry County.
For the last 36 years, Surry County has been run by a black majority, and the county's top law enforcement officials - Poindexter and Sheriff Harold D. Brown - are black, a combination unique in Virginia. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the population of 6,829 in 2000 was 46.9 percent white and 51.6 percent black. Poindexter has been a county official in some capacity for all of those years. In 1972, Surry County's newly elected board of supervisors was predominantly black for the first time in its history. Before that, "the only black in the courthouse was a lady cleaning the courthouse,?VbCrLf civic activist Thomas Hardy said in an oral history collected by Virginia Commonwealth University. That year, Poindexter was working for a Richmond law firm when the three new black supervisors asked him to serve as county attorney. "And he came in and guided those three blacks through how to govern a county, so that was how we got started,?VbCrLf Hardy says.
Poindexter served as county attorney until 1995, when he followed his wife, Gammiel G. Poindexter, as part-time commonwealth's attorney. Gammiel G. Poindexter had been elected prosecutor in 1975; in September 1995, she was appointed General District Court judge for the 6th Judicial Circuit of Virginia. Given these experiences, it would be remarkable if Poindexter were not attuned to the nuances of his county, racial issues and the law.
After his release, Butts lay low, temporarily. Police heard rumors about him and sometimes ran surveillance. There was no basis for arrest, yet according to Brinkman, records and the acquaintance, Butts kept busy. He took pit bulls to matches in New York City, Maryland, New Jersey and North Carolina. In Virginia, he took dogs for fights in Surry, Ivor, Newport News and Hampton. He tucked a small-caliber handgun in his waistband and dealt in marijuana and coke, moved in bags of dog food. He started a Web site called Hard Core Kennels, not affiliated with today's Hardcore Kennels, where he advertised his dogs.
The face of local dogfighting changed during this time. State statistics are sparse, yet according to Pet-Abuse.com, the most complete database of state statistics on the Web, 29 dogfighting charges were filed in Virginia from 2000 to 2008. Fourteen were filed in a crescent running through Norfolk, Virginia Beach, Chesapeake, Surry, Newport News, Hampton and Gloucester County. About 150 dogs were confiscated, and 28 people were charged. The Butts case in 2000 and the Vick case in 2007 were bookends, both in Surry County, both involving the greatest number of dogs.
In the summer of 2001, Vick paid $34,000 for the 15-acre plot of land at 1915 Moonlight Road, across from Ferguson Grove Baptist Church. He placed a double-wide trailer on the property and built a snow-white mansion. His bedroom, master bathroom and room-sized closet took up half the second floor. An Atlanta Falcons flag flapped in the gated front yard.
Today the house stands empty, looted soon after Vick's trial, says Kyle T. Hause Jr., the real estate agent handling the property for Long and Foster. Vick sold the property a month before his sentencing: It had been appraised at $747,000, but a local builder bought it for $450,000. The property lists today for $1.1 million and land is being cleared in the back for a horse farm, Hause says.
That portion of the property is a study in contrasts, a two-story barn and three sheds painted jet black, outside and in. A line of 20 cinder-block and chain-link kennels were built for $20,000, each with concrete food bowls and a drain connected to a separate septic tank. "This is the Cadillac of kennels,?VbCrLf Hause was told by a friend.
A narrow path leads past the kennels into the woods. Twenty doghouses are strewn about a clearing, each planted in front with a buried car axle to which a chain was once attached. Dogs could lunge at each other but never quite meet, a trick for increasing aggressiveness. Today, red tanks of moldy dog food lie abandoned. Opaque plastic water tanks glow green with algae.
Vick's dogfights began as early as 2002, according to federal indictments, and all matches held on his property were staged in the barn. The first floor held training equipment and what is called a rape stand, used for binding and breeding female dogs. The fights took place on the second floor, accessed only by a pull-down stepladder. There was no built-in illumination; lights on fight nights were plugged into extension cords.
"They liked to fight in the winter and at night because the dogs got overheated, especially in that tiny enclosure,?VbCrLf says Butts' acquaintance, who attended a fight on Moonlight Road. "It would be midnight before anyone came up. The house was right off the road, so it would have looked suspicious to have a lot of cars parked out there. Instead, people would be brought there, carpooled. There were carloads of people.
"It was real spooky - the steps going up, just tiny little things, no windows up top. This fight, there were 150 people. ?Ý Anyone could come for you and there'd be no way out. The fight went on a couple of hours. It was very tense, very stressful, no talking, very quiet except for the noise made by the dogs.?VbCrLf
The ring was an open box, 12 feet by 12 feet, as black as the walls and held together by hinges. The dark color was chosen on purpose - it hid the blood. Carpet was laid beneath the ring to give the dogs traction.
A fight begins with a referee, a role Butts sometimes filled. Diagonal lines were drawn at each end of the pit; the dogs were held behind the lines until the referee said "Face your dogs,?VbCrLf then "Let go.?VbCrLf Both dogs lunged: A dog that went for the head or throat was considered most "game.?VbCrLf When a dog turned his face or shoulder, the two were separated and placed behind the lines. The dog that turned was released and given 10 seconds to attack. If he did so, the fight continued; if not, it ended, and the loser was usually killed. The fight continued until a dog was too injured to fight, refused to attack, was pulled from the ring by his owner, or died.
