Cockfighting promoters advertise in open defiance of the law; SHARK demands enforcement
BIG LAUREL, Kentucky––Will sundown on Saturday, January 2, 2021 bring a new age in Kentucky cockfighting law enforcement, or just another hangover from a long history of police indifference toward culturally entrenched crimes, from moonshining to wife-beating and statutory rape?
Whatever happens that evening at the Pinemountain Game Club in Big Laurel, Harlan County, may tell the story.
The Pinemountain Game Club proprietors in November 2020 allegedly published a cockfighting calendar listing 17 meets, from November 28, 2020 to March 27, 2021.
A second page of the calendar reportedly lists further meets through June 2021.
The calendar reached the Chicago-based organization Showing Animals Respect & Kindness [SHARK] through an informant several weeks later.
That was too late for SHARK, which specializes in high-tech investigations of animal-related crime, to do much about the first scheduled events.
Info shared with Kentucky State Police Post 10
SHARK had plenty of time, however, to verify the information in the calendar and tip off Kentucky State Police Post 10, including Captain Ryan Catron, with all the particulars of the December 19, 2020 cockfighting card.
Provided to Kentucky State Police Post 10 in Harlan, the Harlan County seat, besides the cockfighting schedule, were maps, photographs of the location, and even the names of some of the primary suspects.
“Our investigators were told that this cockfight would be shut down,” recounted a SHARK media release.
“Unfortunately that’s not what happened. We surveilled the cockfighting location,” SHARK founder Steve Hindi said. “At approximately 3:00 p.m., vehicles began arriving for the illegal fight. The investigators drove to Troop 10 to inform the police. The police would only say that the matter was under investigation and refused to give out any further information.
“More than 50 vehicles”
“Upon returning to the cockfight location,” Hindi continued, “we counted more than 50 vehicles and brought a picture of that back to Troop 10.
“Later on,” at the advertised starting time of 7:00 p.m., “we counted at least 100 vehicles, meaning this was truly a major criminal event,” Hindi said.
Irrespective of whether cockfights were underway, the gathering was clearly more than 10 times as large as the maximum size for social gatherings and more than four times the maximum size for gatherings at indoor recreation facilities, venues, event spaces, and theaters announced in response to COVID-19 concerns on November 18, 2020 by Kentucky governor Andy Beshear.
Beshear reiterated his social distancing orders on December 10 and December 14, 2020.
Cops on scene but didn’t act
There was also an evident question as to whether the Pinemountain Game Club met fire safety code requirements for hosting gatherings of that size, especially with some of the potential fire exits blocked, as appeared to be the case.
At approximately 8:30 p.m., after SHARK personnel including Hindi took documentation of the gathering to Kentucky State Police Post 10 in Harlan in person, they marked Kentucky state police cars and one unmarked police car, traveling in convoy, were observed driving slowly past the Pinemountain Game Club on Kentucky Highway 221, but without stopping.
Were they there to interfere with the cockfighting, or to protect it?
“I got a very tight, cold feeling in my gut, because we went through this with the state police in June over a cockfight location in McCreary County, Kentucky,” Hindi said.
“This is no different,” Hindi added, “than during Prohibition when crooked cops took payoffs to let gang-run establishments serve alcohol.”
Captain Ryan Catron is put on the spot
On December 22, 2020, Hindi personally confronted Kentucky State Police Post 10 captain Ryan Catron outside the police station in Harlan.
Catron repeatedly told Hindi, during the videotaped discussion, that his officers would move against the alleged illegal cockfights at the Pinemountain Game Club when they had sufficient evidence to mount a successful criminal prosecution against all of the people involved.
Hindi emphasized that mounting a successful prosecution of the suspects is of secondary concern to SHARK. As an animal protection organization, Hindi explained to Catron, what SHARK and allied organizations including the Humane Farming Association want is for cockfighting to be prevented; for cockfights to not be held.
“From the very beginning of our Crush Cockfighting campaign,” Hindi told Steve Rogers of WTVQ in Harlan, “we knew the real challenge was simply to get the police to enforce already existing laws. Cockfighting only flourishes in places where there is rampant police corruption, which is why cockfighting flourishes in Kentucky like no other place in the country.”
Harlan County Public Health Department also sidesteps
Harlan County Health Department director Bobbie Crider showed no more active interest in preventing mass gatherings at cockfights than did police captain Ryan Catron.
Emailed complainant Katherine Peters to Crider, “The fact that this many people are being allowed to gather on a weekly basis is a threat to public health. It’s highly likely some of these people are coming from other counties or even across state lines,” especially from Virginia and Tennessee, each less than an hour’s drive away, “and therefore risking the spread of Covid-19 into Harlan County and elsewhere. Attendees are literally risking the lives of people just so they can gamble and ﬁght animals.”
Responded Crider, “I have reviewed and discussed the event mentioned in your email. At the current time we are recommending that non-compliance issues in violation of Governor Beshear’s Covid-19 orders that are outside of our jurisdiction be reported the safer hotline at 1-833-kysafer.”
“Most law-abiding community to be found anywhere”
Thus the scene seems to be set for an impending “Showdown at the Pinemountain Game Club,” built within recent years from weathered barn boards, to blend inconspicuously into a “holler” at the end of a dead-end road descending from Kentucky Highway 221, a quarter mile south of Big Laurel.
