After telling convicted cockfighting gambling operator James Collins that he was a “good husband and good father,” U.S. Judge Cameron McGowan Currie Thursday sentenced him to 21 months in federal prison.
Currie’s sentence came minutes after Collins, 54, told her that he “didn’t set out to run a gambling company like those gambling guys” – a reference to three Midlands professional bookies who pleaded guilty before Currie last month.
Currie likely will not give prison sentences to those three bookies – Lanny Gunter, Harry Benenhaley and Ronald Dale Spence – because they are now informing on their operation for the government.
Collins did not inform on his associates.
Collins told the judge that he and fellow cockfighters were practitioners of the ancient blood sport of cockfighting, which is still legal in many countries. He said he was only trying to keep the sport alive in South Carolina while trying to change the law to make the activity legal. In cockfighting, an especially bellicose breed of roosters fight to the death.
“I understand your position, but I have to say there is a different way to go about testing the law,” Currie said in a small courtroom in the federal court in Columbia.
In 2009, during a cockfighting derby attended by some 200 gamblers and cockfighters in Swansea, an undercover agent with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources operating with a state Attorney General’s office made tapes of the fights and gamblers, including Collins.
The tapes were crucial evidence at Collins’ 2010 trial. A jury found Collins and five others guilty.
Collins qualified for the 21 months – one of the stiffest sentences in memory given to a cockfighting operator – because evidence in the case showed he was an operator and not just a player.
Collins’ lawyer, Rauch Wise, had told Currie that Collins had kept the undercover agent, Sgt. John Lewis, safe from other cockfighters after they discovered him taping the deadly chicken fights with a secret camera.
But Currie – agreeing with assistant U.S. Attorney Nathan Williams – said the fact that Collins had kept the undercover agent safe was proof Collins had a key role in the cockfighting gambling operation.
On Thursday, Currie also sentenced three other cockfighter gamblers tried along with Collins:
• Wayne Hutto, 63, received probation. He had earlier been given a year and a day prison sentence, but his lawyer Jonathan Milling presented evidence showing he now has a terminal disease and would be a costly inmate.
• Sheri Hutto, 50, Wayne Hutto’s wife, received probation in order to care for her husband. She too had earlier been given a year and a day sentence.
• Elizabeth Dyal, 54, received nine months because of health issues. She had been earlier sentenced to a year and a day.
All four had their sentences delayed from the 2010 trial. Their appeals recently ran out. Currie’s sentences means Dyal and Collins will soon report to prison.
Reach Monk at (803) 771-8344.