Cockfighters toe the line between tradition and crime
FUENTE: TIMES FREE PRESS
In some Eastern Tennessee communities, cockfighting is as ingrained a tradition as Friday night football games, officials say.
“It’s a social event for many people. For people who grew up on farms, it doesn’t seem like cruelty,” said John Logan, one of the spectators arrested Saturday’s fight at a cockfight in Ducktown, Tenn., in Polk County.
The Ducktown cockfight was the latest to be raided by local and federal authorities and more than 100 people were arrested on the property of the fight’s operator, Steve Allen. One hundred fifty fighting roosters were also found throughout the property.
“A fighting rooster will be babied from Day One, whereas a chicken that’s raised to eat is mistreated from the minute he’s born until the minute they stretch his neck over at Broad Street,” said Mr. Logan, referring to the Pilgrim’s Pride chicken processing plant. “That seems far more cruel.”
The fights’ popularity stretches back to the days before Tennessee banned it as a cruel blood sport in 1881. The fights continued as a generational tradition in local white communities, but have increased with the influx of immigrants from Latin America and Pacific Asia, where fights are legal, said Tom Farrow, an animal fight investigator.
Mr. Farrow, the head of T.E. Farrow and Associates Investigative Firm, is a retired agent with the FBI who has been contracted by the Humane Society of the United States as its animal fighting investigator. He’s been an undercover spectator at scores of cockfights and said most are held at established locations weekly or biweekly between November and July. Some bigger pits are outfitted with stadium seating and concession stands, he said.
Children are consistently a part of the audience at fights, he said, and he’s seen children pretending to make dead roosters fight each other while their parents cheer on cocks in the ring.
“The people at fights aren’t all hardened backwoods criminals,” Mr. Farrow said. “Many are good old boys, and some are khaki-wearing, Polo-wearing guys who just enjoy it. You’ve got doctors and lawyers down to the most criminal characters there.”
Mr. Logan said participants at the Ducktown ring weren’t a bunch of crooks but rather “tax-paying property owners” who have been brought up with cockfighting.
The fight busted on Saturday was his first time at a fight in many years, he said, and he heard about it through word of mouth. He said small-scale rooster fights are OK, but large gambling rings should be illegal.
The fights are an opportunity to get rich quick with tens of thousands of dollars changing hands at each one. The Ducktown pit was a low-to-middle grade pit, Mr. Farrow said, but raked in $20,000 the day of the raid. Winners at the higher pits can take $36,000 to $42,000 by the end of the fighting, he said.
“People say it’s about their heritage and culture, but at the end of the day, it’s all about money,” Mr. Farrow said.
But the derbys are increasingly affiliated with drug dealing and money laundering, said John Goodwin, manager of animal fighting issues with the Humane Society of the United States.
“Even if you aren’t concerned about these animals’ welfare, attention needs to be paid to the staggering amount of criminal activity that occurs around this subculture,” he said.
A 2008 operation in Cumberland County led by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration uncovered a massive statewide gambling enterprise, including a large cockfighting ring run by drug traffickers involved in the Gulf Cartel, a Mexican drug trafficking organization.
Mr. Farrow headed up the FBI’s five-year Rose Thorn probe into law enforcement corruption in Cocke County, Tenn. The investigation resulted in the 2005 arrests and convictions of 145 people, including corrupt police officers, and shut down two major cockfighting rings.
Tennessee is a hotbed for cockfighting because of the crime is a misdemeanor in the state, officials said. Cockfighting is a felony in neighboring Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia.
At least 65 of the 95 spectators and gamblers arrested at the Ducktown raid were from Georgia, and 10 were from North Carolina, according to sheriff’s documents. If convicted, the participants will likely be fined about $50, officials said.
“People are much more willing to drive to a state like Tennessee to avoid getting hit with felony charges. A misdemeanor just seems to be the cost of doing business,” said Mr. Goodwin.
For one year in 1989, cockfighting was made a felony in Tennessee, but the charge was knocked back down to a misdemeanor the next year because it was deemed a faulty law.
A bill was introduced in 2008 to return cockfighting to a felony and, while it passed both the Tennessee House and Senate Judiciary committees, it died in the Finance Committee.
Two lawmakers voted against making cockfighting a felony — Rep. Eric Watson, R-Cleveland, and Rep. Eddie Bass, D-Prospect.
Marianne Purcell, an assistant representative for Mr. Watson, said the price tag for enforcing the felony — close to $1 million dollars a year — was too high.
“We saw the level of DUI’s as a more important issue that year, so we decided to prioritize that,” Ms. Purcell said.
But if cockfighting was a felony, the price of enforcing the law might be made up through fines, Mr. Farrow said.
“Legislators say making it a felony is too expensive, but if they made it a felony couldn’t they charge more in fines?” he asked.
Probes into cockfighting rings take months to gather enough evidence for a raid, officials said.
Detective Mike Monteith with the Polk County Sheriff’s Office estimates the Ducktown pit had been run between four to eight years. The department had heard of a cockfighting ring in the area, he said, but didn’t pinpoint it until early spring of this year with the help of Mr. Farrow and the Humane Society of the United States. Once the ring was confirmed, it took four months to gather enough evidence to satisfy a warrant for arrest, Detective Monteith said.
Mr. Farrow said that, even if a sheriff’s department knows about a cockfighting ring, it’s often not a priority. Mr. Goodwin and Mr. Farrow say they think cops and legislators may sometimes turn a blind eye.
“Cockfighting is organized gambling, and organized gambling is one of the crimes that just historically has promoted police corruption,” Mr. Farrow testified before a Tennessee House Judiciary Committee in 2008.
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