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Fear, lack of evidence, irrelevancy to cases made it an open secret.

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.

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 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.

Informant drops name

As the prosecutor for South Carolina's animal cruelty task force, William Frick learned that dogfighting thrives on secrecy.

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.

The South Carolina tip roughly coincided with reports to at least two animal protection groups. Both groups, however, received incomplete accounts.

The groups - the Humane Society and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals - did not share the reports with each other.

Since 2004, several anonymous people had called PETA claiming that 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.

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.