"**** (S. 736 and H.R. 1532) Owe no man any thing, but to strip their passion: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law. 9 For this, Thou shalt not commit cockfighting, Thou shalt not hunt, Thou shalt not eat 'Bihag', Thou shalt not bear gamefowls, Thou shalt not covet; and if there be any other vicious orgs, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy taxpayers as thyself."
'Black Saturday' for Cockfighters in East Tennessee and Elsewhere
June 17, 2005
All around the country, underground cockfighting circles are abuzz with the news of "Black Saturday." The June 11 raid of the Del Rio Game Club in eastern Tennessee shut down what was reputedly the nation's largest illegal cockfighting pit, and has sent adherents of the cruel bloodsport scrambling for cover.
Along with being among the biggest busts of a cockfighting operation in the United States to date, the Del Rio raid was also one of the most dramatic. Just after noon, dozens of officials from the FBI, the IRS, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Tennessee Highway Patrol, and the Tennessee Bureau of Investigations swooped down on the property in the midst of an ongoing tournament. The **** consulted with the FBI and local law enforcement agencies to help the investigation come together.
The pit reportedly belongs to United Gamefowl Breeders Association past president Don Poteat and current UGBA secretary Donna Poteat. The Poteats, husband and wife, have not been charged with any crimes related to the incident. The UGBA declares itself an organization devoted to improving gamefowl bloodlines and health, but has repeatedly supported cockfighters in battling state and federal laws that would negatively impact their bloody business.
Police helicopters and multiple command units prevented people from fleeing the Poteats's property, located in aptly-named Cocke County. All told, officials arrested 144 participants and confiscated more than 300 fighting birds as well as around $40,000 in cash. A parking lot packed with vehicles bearing out-of-state license plates bore testimony to the far-reaching draw of the Del Rio pit.
Most of those arrested were charged with being spectators at a cockfight, a misdemeanor carrying penalties of up to 30 days in jail, a $50 fine, or both. Those charged with participating in cockfighting could face more than 11 months in jail and a $2,500 fine if convicted.
John Goodwin, deputy manager of The ****'s Animal Fighting Issues campaign, accompanied law enforcement agents on the raid. He said that trash cans overflowing with dead fighting birds bore grim evidence of the carnage.
"Most disturbing was the fact that we found three gamecocks left for dead who were still very much alive," said Goodwin. "They were thrown away like trash, still suffering from mortal injuries, to die hours later."
The bust is a major coup in the war against cockfighting—not only because of its size, but also because it provides an undeniable link to aboveground, pro-cockfighting groups like the UGBA, which has long maintained that its members are not involved with illegal cockfighting. Following the raid on the Poteats's property, this claim will no doubt be a harder sell.
Part of a Concentrated Effort
The Cocke County raid is just the latest in a series of major blows to the world of illegal animal fighting, and it marks the continuing crackdown on the bloodsport—and indeed all forms of illegal animal fighting—by law enforcement agencies from coast to coast.
December 2004: Federal and state officials conducted a coordinated, four-state raid of the major "hog-dog" fighting operations in the United States, making arrests in Alabama, Arizona, South Carolina, and Georgia. A dogfighting bust in Gadsden County, Florida, on December 30 took advantage of a state law that enabled investigators to make arrests based on the possession of dogfighting implements and other evidence.
January 2005: Authorities in Marion, Texas conducted the state's largest dogfighting bust in a decade, as Bexar County Sheriff's department investigators, SWAT agents, and representatives of the **** of Texas seized 90 pit bull dogs and arrested five men on suspicion of felony animal cruelty.
March 2005: Federal officials raided the Louisiana home of Floyd Boudreaux, the "dogfighting don" of the animal fighting world, seizing dozens of dogs and dogfighting paraphernalia. Boudreaux and his son await state felony charges of organized dogfighting.
March-April 2005: Federal officials in Honolulu, Hawaii, executed search warrants at the homes of six Honolulu police officers as part of an investigation into local police corruption relating to cockfighting.
