‘Like going to the Braves game’: 40 charged in secretive Georgia cockfighting ring

Over 30 Charged After Georgia Cockfighting Bust East Georgia officials are trying to track down more than 200 suspects after a bust at a weekend cockfighting tournament. More than 30 people were arrested following the Saturday bust at a property northwest of Augusta. The bust came after authorities received a tip about the cockfighting tournament at a farm just outside Lincolnton. Lanier Hightower, who owned the farm, was arrested and charged with aggravated cruelty to animals. Several others who were ta

Suspects could face federal charges; state has no cockfighting law.

Investigators have arrested 40 men following a weekend cockfighting bust in east Georgia — and more arrests are expected, a veteran law enforcement officer said.

“We had no idea it would be that many,” Lincoln County sheriff’s Maj. Jim Wallen said Friday.

Cockfighting, a spectator event in which roosters are bred to fight to the death, is illegal in all 50 states. But experts say it’s a lucrative, underground business in Georgia centered on one thing: money.

The latest case is no exception.

“What I’m told is that fight would’ve generated in the neighborhood of $60,000 to $70,000,” Wallen said.

Wallen, whose career began in 1972, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution it’s his first cockfighting investigation, although he has investigated dogfighting.

“We knew we had this issue here, but it’s a very secretive thing,” he said. “It’s been going a good long while ... in excess of 10 years.”

» MORE: Over 30 charged, hundreds more wanted after Georgia cockfighting bust

But the cockfighting events aren’t always held in the same location, Wallen said. Those planning and attending don’t publicize them for fear of alerting law enforcement. The fights are held every other week and only when temperatures are cold, Wallen said.

“Nobody knows when it’s gonna be until late Friday,” he said. “They’re always on Saturday.”

This past Saturday, investigators were ready. Wallen and four of his deputies — half of his staff — arrived Saturday afternoon at a farm outside of Lincolnton, about 130 miles east of Atlanta. There were at least 200 people from around Georgia and South Carolina on the property to attend the fight.

Along with makeshift vendors selling knives and cages, there were two concession stands for the event, Wallen said. Tacos and beer were being sold at one of the stands, he said.

“It was like going to the Braves game,” Wallen said. “They had it all.”

Drugs, including suspected steroids, were also being sold, Wallen said. The items will be sent to the GBI Crime Lab for testing.

Those arrested range in age from 18 to 74 and include several from metro Atlanta. All have been charged with aggravated cruelty to animals and commercial gambling.

Georgia doesn’t have a cockfighting law, according to Jessica Rock, the state’s animal prosecutor. But it’s prohibited under the state’s animal cruelty law, Rock said, and that can make prosecuting cases difficult.

“We pretty much have to catch them in the act of fighting the birds,” said Rock, who said animal cruelty cases aren’t the priority for many law enforcement agencies due to staffing and training issues.

The current case, still under investigation, is already a strong one, Rock said. Wallen said those accused in this case also could face federal charges.

“It’s not just about the birds and the dogs,” Rock said. “There’s so much more going on here.”

Gambling is the main purpose of cockfighting, she said.  Participants pay entry fees to enter birds into the fights, those attending must pay and others gamble for prizes. Sometimes, adults bring children to the fights, Rock said.

“The reason that we have so much of it going on here is because our law enforcement isn’t doing enough about it,” Rock said. “And it’s not their fault. They just don’t know a lot about it.”

Manpower is also a problem for police agencies, which may not be able to have investigators dedicated to animal cases, she said. Prosecuting animal cases takes a collaborative effort between investigators, according to Rock.

In the Lincoln County case, some 60 vehicles were seized from the property and 16 of those have not been claimed, Wallen said. Investigators are interviewing owners when they come to retrieve their vehicles.

— Please return to AJC.com for updates.

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