Federal authorities have moved to crack down on cockfighting in Kentucky with charges against 17 people allegedly linked to arenas in at least four counties.
The cockfighting pits listed in the four federal indictments were in Clay, Laurel and Pike counties, with another on the border of Nicholas and Fleming counties. The indictments were returned last week but sealed until this week.
Indictment documents said three of those charged had worked at times for sheriff’s offices in Clay and Laurel counties, but the three most recent sheriffs in Clay County said the two residents named there had not worked for them.
In Laurel County, a woman who worked as a court bailiff for the sheriff’s office left the job after Kentucky State Police charged her last year in state court with promoting gambling in connection with a cockfighting operation. She was also charged in the separate federal investigation.
Jodi Cohen, special agent in charge of the FBI in Kentucky, said the investigations had dealt a serious blow to cockfighting in Kentucky. She also noted there are often other crimes such as gambling associated with cockfighting.
“The gruesome ritual of animal fighting simply has no place in a civilized society,” Cohen said. “Animal cruelty, however, is just one criminal aspect surrounding this barbaric activity.”
In one case, Cruz Alejandro Mercado-Vazquez, 43, of Maysville, is charged with two counts of attempted bribery and one count of possessing animals for the purpose of having them take part in fights.
He allegedly offered bribes of more than $5,000 to Mason County Sheriff Patrick Boggs to get protection for a planned cockfighting operation, and also allegedly possessed and trained fighting roosters. He faces up to 10 years in prison on the bribery charges.
Riverside Game Club & Blackberry Chicken Pit
In another case, Millard Oscar Hubbard, 72; Timothy Sizemore, 42; Beachel Collett, 28; Lester Collett, 25; and Justin Smith, 33, all of Clay County, were charged with conspiring to operate a cockfighting arena called the Riverside Game Club in Clay County. Hubbard, a former teacher and transportation director for the Clay County school system, pleaded guilty in 2005 to conspiring to distribute 300 pounds of marijuana and was sentenced to 32 months in prison.
Hubbard allegedly owned and operated the Riverside arena with help from Sizemore. The federal indictment said Beachel and Lester Collett worked for the Clay County Sheriff’s Office “at various times.”
The indictment did not say when that was or what they did. Kevin Johnson, who was sheriff three terms in Clay County; his wife Angie Johnson, who succeeded him for a year; and current Sheriff Patrick Robinson said the Colletts had not worked for the sheriff’s office in their terms, dating back to 2007.
According to the federal indictment, Beachel and Lester Collett helped with duties at the Riverside pit such as organizing participants, weighing roosters, keeping track of the weapons used on roosters and cataloging wins and losses. Roosters involved in cockfighting typically have sharp blades attached to their legs. The fights often leave the birds injured or dead.
Hubbard, with Sizemore’s help, allegedly sponsored weekly fights at Riverside. They collected parking, admission and seating fees and had trailers to rent to people who brought roosters to the fights, according to the indictment.
The fights drew a crowd at times. There were 118 entries for one fight that Sizemore and the Colletts organized in December 2019, for instance, the indictment said. The arena featured stadium-style seating, a concession area, a room to sell accessories such as the sharp gaffs attached to birds’ legs, and enclosed cockfighting pits, the indictment said. Smith allegedly worked at the arena.
It is illegal under federal law to sponsor or exhibit an animal in an animal fighting venture, according to the indictment. Federal law also bars anyone from possessing, training, selling, buying, transporting, delivering or receiving an animal for purposes of having it take part in a fighting operation; from using the U.S. Mail or any instrument of interstate commerce — such as Facebook — to promote an animal fighting venture; and to attend an animal fight, the indictment said.
The crime is a felony punishable by up to five years in prison. Sizemore also is charged with operating a cockfighting venue at Ransom, in Pike County, called the Blackberry Chicken Pit, which also had stadium seating, concessions, several fighting pits and tight security, including two checkpoints people coming to the fights had to pass through, the indictment said.
At one event there in April 2021, there were 93 entries, and at another in June 2021, the purse totaled $42,000, the indictment said.
Bald Rock Chicken Pit
Another indictment unsealed this week charged that Rickie D. Johnson, 55; Jacklyn Johnson, 31; and Harold “Fuzzy” Hale, 72, all of London, conspired to operate a cockfighting arena called the Bald Rock Chicken Pit in Laurel County.
Rickie and Jacklyn Johnson rented the property from Hale, ran the fights and shared proceeds with him, the indictment charged. Hale had run a cockfighting operation called Big H’s at the site until March 2020, the indictment said.
That indictment named five others who allegedly possessed roosters for the purpose of fighting: Orville D. Asher, 39, of London; Dallas M. Cope, 35, of Livingston; Hiram B. Creech Jr., 47, of East Bernstadt; Bradley C. Rose, 72, of Parkers Lake; and Joshua Westerfield, 36, of London.
Kentucky State Police made arrests at the Bald Rock venue in July 2021 after receiving a complaint, charging Rickie and Jacklyn Johnson with promoting gambling and several other people with cruelty to animals, including Asher, Cope, Creech and Westerfield. The state case is pending. Jacklyn Johnson was a bailiff with the Laurel County Sheriff’s Office at the time but reportedly left afterward.
In the fourth case, a grand jury charged Walter H. Mitchell, 55, of Ewing, and Jerrard McVey, 47, and Linda McVey, 42, both of Carlisle, with conspiring to sponsor and exhibit animals in a fighting venture. The three were allegedly involved with a cockfighting pit called the Valley on the border of Nicholas and Fleming Counties.
The FBI, Kentucky State Police, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Indiana Gaming Commission took part in the investigation leading to the indictments, according to a news release.
Cockfighting has been common in Kentucky for years. When federal authorities raided a large operation in Floyd County in 2014, they found it had thousands of members and drew spectators from several states. More recently, animal-welfare groups said in 2020 that Kentucky had become a hub for the cockfighting trade.
The groups, Animal Wellness Action and the Animal Wellness Foundation, said they had identified several operations in the state that shipped large numbers of roosters to Mexico, the Philippines and other countries.
(Headline photo: Two Clay Co. deputies attending a cockfight, screenshot of secretly recorded video, courtesy of the Lexington Herald-Leader)
By Bill Estep, the Lexington Herald-Leader