San Diego Officer Describes "Mind-Boggling" Cockfighting Investigation
About two years ago, the San Diego Humane Society and SPCA (SDHS) received reports of a large cockfighting operation on 20 acres of land near the Mexican border. Acting on the anonymous tips, the organization began surveillance of the area and discovered that the land was divided into 22 different properties that had been fenced off by individual owners. At first, the district attorney told humane society officers they needed an individual search warrant for each property; however, after producing tangible evidence of the bloodsport events, investigators were allowed to search the entire property under one warrant last spring. The search resulted in what is presumed to be the largest bust of a cockfighting circle in the history of the United States: More than 2,500 fighting cocks were found on the property by an investigating team that also included officials from The HSUS, the Galt (California) Police Department, the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, San Diego County Animal Control, the San Diego Police Department vice squad, and the spcaLA. In a recent interview with Animal Sheltering Assistant Editor Carrie Allan, Captain Ken Beauregard of SDHS discussed the challenges of the operation.
|The investigators found more than 2,500 birds on the property. The team also found a large assortment of cockfighting equipment, including an electric sharpener for the knives attached to the birds’ feet during fights.|
Many of our readers are familiar with the basics of doing an investigation of animal fighting, but since you had such a large bust recently, I was hoping you could tell me about the whole process.
We received two anonymous letters telling us that cockfights were taking place on the property every weekend, and because these were two different anonymous letters, we decided to change our hours and days off, and investigators did surveillance from high in the hills. [We] were able to see people participating in training the birds, flying the birds. ... And then along with that about May 17 and 18 , I went down there undercover and purchased two fighting cocks to get more probable cause for our search warrants. Based on the surveillance videos and the undercover buys, we were able to get a search warrant for the entire 20 acres and not have to have an individual search warrant for each lot. The search warrant was served on Memorial Day weekend, Saturday May 26, [because] traditionally the larger cockfights take place on a three-day weekend, so we were hoping to catch a cockfight in progress. Our information led us to believe that the cockfights were going on late afternoon, so we didn’t start serving our warrants till 3 o’clock.
You mentioned that you actually went onto the property to make a purchase of a gamecock—how did that go? Were they suspicious, or—
Well, it’s an illegal activity just like selling dope is illegal, so if you’re going undercover, you have to walk the walk and talk the talk. You have to convince these people that you are in the business, and I was able to convince the person that I bought the roosters from that I was a cocker. ... You have to use phrases that they understand—you wouldn’t go in and say, “Is your bird a good fighter?” Because a cocker doesn’t talk like that. You would talk about the “gameness” of a bird. ... And just generally be knowledgeable about the industry—where big fights have gone on. Because when you’re down there, you know, this is an illegal activity going on, and knowing that homicides have happened ... this is no different than buying dope undercover.
Can you tell me about what it was actually like to do the search, and what you found?
We had about 40 personnel involved, and we could have used twice to three times as many people, just because when we got there people were running everywhere. They were trying to hide in trees, and we had spotters in the hills telling us where people ran, but several people got away. There were men, women, and children, and we have reason to believe a cockfight was in progress at the time because we did recover two cocks that had very recent injuries. The place was a maze. People were hiding everywhere. Being retired from the San Diego Police Department, I can tell you, this place was so large and people were hiding in so many places, this easily could have been a SWAT incident.
Is that because of the numbers of people involved, or are we actually talking about people with weapons who might become violent?
Well, a month before we served this warrant, in Northern California there was a triple homicide at a cockfight. So ... I had to take this all into consideration when we decided what we were going to do. But there were just people running everywhere, climbing over fences. And all the gates were locked—before you go through a gate, at each gate you have to do what’s called “knock and notice.” ... You have to knock and identify yourself, tell them that you have a search warrant, and demand entry. Then you have to wait a “reasonable” amount of time, and the key word there is “reasonable,” before we can force entry. Well, all of these different pieces of property had locked gates, so we had to do that every time, so the bad guys got a jump start on us. And so we were chasing them around everywhere. We ended up making 18 arrests at the scene. We could have made twice that many, but people got away—we just did not have enough manpower.