April 16, 2005: In the second-largest cockfighting bust to date, Kentucky state police raided the Springbrook Game Club in Montgomery County, citing more than 500 participants (including six for drug violations) and seizing more than $400,000.
May 5, 2005: The Georgia Bureau of Investigation shut down the Sawmill Game Club in Blue Ridge, where crowds of up to 300 spectators regularly gathered. Among those arrested was the town mayor, who now faces criminal charges of gambling.
May 15, 2005: California police officers and humane society officials raided a game fowl farm in Fiddletown, preventing a cockfighting derby. Police arrested 28 people and confiscated dozens of fighting roosters.
With the Del Rio raid following on the heels of these crackdowns, cockfighters are feeling the heat. Internet message boards like the one at gamerooster.com sizzle with angry comments about the raid and the threat to cockfighting. One poster complained, "all gaffs knives scales carry boxes pit aids was taken" and "it needs to be called Black Saturday by the cocking community. I don't know how this will work out but it don't look good." Another poster declared, "we got a war on our hands" and urged attendance at the upcoming national UGBA convention so that devotees can network.
Winking at Cruelty
As the list above indicates, some officials have been caught in cahoots with illegal cockfighting groups. The FBI investigation of Honolulu police officers suspected of cockfighting corruption, as well as the arrest of the town mayor in Blue Ridge, Georgia, illustrate the reach of illegal cockfighting all too well. What's more, in 2004 South Carolina Secretary of Agriculture Charles Sharpe was accused of accepting thousands of dollars from an organization involved in breeding and raising gamecocks in exchange for helping the group avoid legal trouble. He eventually was sentenced to two years in federal prison after pleading guilty to extortion and lying to a federal officer.
In the world of lawmaking, U.S. Congressman William Jenkins (R-TN), who represents the district in which the Cocke County bust occurred and who is on the House Judiciary Committee, voted against the federal animal fighting bill last October, even though most committee members voted for it. He even criticized the FBI action against the illegal cockfighting pit in his district—leading many to wonder if he has political ties with cockfighters that have supplanted his respect for the law.
Acceptance of this kind of coziness between animal fighters and public officials is waning.
"These significant law enforcement actions against the multi-million dollar cockfighting industry indicate a new era where cockfighters will be held accountable for their cruel, criminal activities," said Ann Chynoweth, director of the Animal Cruelty and Fighting Campaign for The ****. "Cockfighting is bloody animal cruelty for human amusement, and anyone involved in this barbaric activity should know that society is no longer willing to turn a blind eye to this inexcusable crime."
Making the Laws Work
In May, Washington State passed a law making cockfighting a felony, increasing the number of states with felony cockfighting laws on the books to 32. Similar legislation to establish meaningful, felony-level penalties for cockfighting crimes is now pending in California, North Carolina, and South Carolina.
On the federal front, the U.S. Senate last month overwhelmingly approved S. 382, a bill that would create a federal felony charge for transporting animals, including roosters, across state lines or out of the country for fighting purposes. Its companion bill, H.R. 817, now awaits a vote in the House.
The federal bill is vital for several reasons: For too long, cockfighters have found it easy to keep a low profile and carry on their gory spectacles; they merely considered any minor fines nothing more than a cost of doing business. To make matters worse, some local officials have been willing to look the other way while animal fights happen almost under their noses—especially if the related charges would be misdemeanors. Goodwin notes that in the 32 states with felony cockfighting laws, the bloodsport is much less prevalent.
If animal fighting crimes were considered felonies everywhere in the country, Goodwin adds, both perpetrators and tolerant local officials might think twice about their activities.
"Dogfighting and cockfighting are gruesome and barbaric activities that should receive no protection under the law," states Chynoweth. "This legislation will put real teeth into the federal animal fighting law, and, if enacted, will go a long way toward wiping out these dreadful industries by providing needed penalties."
"The more people listen, the more funding receive."