An unincorporated crossroads hamlet, settled in 1820, Big Laurel has ironically boasted in tourist literature of being “the most law-abiding community to be found anywhere,” in which “there has never been a murder, an attempt at murder, or even a serious quarrel or fight between its citizens.”
Founders Rafe Kilgore and Milly Wheatley married, journeyed to the vicinity, and built their homestead of beech logs soon after Milly killed a bear with a skillet in an unexpected confrontation at her father’s home in Rye Cove, Scott County, Virginia.
James Taylor Adams
Two of her brothers and a man named Joseph Addington arrived soon afterward. Several generations of their intermarried families established and built the community for 92 years before it gained a name from 20-year-old local journalist James Taylor Adams (1892-1954), who managed to eke out a living by writing despite having only a second grade education.
Adams, at 16 in 1908, had married local girl Dicy Roberts.
Four years into his marriage, Adams realized that having a local post office would be a convenience in helping him to sell articles to out-of-town newspapers.
Adams and 12 other residents who joined Adams in petitioning for a post office were authorized to start one, on condition that the community have a name.
They picked Big Laurel, apparently unaware that another Big Laurel was already established just 50 miles east, in Virginia. The two communities have often been confused with each other ever since.
Never wrote about cockfighting
After literally putting Big Laurel on the map, Adams went on to become a pioneering folklorist and genealogist.
Also a teacher and librarian, Adams is best remembered for collecting local stories and family histories throughout the Appalachian region for the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression.
But electronic searches of Adams’ writings, including 539 of his syndicated “Appalachian Tales” newspaper columns, show just a dozen mentions of roosters in any context, and no mention at all of the terms “cockfight,” “gamecock,” or “gamefowl.”
Cockfighters lost their pants & $50,000
During the same years Adams’ column appeared, however, Kentucky cockfights were frequently busted, and machine gun-toting bandits driving a stolen car absconded with $50,000 and the pants of 25 participants at a May 1950 cockfight in Henderson, Kentucky. Owned by one A.J. “Hootch” Crawford, a former bootlegger, that cockpit was located five and a half hours’ drive west of Big Laurel.
Cockfighting appears to have become established in tiny and then-sober Big Laurel long after Adams’ death.
Be that as it may, cockfighting was deeply entrenched in Harlan County and within local law enforcement by the time SHARK and In Defense of Animals on August 26, 2019 jointly announced the debut of the “Crush Cockfighting” campaign.
The first two cockfighting suspects identified by SHARK were Harlan County Detention Center employees Ronnie Bennett and Kyle Simpson, who are also father and son.
Bennett and Simpson, Hindi charged, “run a fighting rooster operation called the Cuttin Up Game Farm. The evidence in this case is quite strong,” Hindi wrote, “supplied by the suspects themselves via Facebook posts. The pictures and posts are extensive and irrefutable. The suspects obviously feel they have nothing to fear from Harlan County officials.”
Eighteen months later, this appears to be still true. ANIMALS 24-7 has discovered no indication that either Bennett or Simpson has been disciplined or prosecuted for cockfighting-related activity.
Court settlement in Monterey County, California
SHARK and the Humane Farming Association, as co-plaintiffs, have had a comparably frustrating time in exposing cockfighting in Monterey County, California.
However, Vanessa Shakib, co-director of the Redondo Beach-based organization Advancing Law for Animals, on December 18, 2020 claimed “a victory in our cockfighting case against Monterey County,” she told ANIMALS 24-7, after Monterey County settled a lawsuit that Shakib filed on behalf of SHARK and the Humane Farming by pledging “to crack down on cockfighting. Monterey County has agreed to a list of enforcement benchmarks,” Shakib said. “We will be working with the county collaboratively to make sure these benchmarks are met.”
Obstructionist John Ramirez is still there
A 2019 Monterey County Civil Grand Jury Report found that a Monterey County ordinance governing rooster-keeping, adopted in 2014, had gone unenforced for five years while country public health director all but dismantled it by introducing bureaucratic procedures that circumvented the intent of the ordinance.
Simultaneously, Ramirez used budget cuts to dismantle the Monterey County animal control department.
Ramirez is still there, but Shakib is optimistic that his antipathy toward enforcing the rooster-keeping ordinance can be circumvented.
“As you know,” Shakib emailed to ANIMALS 24-7, “the 2019 Monterey County Civil Grand Jury Report found the ordinance failed for three main reasons: lack of leadership and oversight from the Bureau of Sanitation and the Health Department, hindrance to implementation and enforcement created by a process developed by Environmental Health Bureau, and the unwillingness of multiple agencies to enforce it.
The one sure bet on cockfighting appears to be that there will be more litigation
“Our agreement with Monterey County bypasses these impediments,” Shakib said, “by creating a path forward with structure, procedure, and oversight. We note, as but one example, the formation of a task force including Monterey County Counsel, Animal Services, the District Attorney’s office, the [Monterey County] SPCA, the Sheriff’s office, the Resource Management Agency, and a Board of Supervisors representative.
“Key to this agreement is the collaboration and oversight built into it,” Shakib finished. We will be working with the county and receiving updates as to the progress of the benchmarks agreed upon. In the event these benchmarks are not met, we will resume litigation.”
In light of the verifiable 250-year history of cockfighting in Monterey County, and the lack of anti-cockfighting law enforcement there throughout the century-plus that cockfighting has been illegal in California, that further litigation will eventually follow seems a sure bet.