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.