31 missing cockfighters becomes a presidential campaign issue in the Philippines
LEXINGTON, Kentucky; MANILA, Philippines––The U.S. Department of Justice on March 2, 2022 disclosed the names of four more alleged cockfighters against whom sealed federal indictments were issued on February 24, 2022 in London, Kentucky.
No further information, however, has been forthcoming about who was arrested and charged with what following a February 25, 2022 FBI raid on an alleged cockpit in Whitesburg, Kentucky.
Involving an estimated 100 federal agents, supported by an armored car and a helicopter, the Whitesburg raid is believed to have apprehended some of the previously indicted suspects, as well as others whose indictments have yet to be disclosed.
“The disappearance of 31 people is not normal”
Nine thousand miles away, Philippine senator and presidential candidate Panfilo Lacson ripped alleged police corruption and incompetence in connection with the unsolved disappearance of 31 cockfighters between April 28, 2021 and January 13, 2022.
“They should speed up the investigation because the disappearance of 31 people is not normal. If you cannot resolve any of the 31 cases, that says a lot about the capability of the Philippine National Police,” Lacson told a media conference in Daet, Camarines Norte.
Cockfighting & corruption
Lacson sounded a bit like Showing Animals Respect & Kindness [SHARK] founder Steve Hindi.
Investigating cockfighting in Kentucky since 2019, backed by the Humane Farming Association, SHARK initially shared leads about cockfighting dates and venues with local sheriff’s departments.
Encountering indifference and even hostility from many Kentucky sheriff’s departments, SHARK turned to exposing allegedly corrupt sheriffs as well as cockfights and cockfighters, and took increasingly extensive evidence to the state and federal levels, helping to facilitate the recent indictments.
Despite the distance from Kentucky to the Philippines, there is a considerable two-way traffic in gamecocks among cockfighters in either location, and some Kentucky cockfighters have urged via social media that Hindi and others involved in exposing their activity should be made to “disappear” like the missing Filipinos.
Four more names
Among the additional names of indicted alleged cockfighters disclosed by the Department of Justice on March 2, 2022 were Cruz Alejandro Mercado-Vazquez, 43, of Maysville, Kentucky; Walter H. Mitchell, 55, of Ewing, Kentucky; and Jerrard McVey, 47, and his wife Linda McVey, 42, of Carlisle, Kentucky.
Cruz Alejandro Mercado-Vazquez is facing “two counts of attempted bribery and one count of possessing animals for the purpose of having the animals participate in an animal fighting venture,” the U.S. Department of Justice said.
“The indictment alleges,” the U.S. Department of Justice summarized, “that, on two separate occasions, Mercado-Vaquez offered a bribe of more than $5,000 to the Mason County sheriff, to influence the sheriff in connection with a planned animal fighting venture. The indictment further alleges that Mercado-Vazquez knowingly bought, possessed, and trained roosters to participate in an animal fighting venture.”
Mitchell and the McVeys were charged “with conspiracy to knowingly sponsor and exhibit animals in an animal fighting venture, in connection with the Valley, a chicken pit on the border of Nicholas and Fleming counties,” the U.S. Department of Justice media release said.
Spokespersons emphasize cruelty
Cockfighting has historically been prosecuted as much in connection with illegal gambling as for cruelty to gamefowl, but both Carlton S. Shier IV, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Kentucky, and Jodi Cohen, the FBI special agent in charge of the federal cockfighting investigations, emphasized the cruelty aspects in their media statements.
“Animal fighting ventures are cruel and illegal,” said Shier. “We are committed to enforcing federal animal cruelty laws.”
Added Cohen, “The gruesome ritual of animal fighting simply has no place in a civilized society. Animal cruelty, however, is just one criminal aspect surrounding this barbaric activity,” Cohen continued. “Whether it is illegal gambling or the attempted corruption of our public officials, the criminal enterprise surrounding cockfighting operations will not be tolerated.”
Facing up to five years in prison plus fines
Other agencies involved in the investigation include the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Kentucky State Police, and the Indiana Gaming Commission, the latter for as yet undisclosed reasons believed to have to do with gamblers and gamecock breeders from Indiana attending Kentucky cockfights.
“Each defendant faces up to five years in prison and a maximum fine of $250,000,” the U.S. Department of Justice media release stipulated. “Mercado-Vasquez faces up to 10 years in prison and a maximum fine of $250,000 for the attempted bribery counts.”
Lexington Herald-Leader Bill Estep meanwhile called into question the law enforcement connections of three of the individuals whose indictments were announced earlier.
Sheriffs deny employing indicted suspects
“Indictment documents said three of those charged had worked at times for sheriff’s offices in Clay and Laurel counties,” Estep wrote, “but the three most recent sheriffs in Clay County said the two residents named there,” Beachel Collett, 28, and Lester Collett, 25, “had not worked for them.
“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,” Estep reported.
“In Laurel County,” Estep continued, “a woman who worked as a court bailiff for the sheriff’s office,” Jacklyn R. Johnson, now federally indicted, “left the job after Kentucky State Police charged her last year in state court with promoting gambling in connection with a cockfighting operation.
Indicted alleged cockfighter Millard Oscar Hubbard, 72, however, is “a former teacher and transportation director for the Clay County school system,” Estep reported, who “pleaded guilty in 2005 to conspiring to distribute 300 pounds of marijuana and was sentenced to 32 months in prison.”
Online gambling on cockfights
Meanwhile back in the Philippines, Paolo Romero of the Philippine Star reported, Philippine senate president Vicente Sotto III told media that current Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte is awaiting a resolution from the senate committee on public order and dangerous drugs, and a recommendation from the Philippine Amusement & Gaming Corporation, before suspending the operating licenses of seven concessionaires offering online gambling on cockfights.
Running for vice president on the same ticket as presidential candidate Paniflo Lacson, Sotto has asked that online gambling on cockfights be suspended until the case of the 31 missing cockfighters is resolved.
Chief reminds cops of code of ethics
Continued Romero, “Former Philippine National Police chief Guillermo Eleazar, who is also running under the Lacson-Sotto ticket, reminded police officers of the code of ethics which prohibits them from engaging in gambling even if such games are legal.”
Current Philippine National Police chief General Dinardo Carlos on March 2, 2002 “vowed to impose a one-strike policy on police commanders whose subordinates are caught” gambling on cockfights.
“To ensure strict compliance,” Romero said, Carlos “ordered an inspection of cell phones and gadgets of police personnel and warned unit commanders that they will be relieved of their posts if found to be engaged” in online betting on cockfights.