Two felony indictments of alleged cockfighting promoters were announced Thursday as part of a widening state and federal investigation into illegal bird-fighting operations across South Carolina.
"The people of this state take illegal cockfighting very seriously," said Attorney General Henry McMaster, joined at a morning press conference by U.S. Attorney Walt Wilkins and S.C. Department of Natural Resources director John Frampton.
McMaster vowed to "stamp out" cockfighting, an ancient blood sport practiced in rural areas in South Carolina and around the country for centuries.
Indicted Thursday were landowner Gene A. Jeffcoat, 81, of Lexington County, and James M. Collins Jr., 52, of Spartanburg County, accused of being a fight supervisor. Shackled in metal chains, the two men appeared Thursday afternoon in federal court in Columbia.
A federal indictment unsealed Thursday also revealed authorities are moving to seize 68 acres off Woodford Road near Swansea, in Lexington County, where numerous cockfights are alleged to have taken place in recent years.
Jeffcoat owns the land, a prosecutor told federal magistrate Joseph McCrorey.
The same address was investigated for illegal cockfighting in 2004, when former S.C. Agriculture Commissioner Charles Sharpe was indicted and sentenced to two years in prison for extortion and lying to federal officers in connection with a cockfighting ring. A former S.C. State Law Enforcement Division agent also was convicted in the case for protecting the ring.
Jeffcoat was not charged in 2004.
At Thursday's hearing, Jeffcoat - visibly shaking and using a cane - said he wanted a court-appointed lawyer. But McCrorey told him he had too much equity in his landholdings to qualify for a taxpayer-subsidized lawyer.
Each man was released on a $50,000 personal recognizance bond. They declined to speak with reporters as they left the Matthew J. Perry Federal Courthouse. No trial date was set.
Jeffcoat and Collins are charged with conspiracy to violate the federal Animal Welfare Act and to engage in an illegal gambling business. They also face two counts of running an illegal animal fighting venture and two counts of running an illegal gambling business. They could receive a maximum of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine for each charge.
Wilkins said gambling pots in South Carolina range up to $30,000, and up to 150 people can attend a cockfight. Roosters wearing razor-sharp spurs fight to the death in pits while spectators wager on which will win.
Cockfighters say it's hypocritical to ban cockfighting in a society that permits hunting and the killing of animals like chickens for food. And, they say, the symbol of the state's flagship university, the University of South Carolina, is a gamecock with spurs.
McMaster said illegal cockfighting is widespread in South Carolina but is underground.
"We believe it's happening everywhere a lot," he said, "and unless you are involved in it, you don't know much about it, and it's hard to believe that it's going on."
Officials said they used undercover agents and informants to penetrate the subculture.
McMaster said "some people try to minimize the danger and the damage to society" as he displayed sharp spurs to reporters.
"It is razor sharp, they have one on each leg, and it is with this, as well as their beaks, that the animals inflict the harm on each other," McMaster said.
However, McMaster conceded illegal dogfighting - which he also targets - is worse than cockfighting, although in South Carolina, cockfighting is not a felony.
Gambling pots in dogfights can be $100,000, and the people who participate in those fights are often drug dealers, he said.
But cockfighting "is not pretty, it is not civil," McMaster said. "It is violent, it imposes damage on the children ... who are there to watch adults participate."
Since November, authorities have announced indictments of 21 other people on federal felony cockfighting-related charges and the arrests of 36 others on state misdemeanor charges of attending cockfights in Swansea and in Williamsburg County.
Officials indicated more indictments would be coming. Alleged spectators face state misdemeanor charges. Alleged organizers face federal felony charges, which carry far stiffer penalties.
The current arrests and indictments were generated in large part by an undercover agent with the Department of Natural Resources who attended eight to 10 events and shot video of them, Wilkins said.
"I'm not talking about a couple of guys in the backyard throwing a couple of chickens down and letting them go at it," said Wilkins, stressing events were highly organized.
Collins, indicted Thursday, is vice president of the S.C. Gamefowl Breeders Association.
Mitchell Blackwell, president of the association, whose 700-member membership list has been subpoenaed by a federal grand jury, said he hoped officials aren't starting a purge against innocent breeders.
Breeding fighting roosters has long been a blend of art and genetic science, he said.
"I hope they don't want to eradicate a breed," said Blackwell, of Bethune, in Kershaw County.
Authorities said they were only targeting the illegal fighting of roosters and related gambling.