A federal grand jury has been looking into cockfighting in South Carolina, and federal and state law officers are set soon to reveal new details of their probe.
"It's an ongoing investigation, and I expect other charges will be brought against other people, but at this point, I can't say much more," assistant U.S. Attorney Kevin McDonald said this week.
In early November, the grand jury indicted 21 people for felony animal fighting and illegal gambling at sites in Williamsburg and Lexington counties. Thirty-six others face state misdemeanor charges of attending cockfights. Last week, six people who attended events in Williamsburg County pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges. More pleas are expected.
But as the law cracks down on what has been a longstanding but underground practice in South Carolina, gamecock breeders are speaking up. They criticize the grand jury probe and state arrests and say the government should be spending its time and money going after real criminals - not them.
"We will fight them tooth and nail in the Legislature and in the courts - we're as game as our roosters," said Ken Richardson, 44, of Edgefield, secretary of the 700-member S.C. Gamefowl Breeders Association.
The breeders say the U.S. Attorney's Office has subpoenaed its membership list.
Federal indictments allege some members of the group attended illegal cockfights. Some were charged. Some were not. Richardson said his group exists to promote the best ways to raise gamecocks. He estimated that at least 700 South Carolinians raise the kinds of birds that historically have been fighters.
Gamecocks, or roosters, are naturally aggressive birds that will fight and kill other roosters. Gamecock breeders, who will take decades to raise the strongest, most aggressive and quickest birds, think of themselves as akin to horse breeders who try to develop fine racehorses, breeders said.
Gamefowl Association vice president Jimmy Collins of Spartanburg, along with others in the state's little-known gamecock fighting subculture, say their activity is a sport with ancient roots and have refused to cooperate with the ongoing federal grand jury investigation.
At the federal level, gamecock fighting is a felony violation of the Animal Welfare Act. In South Carolina, neither attending nor holding a cockfight is a felony.
"I took the Fifth (Amendment)," said Collins, 52, citing his constitutionally protected right not to give testimony that might be used against him in court. Others who were called before the federal grand jury also refused to testify, he said.
Collins described himself as a third-generation gamefowl breeder, following in the steps of his father and grandfather.
Federal officials declined to discuss grand jury activities, which are secret.
The indictments came after an undercover agent wearing hidden recording equipment was unmasked at a major cockfight event in Swansea.
The aggressive roosters fight at "pits," usually far from law enforcement and the public eye.
About 1,000 people around the state may attend such events, breeders estimate.
For show, the birds' needle-point-sharp natural spurs are shaved down to a stump. For fighting, they also are shaved down but are replaced with razor-sharp metal spurs.
A bird that wins three fights is called an "ace" and can bring thousands of dollars by becoming a brood rooster, just like a winning racehorse becomes a stud, breeders said.
Collins and others caught up in the ongoing investigation - as well as their lawyers - made the following points about why gamecock fighting shouldn't be targeted:
- It's hypocritical to single out cockfighting as being brutal. After all, in South Carolina, the chicken industry slaughters millions of chickens each year. Hunters kill thousands of deer and other animals each year, often in fenced-in areas. And, they argue, it's legal to raise falcons and let them hunt kittens and chickens.
"You can shoot a deer with a bow and arrow, track it for three hours while it dies, and take pictures of it," said Rauch Wise, a Greenwood lawyer who represents Collins.
- Cockfighting is educational and contributes to the state's farm economy. Breeders raise them with different colors, but a major part of raising gamecocks is devoted to the breeding of warrior strains of roosters. Moreover, gamecock breeders spend at least $1 million a year on chicken feed and coop equipment, Collins said.
- It's part of South Carolina's culture. American Revolutionary War hero Thomas Sumter was known as the "Carolina gamecock."
Indeed, records show gamecock fighting was practiced by the state's leading families. The bird remains a highly visible symbol of the University of South Carolina, one of whose emblems is a rooster wearing death-dealing metal spurs.
Around 1900, gamecock fighting was legal in South Carolina and practiced at the annual State Fair, according to records in the South Caroliniana Library and USC archives.
In 1902, the USC football team beat Clemson, and someone made a cartoon showing a rooster crowing over a defeated Clemson Tiger. The State newspaper bestowed the tag "Game Cocks" on the team, and the nickname stuck. Around 1917, the General Assembly made gamecock fighting illegal.
In 1965, former State Sen. James H. Hammond, D-Richland, a noted gamefowl breeder who lived in Forest Acres, donated his collection of spurs to USC. For some years, part of the collection was on display in a building housing the football team, but around the late 1970s, the items were taken to USC's McKissick Museum, where they are today.
Hammond liked to say true cruelty to animals consists of "baiting a hook through the innards of a worm" and using that to snare unsuspecting fish, "but if you put a fighting gamecock in the ring, all you are doing is allowing him to fulfill his life's ambition," said Terry Lipscomb, a USC archivist who is sorting through Hammond's papers.
Lacy Ford, chairman of USC's history department, noted gamecock fighting is universal.
"Cockfighting has been a blood-sport that was popular, particularly among men, in rural cultures all around the world," Ford said.
It was "pushed underground" in South Carolina in the last century, he said.
S.C. Attorney General Henry McMaster, who with U.S. Attorney Walt Wilkins is targeting the practice, said he didn't know how many cockfighters are in South Carolina, but said they are "widespread."
McMaster said the sport is part of the state's history - and that's where it belongs.
"There are a lot of things people did then that are not done now," said McMaster, "dueling, and bull-baiting, and bear-baiting and dogfighting - all illegal now - and with good reason."
Cockfighting is "harmful to the young people who witness these events. It's cruel, it's painful, and deadly for the animals. It cheapens the value of life across the board. There's nothing good that comes from it."
Animal rights organizations applauded South Carolina's effort to target cockfighting. Humane Society of the United States spokesman John Goodwin roundly criticized the sport.
"Surely (USC's) school mascot deserves better than to have knives strapped to his heels so he can be fought to the death for gambling purposes," Goodwin said.
Like McMaster, he said children cannot take away a good message from watching the sport.
"I've been on cockfighting raids and seen birds who've had their chests cut open and intestines hanging out," Goodwin said. "Undercover investigators have seen little children picking up dead birds and emulating the behavior of cockfighters. There's no way that doesn't send a message to young people that animal suffering doesn't matter."
Mike Daniel, a former lieutenant governor in the 1980s, is a lawyer and informal consultant to the S.C. Gamefowl Breeders.
"I've known many, many of these people for years," said Daniel, of Gaffney, long known for its cockfighting activity. "Everybody I know is a fine, God-fearing person. Is cockfighting for everyone? No. But neither is bare-knuckle fighting."
McMaster has scheduled a press conference for late next week with Wilkins to reveal new information in the probe.
Meanwhile, a bill pending in the Legislature would make cockfighting a felony and increase the penalties for watching what its sponsors call a "gateway blood-sport."
South Carolina's laws were toughened several years ago, but the state still is one of just 15 that treats cockfighting as a misdemeanor - and the only one on the East Coast after Virginia changed its laws in 2008.
Cockfighters and their defenders say law enforcement certainly should have more important things - such as terrorists - to worry about.
"Isn't it ironic," notes Wise, Collins' attorney, "that in a state that has a fighting gamecock for the mascot of its public university, that gamecocks can't fight?"
Reach Monk at (803) 771-8344.