DELTA, Ohio — Officials say a suspected cockfighting operation they raided in rural Fulton County on Sunday appeared to be an organized ring.
Fulton County Sheriff Roy Miller said deputies interrupted the event before fighting really began when they were dispatched to 9786 County Road N in Royalton Township shortly after 11 a.m. A neighbor reported suspicious activity possibly related to cockfighting, a blood sport where roosters specifically bred for their aggression fight to the death. A deputy waiting for backup later heard gunfire in the area, though it was not known if it originated from the same address.
When authorities arrived, people were fleeing from a shed, though many later returned for their vehicles and were subsequently apprehended. The birds were found in cages and boxes around the property and in cars.
Deputies seized 72 live roosters and cited 52 individuals with single counts of attending and aiding and abetting animal fighting, a fourth-degree misdemeanor. Additional people may be cited as the investigation continues.
Only nine of the people cited were from Ohio, including Nieto Castillo Candelario, 44, of Delta who the sheriff's office identified as the owner of the mobile home at the address. Seventeen more were from Michigan, and 26 were Indiana residents. They ranged in age from 20 to 69.
No arraignments were scheduled, but a Fulton County Eastern District Court spokesman said the hearings might be held May 14 and 15.
Brian Banister, the Fulton County dog warden who often assists in animal-related cases, said most of the birds had their combs and wattles cut off, which is typical for fighting roosters, called gamecocks. The birds also had the bony growths on their legs, called spurs, that roosters use for fighting, removed. Cockfighters often replace the spur with a metal blade or spike designed to inflict more damage.
The roosters are being kept in an undisclosed location and have seen a veterinarian. One bird with significant slashing injuries from a fight and was slated to be killed, Sheriff Miller said.
Mr. Banister said the roosters are “very aggressive” and were still “wound up” as of Monday afternoon.
John Goodwin, director of animal cruelty policy for the Humane Society of the United States, said the size of the raid and the fact that so many individuals had come from out of state indicates an organized operation.
He said Ohio, one of only nine states where cockfighting isn’t a felony crime, “has become a magnet for this crime.”
The maximum fine for the charge in Ohio, $250 and up to 30 days in jail, is easily covered by an individual’s potential earnings from cockfights through gambling and prize money. The fines become “the cost of doing business,” Mr. Goodwin said.
“I've gotten speeding tickets that cost more than the maximum fine for cockfighting in Ohio,” he said. “And that’s a problem.”
Bills to strengthen animal cruelty laws introduced in recent years in the Ohio General Assembly, including one in 2011 specific to cockfighting, have not gotten far.
In 2011, seven individuals convicted in a Toledo cockfighting case just had to pay a $50 fine and court costs.
The owner of the property in that case received six months of inactive probation, had to pay a $50 fine plus court costs and a $60 probation fee, and received a 30-day suspended jail sentence. Toledo Municipal Court did not have records for three additional individuals arrested in the case.
Sheriff Miller said Fulton County Prosecutor Scott Haselman, who did not return a call seeking comment, will have to decide if additional charges could be filed against individuals identified as owners of the birds, though no one is claiming them.
Police also seized cockfighting paraphernalia, such as numerous short-knives — blades about 1.5 inches long that would be attached to gamecocks’ legs — and unidentified medical substances and syringes.
While the vast majority of the individuals cited appear to have Hispanic names, Mr. Goodwin said this type of cruelty is not specific to any ethnicity. He said Hispanic cockfighters do typically prefer a short-knife like what was found in Delta, while others use a curved nail-like spike called a gaff or some other attachment.
Mr. Goodwin noted that because individuals came across state lines to Delta for the event, federal law that carries much stiffer penalties could apply. Participants charged with applicable federal felonies could be sentenced to up to $250,000 in fines and five years in prison. Spectators could be charged with a misdemeanor and face up to $100,000 in fines and a year in prison.
The short-knife spurs found also could be called “criminal tools,” and individuals could be charged with a first-degree misdemeanor for possessing them, Mr. Goodwin added.
Sheriff Miller said his office is still determining if the agency must keep the gamecocks as evidence throughout the case, and what can ultimately be done with them. But he indicated he would not be against adopting them out, if possible.
Mr. Goodwin said the birds can be adopted, but must either be the only rooster on a property or kept separate.