Crime & Courts

21 indicted in probe of cockfights

Twenty one people have been indicted for participating in cockfighting derbies in Lexington and Williamsburg counties, where undercover officers witnessed gambling and dead birds getting tossed into 55-gallon barrels.

Those charged Tuesday hail from across South Carolina, including Pelion, Gilbert and Swansea, and from as far away as York, Mount Pleasant, Laurens and Kingstree.

The largest cockfighting derbies were held on a 50-acre farm on Woodford Road in Swansea, according to documents filed in federal court. The same place was investigated for illegal cockfighting in 2004 when former S.C. Agriculture Commissioner Charles Sharpe was indicted for his connection to a cockfighting ring, the federal documents said.

However, the owner of the property, Gene A. Jeffcoat, who is named in a federal search warrant affidavit, has not been indicted.

"At this point, he has not been charged in this case," said Kevin McDonald, first assistant U.S. attorney for South Carolina.

In the search warrant affidavit filed in the most recent case, a U.S. Department of Agriculture agent wrote that in the Sharpe investigation, "agents developed information that Gene Jeffcoat and others had been operating, organizing and supervising animal fighting ventures at this location for several years prior to 2004."

McDonald did not know why Jeffcoat was not charged after the 2004 investigation.

Jeffcoat would not comment on the cockfighting that authorities say has occurred on his property.

"I don't have anything to say on it," he said as roosters crowed in the background during a phone call Wednesday.

The indictments followed a 13-month investigation by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the S.C. Department of Natural Resources and the Internal Revenue Service.

The indictments allege the defendants operated an unlawful animal fighting venture and an illegal gambling business, the U.S. Attorney's Office said. The defendants also are accused of conspiring to violate the federal Animal Welfare Act by staging or participating in cockfighting contests.

Fourteen people were charged in connection with the Lexington County case. Seven were charged in the Williamsburg County case.

Additional indictments in the two cases are expected, McDonald said.

In June, investigators filed search warrants in the case that explain how the cockfighting derbies operated.

In a cockfighting derby, entrants pay a fee to enter a pre-set number of roosters in a contest. The roosters are matched against each other, based on weight. The cockfighter whose roosters win the most fights usually earns a cash purse, according to federal documents. Side bets also take place among cockfighters and spectators.

In the fights, a knife or other sharp instrument is attached to the roosters' legs. Most roosters die in the ring or are killed after the fights.

Federal officials learned of the bigger Swansea events after attending cockfighting derbies near Georgetown, the search warrant says.

Undercover officers attended three derbies in Swansea. They paid $20 to join the S.C. Game Fowl Breeders Association and an additional $20 entry fee to each derby.

Two of the fights attended by undercover officers began around 8 a.m. and agents stayed until mid-afternoon. As many as 70 people attended.

The Swansea property is described as having multiple cockfighting pits, weigh-in areas, seats, a scoreboard, office space and a concession stand.

At one fight in July 2008, an undercover officer saw a 13-year-old boy place two roosters on the ground to determine if one of them had any "fight" left in it. The rooster in question was then killed by being hit against a tree, according to court documents.

Jeffcoat, the property owner, swore in a federal affidavit that he has leased part of the property to Gamefowl Management since November 1998, according to federal documents. He has received payment from that organization based on the number of individuals attending events on the leased property, the court filing said.

Jeffcoat was seen at two of the fights, according to court documents. At one, he allegedly asked people in a car with Florida license plates to leave.

At a derby in April, three people approached one of the undercover officers to ask whether he was a law enforcement agent, and they discovered a hidden microphone. At that point, "Gene Jeffcoat was summoned and began asking questions," the agent wrote in the search warrant affidavit. The agent was allowed to leave.

Those indicted Tuesday face a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $250,000 charge.

Cockfighting is a recurring problem in South Carolina.

After the 2004 investigation, Sharpe was 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.

The investigation into those two officials began after authorities raided a cockfighting club in Aiken County and arrested nearly 120 people.

Also, one of the country's more widely read cockfighting magazines, Grit and Steel, is published in Gaffney.