According to federal indictments, Vick and his entourage - Atlanta friend Quannis L. Phillips, local friend Pernell Peace and Peace's cousin Tony Taylor - began training dogs on the property in 2001. Thirty dogs were originally involved. The four "tested?VbCrLf them by matching dogs against each other while still on the leash. Those unwilling to fight were killed.
Vick and Phillips first approached Tony Taylor about dogfighting: He was a local "street fighter?VbCrLf who'd staged matches in Isle of Wight County, a wannabe hoping to reach the big leagues. Vick and his money were the means. "Taylor approached Benny Butts,?VbCrLf Brinkman says, since Butts was considered the best dog man around.
By late 2001 or 2002, Butts was an unnamed member of the Bad Newz team. At first he did odd jobs around the property, including electrical work in the barns. He brought in Oscar Allen, the man who'd lived in Williamsburg with Jose Rivera. In 2001, Allen sold a female pit bull named Jane to Vick, and by 2002-03, she was winning fights from Virginia to New York. Jane was instrumental to Vick's fate, says Brinkman: Vick had insisted he'd never been present at the fights until a prosecutor produced a picture of Vick posing beside Jane. After that, Brinkman says, Vick made his guilty plea.
From 2002 to 2004, Vick's organization did well. The partners printed shirts with the Bad Newz logo; they fought dogs up and down the East Coast, with dogs such as Maniac, Chico, Too Short, Tiny and Big Boy. Brinkman believes Butts sold Tiny to Vick. They won some and lost some, wagering thousands of dollars on fights that Vick bankrolled. Arranged purses between owners in grand champion contests - those in which dogs have each won five or more fights - ran in the tens of thousands of dollars, side bets in the thousands, Brinkman says. An unnamed dogfighter in a May 27, 2007, ESPN report called Vick "one of the heavyweights?VbCrLf in dogfighting, betting as much as $30,000-$40,000 per match.
But the real money, says John Goodman, manager of animal fighting issues for the Humane Society of the United States, comes from breeding dogs. "It's pure profit when it comes to winners,?VbCrLf he says. A good dog can command $500 to $750 for stud fees; a grand champion, $1,000. In the mid-1990s, a North Carolina breeder was caught bragging on-camera that he made $500 every time his dog Frisco was put out to stud. Frisco could perform every couple of days.
By 2004, Butts had moved his treadmills, rape stands and other equipment to Vick's compound. He prepped Vick's dogs for matches, a process that took eight weeks, Brinkman says. At the grand champion level, which was where Vick fought, owners agreed upon a fighting weight and it was Butts' job to make sure the dog came in at or lighter than the limit. If not, Vick lost his half of the purse, an amount usually in the five figures. In the weeks before a fight, Brinkman says, "you're making a pit bull do things so that on the day of the fight, it hates the other dog. You run that dumb dog to death, you keep it edgy. You keep it running on a treadmill 15 to 30 minutes at a time.?VbCrLf After such a regimen, a dog can be dangerous, and a dog man's success depends upon this preparation. Butts was good at his job. "Vick's dogs were known as aggressive,?VbCrLf Brinkman says.
Butts did well, too. He made $8,000 at one of Vick's fights, he told his acquaintance. They went to a night fight in Maryland attended by hundreds: "Someone was filming it with a video camera and you could see the red light on. People grabbed it and smashed it - that video wasn't getting out of there. The people who are in this are lawyers, doctors, professional people,?VbCrLf who do not want their identities revealed. "It's not a [expletive deleted] game.?VbCrLf
Yet success has its drawbacks, and one is attention. By 2003 and 2004, Brinkman says, "we heard that Benny Butts was going to work for Michael Vick, then we started to hear this drug stuff and your ears perk up and you start to put the pieces together.?VbCrLf Given Butts' history, he says, police transferred their attention to 1915 Moonlight Road.
There had been hints of drugs. In early 2004, two men driving a truck registered to Vick were arrested for distributing marijuana. In January 2007, Vick surrendered a water bottle with a hidden compartment to security at Miami International Airport. The break came in April 2007, when Brinkman and others went to Vick's property to serve a drug warrant on Vick's live-in cook and cousin, Davon Boddie, who'd been arrested in Hampton on marijuana possession. When they arrived, they heard - and found - the dogs.
By then, Butts was gone. Throughout 2006, says his acquaintance, he slid downhill. He started mixing drugs - "Oxycontin, Valium, heroin, Xanax, just about everything?VbCrLf - and injecting them. His personality changed. Late in 2006, Butts was weighing a dog before a match when Vick told him to hurry. Butts pulled his knife from his pocket and threatened to cut Vick if he didn't leave him alone.
He never worked for Vick again. Soon afterward, on Dec. 13, 2006, he was caught with marijuana and hashish near Somerset, Md. Two months later, on Feb. 16, 2007, he was found by his wife, dead of an overdose, in their house on Brownsview Lane. No one knows whether it was an accident or suicide.