We documented well over—and I can only say “well over” because we stopped counting—2,500 fighting roosters. Our investigation on the 26th went to about 9:00, when we ran out of light and officer safety became a big problem, because there were holes in the floor, there was wire where we cut the fences to go through, and with it getting dark the risk to my officers became too great. ... So our team from SDHS stayed there on site in shifts throughout the night. Then the next morning we continued with documenting the evidence and collecting cocks. Every single cock had to have either a picture or videotape and had to be tagged and documented. We recovered at least one piece of any piece of equipment ever used in cockfighting. For instance, sparring muffs, gaffs, slashers, but up to and including two portable operating tables. And just to show you how big an operation this was, normally the gaffs and slashers are sharpened by hand on a stone—they actually had a generator there to run an electrical sharpener, because they were going through that many gaffs and slashers to keep up with the need.
Can you explain a little about those terms you’re using?
The gaffs and slashers are the implements used to inflict the injury, and they’re razor-sharp. A normal cocker—that’s a person in the business—will sharpen them by hand, but this was such a big operation they actually had an electrical sharpening wheel there. We found eight fighting pits that had evidence of recent fights and that [had] blood on the walls, feathers, very obvious. ... We found all the different stimulants like vitamin B12, dextrose. Based on what [HSUS West Coast Regional Office Director] Eric Sakach said—I think he’s one of the premier if not the premier expert in cockfighting—it was the largest bust of a cockfighting operation in the history of the United States. My people did an excellent job on this.
The scale of it is incredible.
It was mind-boggling, that’s the best way to put it. When you were down there, you could not turn around—literally, you could not turn around without stepping on another fighting cock or bumping into cages with fighting cocks. There were some hens and there were some eggs and chicks; this really was a “full-service” operation there. From birth to death. I mean, they would raise them, train them, fight them. And then they would die there.
Can you talk a little bit about what makes a fighting situation unique in terms of the work you have to do, and maybe specifically what makes a cockfighting situation unique, in terms of how you have to handle the birds and the perpetrators?
Up until 1998, cockfighting was legal in Arizona. Then it became a felony, so we have all the cockers coming from Arizona over here to San Diego ’cause we’re very close to the border there. So people who were doing that as a profession are now coming here. The way that they make money is by betting on the roosters, and a rooster has to die or have one of the cockers pick up his rooster and give up the fight, but nobody wants to do that ’cause then you’re saying, “Hey, I’m a loser, I don’t train good birds.” They would rather have them die in the pit than pick them up. When you’re documenting one of these birds, you know, you have to actually reach in and grab them and they’re not friendly when you first grab them. And that’s where our Animal Rescue Reserve, which is totally volunteers here at the humane society, was able to help us immensely ... because you have to document each bird and assign it its own tag number when it comes time for evidence. In California, there was a time when we would have to have impounded every single one of those birds, but since 1998, now we can take a sampling because logistically, where are we going to put 2,500 fighting birds. So with this new law saying that we can take a sampling, that’s what we did—we took a sampling of about 20 birds and then the rest of them are left there with a notice that says they are now impounded and property of the court, and the people that own them have to still take care of them. And we went back almost on a daily basis to make sure that they are still taking care of them and the legbands are still staying on. We have had some people plead out already, and of those people who’ve pled out, the judge ordered euthanasia of their roosters.
So it’s pretty much standard, like with dogfighting, for the animals to have to be euthanized?
Yes, they have to be euthanized, and there are several reasons—not the least being that the only thing they’ve been trained to do is fight other roosters, so you can’t put them in your yard or your barnyard. Also, they’re shot up with stimulants, methamphetamines, so you can’t use them as a meat bird either. Unfortunately we do have to euthanize them and it’s not an easy thing to do, but quite frankly euthanasia means a humane death—it’s not the barbaric, brutal activity inside the pit that they’re being raised for.