Alleged cockfighting operation nets 80 arrests

 

An eighteen-month investigation into an alleged cockfighting operation ended in mass weekend arrests, with preliminary reports indicating more than 70 people were charged.

On Monday, Patrick County Sheriff Dan Smith said the actual count was 80, all of whom were processed at the Patrick County Jail.

Seventy had made bond by Monday and now are awaiting trial, Smith said, adding that seven have not yet made bond. Additionally, three are being held on detainers for alleged immigration violations, he said.  

The several months long investigation culminated on Saturday, June 1, when a multi-agency law enforcement team of more than 50 officers of executed a search warrant at 435 Long Branch Road in Claudville — the site of the alleged illegal cockfighting venue.

Smith said the search warrant included all structures, people and vehicles found on the premises.

Tactical teams from the Patrick County Sheriff’s Office, Martinsville Police Department and Carroll County Sheriff’s Office were inserted into the woods well before daylight on Saturday to provide a perimeter and surveillance on the site, Smith said. Communication was maintained throughout the morning with those teams, he said. 

At 12:45 p.m., tactical teams from the Henry County Sheriff’s Office and Virginia State Police executed the search warrant. About half of the suspects were arrested near the fighting site, and half were arrested as they fled into the woods by the embedded perimeter teams. 

Evidence collected during the investigation indicated the operation attracted participants from as far as Texas and Georgia, who allegedly travelled to Claudville to engage in the illegal activity. 

Smith said the operation was “Mexican based. It was a Mexican operation 100 percent. A Mexican controlled operation.”

Smith alleged that conditions on the property were deplorable. He explained that numerous chicken carcasses were found along with several caged chickens waiting to be fought. Gaffs, or elongated razors, were found attached to the spurs of both live and dead chickens. 

Approximately 100 live adult fighting chickens were seized, Smith said Monday. The birds “basically have already been forfeited. No one is claiming ownership and they were forfeited to the state,” he said. They now will be humanely euthanized by a veterinarian.

He added authorities also found evidence that birds were being injected with drugs “to try to increase the birds’ aggression. We found needles and syringes” indicating the drug use.

“These animals cannot be reintroduced back into an agricultural setting, they have been specifically trained to attack and kill, euthanization is the only alternative,” he said.

In addition to the adult birds, Smith said 200 chicks were seized. The baby chicks “were being raised there to fight,” he said, adding “we have already had those chicks adopted.”

U.S. currency, methamphetamine, firearms, multiple edged weapons and assorted property, including vehicles, were seized from the scene, the release stated. 

Authorities seized 57 vehicles, two utility buildings and two farm tractors, Smith said. If the seizures are contested, civil forfeiture hearings will be held, Smith said, adding a judge will determine the outcome of those hearings. 

Patrick County Sheriff’s Lt. Eric O’Connell, who led the investigation, indicated that evidence showed the ring was an elaborate, well organized operation which travelled to several different venues in both Virginia and North Carolina. Large sums of money were bet on the fights, and methamphetamines allegedly were commonly dealt as well. “Evidence obtained leads us to believe that Mexican drug cartels operating in the region had a clear and definite presence,” stated O’Connell.

The sheriff said that some women and children were present, but the predominate makeup of the participants were Hispanic males ranging in age from 20 to 65. 

The property is owned by Phillip Baldwin, 53, who lives at the site and was present during the execution of the search warrant. Baldwin also was among those arrested Sunday, Smith said.

“The sheer number of people that we were dealing with, some of whom were armed, made this a very difficult mission, planning was extensive” Smith said. he praised fellow law enforcement agencies for the “level of unselfish support” that made the operation a safe success. 

“The public expects us to rid this county of blatant and inhumane criminal activity,” Smith said. “With the help of our fellow support agencies, that is exactly what happened.”

The sheriff’s office is communicating with federal Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) authorities to determine the immigration status of many of those arrested. Deputies worked throughout Sunday processing those arrested as well as evidence.

“We have been at this for two solid days, but we are beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Smith said Sunday. 

A list of those arrested is expected to be released by Tuesday.

Cockfighting is classified as a felony under Virginia law. 

Patrick County Commonwealth’s Attorney Stephanie Vipperman said the case will be prosecuted under Virginia’s Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act (RICO) statute.

In addition to Patrick authorities, other participating agencies were: the Virginia State Police, Henry County Sheriff’s Office, Martinsville Police Department, Carroll County Sheriff’s Office, Patrick County Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office, Patrick County Department of Emergency Management, Henry County Public Safety, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, Danville Police Department, Surry County N.C. Sheriff’s Office, Surry County EMS and the Virginia Air National Guard.

 

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