Lawmakers may make cockfighting a felony

Thursday, April 10, 2008 at 12:02am

Tennessee’s weak laws against cockfighting have caused cockfighters to flock to the state, which has spurred corruption among local law enforcement officials who turn a blind eye, an FBI agent testified Wednesday.

Currently, Tennessee is one of just 13 states where cockfighting is a misdemeanor offense. As a result, cockfighters are drawn to Tennessee, said Tom Farrow, a special FBI agent, to the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday.

“There’s a lot of pits operating, both in Tennessee, Mississippi, Kentucky — all of the misdemeanor states are blossoming because it just makes sense,” Farrow said. “If you’re going to run a pit and you’re going to get caught, get caught for a misdemeanor, don’t get caught for a felony.”

Some state lawmakers and the Humane Society of the United States are out to change that.

A law proceeding through the state Legislature would make cockfighting a Class E felony in Tennessee, making the activity the same level of offense for fighting dogs, pigs and other species.

The bill, which also increases the penalty for being a spectator at a cockfight from a Class C to a Class A misdemeanor, has received the approval of both the House and Senate Judiciary committees this week.

The Senate panel passed it unanimously, while three House members voted against the legislation. If it becomes law, Tennessee would join 37 other states, including neighboring Georgia, Virginia and North Carolina, in making cockfighting a felony.

As the FBI’s Farrow described it Wednesday, cockfighting is a very organized activity. The intricacies, organization and culture behind cockfighting were illustrated through the FBI’s seven-year undercover investigation into two rings in East Tennessee’s Cocke County.

That investigation culminated in a 2005 sting that busted those two rings, called “Del Rio,” for an unincorporated town, and “440,” which was the mile marker near the ring along Interstate 40. According to news reports, Del Rio was the “largest and oldest illegal cockfighting pit” in the country.

Farrow said cockfighting wouldn’t exist without organized gambling and the assistance of local law enforcement, which often turns a blind eye.

Those local law enforcement officials would take kickbacks to look the other way, Farrow said. Pretty soon, the cockfighting being allowed by law enforcement breeds further corruption among the ranks that can lead to other crimes, like buying kilos of cocaine, he added.

“That corrosive corruption of forcing law enforcement into the situation to turn your head to crime no matter what level of crime that is, it continues as one generation of law enforcement officer does it and passes it onto the next,” Farrow said, adding that every cockfighting pit the FBI has been associated with involved local law enforcement being complicit.

In the FBI’s sting, Cocke County law enforcement officials were not busted for taking kickbacks from cockfighting organizers because of a lack of evidence but were nailed for cocaine possession and other offenses.

In all, 144 people were arrested in the Del Rio raid, but were charged with misdemeanors, according to news reports.

Advocates for making cockfighting a felony say it occurs all across the state of Tennessee, each complete with gambling and complicit with local law enforcement.

On fight days, normally between November and July, hundreds gathered into pits like the Del Rio one, Farrow said, which is a large metal building.

Spectators paid $20 to enter the pit, which is complete with reserved seating, concession stands, printed schedules of the fights and digital scoreboards. Children are often present and sometimes participate in the gambling.

The roosters are weighed and matched-up with a bird of similar size, Farrow said.

A single elimination tournament between teams of rooster owners occurs, Farrow said.

“They will fight them mostly to the death,” Farrow said. “Every once in awhile somebody throws in the towel and tries to save their rooster for another day.”

The roosters are equipped with long and short knives.

Once a rooster is defeated, it is tossed into a “dead rooster cart,” said Leighann McCollum, the Humane Society of the United States’ Tennessee director.

“Even some of the ones that win end up with really grievous injuries,” McCollum said.

At the end of the night, Farrow said plaques and trophies are handed out to the winners plus the thousands of dollars changing hands among gamblers.

The legislation to make cockfighting a felony advanced Wednesday through the House Judiciary Committee, but three lawmakers in Reps. Eddie Bass (D-Prospect), Frank Buck (D-Smithville) and Eric Watson (R-Cleveland) opposed the bill.

Bass took issue with the legislation’s cost, which is $145,000 for an estimated 20 Class E felony convictions, according to legislative estimates as well as Farrow’s assertion that cockfighting occurs throughout Tennessee.

“I took offense that it goes on everywhere and everybody turns their head,” Bass said.

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By: frank brown on 12/31/69 at 6:00

My God! What kind of legislators are we electing that think cockfighting is a felony. Perhaps selling liquor by the drink should be a felony. Perhaps an elected official getting a DUI should be a felony. Perhaps a legislator submitting a ridiculous bill (like this one) should be a felony.

By: idgaf on 12/31/69 at 6:00

All organized animal fights should be a felony.

By: TITAN1 on 12/31/69 at 6:00

idgaf, I give you hell when you deserve it, but I will also agree with you when you are right. Organized animal fights are disgusting!

By: gdiafante on 12/31/69 at 6:00

Perhaps Frank's posts should be a felony.Id (for once) and Titan are correct.

By: Fundit on 12/31/69 at 6:00

Well I am surprised! When I saw that story I was sure ID would be upset about it and wasn't sure how everyone else felt. Glad you cleared that one up. At least we know who we're dealing with here.

By: Blanketnazi2 on 12/31/69 at 6:00

Cockfighting, like dog fighting, draws undesirable elements such as crime. Many of the folks involved in such activities are also involved in many other illegal activities. This needs to be a felony.

By: theplantsman on 12/31/69 at 6:00

Idgaf, does that include organized ‘Human Animal’ fights such as professional boxing or better yet, Ultimate Fighting Championships? How about Bare Knuckle fights? Of course, should you stale-brained sissy’s support our legislators in supporting this or any law that bans violent acts of nature. When are you going to ban the introduction of the Siamese fighting fish (Betta splendens) into private aquariums, and authorize the authorities to invade private property to inspect to see if there is an aquarium and if there are Betta’s inside?Of course, it is no surprise that gdiafante is afraid of a wee bit of blood.

By: gdiafante on 12/31/69 at 6:00

Oh look, the cowardly liar Plant is back. Welcome!

By: TITAN1 on 12/31/69 at 6:00

courier, you beat me to it, humans are not forced to fight each other. theplantsman is comparing apples to oranges.

By: revo-lou on 12/31/69 at 6:00

Violent acts of nature? Since when was the last time you saw any animal put metal spurs on when fighting in nature? Natural fighting in nature, for dominance over a heard or a female is rarely to the death, and the animal losing as the ability and opportunity to flee to save his life. Good luck with that at a staged fight. Human boxing or fighting of any kind is different because the human has the ability to not fight without death as a repercussion. Your ignorance is greater than I imagined plants, thanks for validating the theories.

By: Fundit on 12/31/69 at 6:00

plant calling those against animal cruelty sissies? No surprise there.

By: skeptic1 on 12/31/69 at 6:00

Sure, make all animal fighting a felony. I have no problem with that. My problem is a neighbor (and state law) thinks it is okay to put poison bait out for the neighborhood cats. If he is caught putting the bait in the wrong place, that is only a Class C misdemeanor and a $50 fine.

By: idgaf on 12/31/69 at 6:00

It appears the plant is under the influence of bovine fertilizer.

By: Blanketnazi2 on 12/31/69 at 6:00

LOL - id, that's funny.