The search of Vick's property occurred two months after Butts' death. Almost immediately, a kind of madness gripped Surry County.
Brinkman saw it coming. He says his boss, Sheriff Brown, told him a week into the case that Poindexter wanted him fired - an allegation both Poindexter and Brown have denied. "As I investigated this, I knew it was the end of my job,?VbCrLf he says in an interview. He says that Poindexter often said he thought the investigation was driven in part by race. "From day one,?VbCrLf Brinkman says, "I came to believe that neither Brown nor Poindexter wanted Vick prosecuted.
"Almost as soon as the news came out, 10 people from the area called and said they knew of dogfighting on Vick's property.?VbCrLf In May 2007, Brinkman secured a search warrant based on an informant's tip that as many as 30 dogs were buried on the property, but Poindexter refused to act because, he says, he had issues with the wording. He referred to the 2000 case involving Butts without actually naming names. Brinkman had flashbacks to the way that case ended: "I thought it would be swept under the rug.?VbCrLf When he took his evidence to the Office of the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the feds took over the investigation.
As he predicted, he was dismissed from the sheriff's office two days after Vick was sentenced. He was never given a specific reason for his dismissal, but he believes it was retribution for his continuing investigation of Vick.
Meanwhile, Taylor, Phillips, Peace and Allen were convicted and received sentences of varying length and severity.
Strange things began to happen. A badly injured pit bull was dumped by Brinkman's house, he says: "Someone had dropped it off, thinking I'd take it in. When I called animal control and they came out, it was gone.?VbCrLf Later, his brakes seemed to be acting up, so he took his truck to the shop. The mechanic told him that the vehicle had been tampered with. "The brake bolts had been loosened,?VbCrLf he says.
Poindexter denies Brinkman's accusations. But he too found himself at the center of a storm. He expressed surprise and outrage when the federal government became involved. "This is an unheard-of marriage of forces,?VbCrLf he told USA Today. "I wonder, what's the federal interest in this, with all the serious things going on in the world today??VbCrLf
Critics charged Poindexter with dragging his feet because of Vick's status as a popular black star. Poindexter replied he would not be pressured into making unwarranted charges, referring to the "witch hunt?VbCrLf of three former lacrosse players at Duke University. "Sure there was evidence of dogfighting,?VbCrLf he said in a recent interview. "The question was, who was doing it? When we tried to talk to witnesses, the federal government had co-opted our case.?VbCrLf He refused to be pressured just to satisfy outsiders, he says.
And there were suddenly scores of outsiders in his peaceful little county. Reporters crowded into Surry from all over the nation. Reporter Andy Fox of WAVY-TV came knocking on an anonymous e-mail tip that Poindexter had tried to buy Vick's house (an allegation that proved untrue). His office received 500 calls, e-mails, and letters, he says, most assailing him of showing favoritism to Vick.
"This is where racism raised its head,?VbCrLf he says. "It just happens that Surry County has a black commonwealth's attorney and a black sheriff, the only place in Virginia where that happens, and people said because of that, Vick would go scot-free.?VbCrLf
The thing that seemed to surprise him the most was his re-election on Nov. 7. The Vick case was an issue. Although he beat the white write-in candidate, Ed Vaughn, the final tally was 1,657 votes for Poindexter versus 1,173 for Vaughn.
"The results for a write-in were remarkable,?VbCrLf Poindexter says. But they might also indicate a change in the wind. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that Surry County's population in 2006 had changed from its 2000 black majority. In 2006, it calculated, 50.1 percent of the county's 7,119 people were white and 48.3 percent were black, a flip from 2000 possibly caused by white newcomers from the Peninsula in search of lower real estate prices.
"I'm not embittered,?VbCrLf Poindexter says. "It just changes my feelings about how some people feel about me.?VbCrLf
Vick's trial on state charges, originally scheduled for June 27, was postponed two weeks ago until Vick and three co-defendants were released from federal prison. Poindexter told the national media that it wasn't worth the expense for Surry County to retrieve the men for trial from federal prisons in different states, then escort them back later. Vick, Phillips and Peace are all scheduled to be released from federal prison in 2009; Vick's release date is July 20, 2009, according to federal records. Tony Taylor has already been released and has reportedly moved to South Carolina.
Brinkman may not stay around for the excitement. He's selling his house, getting married and starting a job as a narcotics officer in a nearby jurisdiction. On April 11, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, Chuck Rosenberg, presented a public-service award to Brinkman for his role in the case. Brinkman calls it "vindication.?VbCrLf
Still, he's been hit hard. His eyes dart out the window every time his three dogs start barking. On April 28, the day tornadoes ripped through Suffolk, a small funnel cloud danced across his yard. It toppled swing sets, uprooted trees, tore flashing from his roof and wrapped it around tree trunks like cellophane. He stood in the door, he says, and watched it go by.
Something in the devastation held meaning for him. "I don't know,?VbCrLf he mumbles. "I'm just not comfortable in Surry County anymore.?VbCrLf S
Freelance journalist Joe Jackson is a former investigative reporter for The Virginian-Pilot. This story first appeared in Port Folio Weekly.