Bill Estep of the Lexington Herald Leader is unapologetic about crediting wrong two groups with roles in busts; does not name the right two
LEXINGTON, Kentucky––Cockfighting cases usually result in plea-bargained sentences.
Few people, if any, might therefore have been surprised when alleged cockfighters Rickie D. Johnson, 55, and Hiram B. Creech Jr., 47, pleaded guilty on May 3, 2022 and May 10, 2022, respectively, to federal charges resulting from investigations by the Chicago-based organization Showing Animals Respect & Kindness [SHARK], sponsored in part by the California-based Humane Farming Association.
What was surprising was the thin-skinned response of 38-year Lexington Herald Leader reporter Bill Estep when Showing Animals Respect & Kindness founder Steve Hindi pointed out that Estep had credited the wrong two animal advocacy organizations for bringing about the four federal indictments that brought charges against Johnson, Creech, and 18 others.
Rickie D. Johnson, the first of the indicted alleged cockfighters to plead guilty, pleaded to conspiracy to hold cockfights at the Bald Rock Pit in Laurel County, a frequent SHARK investigative target.
The charge, Estep noted on May 11, 2022, is “punishable by up to five years in prison.”
Johnson was accused of operating the Bald Rock Pit with his daughter, former Laurel County Sheriff’s Office bailiff Jacklyn R. Johnson, 30; Harold “Fuzzy” Hale; and Oakley “Whitey” Hatfield.
SHARK called in the complaint
“Hale allegedly owned the cockfighting property and leased it to Rickie Johnson,” summarized Estep. “Hatfield helped negotiate the lease, the indictment charged.
“When Kentucky State Police officers went to the venue in July 2021 to investigate a report of alleged animal cruelty, there were at least 80 people in attendance and 47 roosters entered in fights, according to court records,” Estep mentioned.
Estep omitted however, that Showing Animals Respect & Kindness called in the “report of alleged animal cruelty,” as ANIMALS 24-7 described on July 16, 2021, six days after the cockfight in question, with an accompanying photo of Jacklyn R. Johnson in her Laurel County Sheriff’s Office uniform.
Showing Animals Respect & Kindness had already exposed Jacklyn R. Johnson’s involvement in cockfighting a year earlier, after which her name disappeared from the Laurel County Sheriff’s Office web site.
How the Bald Rock bust went down
“SHARK investigators were on the ground in Kentucky monitoring an illegal cockfighting operation called Bald Rock,” Hindi told ANIMALS 24-7 after the July 10, 2021 police raid on the alleged cockpit.
“Once we knew there was a cockfight going on, we alerted the state police, who sent out four cruisers,” plus a game warden, Hindi said.
Hindi told ANIMALS 24-7 at the time that the same information had already been supplied to many Kentucky news media, including the Lexington Herald Leader, but ANIMALS 24-7 was apparently first, by seven months, to publish a word about the police raid.
What Estep got right
Creech Jr. “initially was charged with possessing a rooster for the purposes of taking part in a cockfight,” Estep reported. “He had a bird outfitted with metal spurs ready to fight when police arrived in July 2021, according to a citation.”
But Creech Jr. pleaded guilty, Estep continued, “to a lesser charge of causing someone under the age of 16 — his son — to attend the cockfight. The charge has a maximum sentence of three years in prison.
“Jacklyn Johnson, Hale, Hatfield and four men charged with having roosters for the purpose of engaging in a cockfight have pleaded not guilty,” Estep added.
The Bald Rock cockfighting indictments were only some of many issued by a federal grand jury on February 24, 2022 in London, Kentucky, unsealed on March 1, 2022.
What Estep missed
Citing more than a dozen alleged specific dates of cockfights held at various Kentucky locations between November 2018 and July 2021, the indictments hinted that a February 25, 2022 raid by the Federal Bureau of Investigation on an alleged cockpit near Whitesburg, Kentucky, and rumored simultaneous raids on other Kentucky cockpits, were directed at apprehending thirteen of the individuals named by the grand jury.
Showing Animals Respect & Kindness drones, hidden cameras, and undercover informants monitored many of the cockfights mentioned in the indictments, including the February 25, 2022 cockfight at Whitesburg.
Much of the information gathered by Showing Animals Respect & Kindness was shared with federal, state, and local authorities months––and even years––before the federal indictments were issued.
Much also was posted to YouTube by Showing Animals Respect & Kindness and was reported by ANIMALS 24-7.
Laurel County Sheriff John Root
Eventually Hindi became so frustrated by the repeated failures of Laurel County sheriff John Root, in particular, to respond to tips about cockfights in progress that in August 2021 he posted a video accusing Root of corruption for failing to close the Bald Rock Pit and CJ’s Pit, both in Laurel County and “both run by known cockfighter Rick Johnson,” Hindi said.
Root then admitted and even boasted about failing to enforce laws against cockfighting in a Facebook posting on August 14, 2021––his 56th birthday.
Estep gave a media release more weight than work on the ground
Estep in his Lexington Herald Leader coverage failed to credit either Showing Animals Respect & Kindness or the Humane Farming Association in any manner whatever for three years of often extremely dangerous investigative work.
(See Alleged cockfighters who attacked Steve Hindi identified by ANIMALS 24-7 and tipster, Perp gets 4 to 6 years for assaulting SHARK investigator; another to be tried, and Shannon Clark cops plea for attack on cockfight investigator Steve Hindi.)
Instead, giving a media release more weight than the work directly involved in bringing the alleged cockfighters to a semblance of justice, Estep mentioned that “Marty Irby, executive director of Animal Wellness Action, which has pressed federal and state authorities to crack down on cockfighting, issued a statement applauding the guilty pleas by Rickie D. Johnson and Creech.”
Animal Wellness Action “issued a report”
Estep also mentioned that Animal Wellness Action “issued a report in August 2020 on Kentucky’s cockfighting trade,” almost exactly one year to the day after Showing Animals Respect & Kindness undercover video exposed the involvement of Harlan County Detention Center employees Ronnie Bennet and Kyle Simpson in cockfighting.
This was the public debut of the Showing Animals Respect & Kindness “Crush Cockfighting” campaign, which had already been quietly underway for months.
“We had a drone in the sky & people inside”
Responded Hindi to Estep by email on May 12, 2022, “I read your cockfighting article on Kentucky.com. SHARK was there for the July 2021 cockfight at the Bald Rock pit. We had a drone in the sky and people inside. We made that information available to the media. I do not recall you reporting it.
“We’ve had a great deal of information coming out of many individual investigations exposing numerous pits operating under the obvious protection of the police,” Hindi told Estep, citing “Laurel Creek, Whitesburg, Charlie’s, Honest Abe’s, CJ’s, Big H, Hawk’s Nest, Blackberry and more. Again, no reporting save for perhaps one article back in July 2020.”
That article, instead of crediting Showing Animals Respect & Kindness, quoted a representative of the Humane Society of the United States.
“Damned good at issuing press releases”
While the Humane Society of the U.S. has in the past contributed information leading to cockfighting arrests, it is not known to have actively investigated cockfighting in Kentucky since 2014––or, except for that one case, since 2007.
“Yesterday’s story includes a video about animal abuse from the Humane Society of the United States,” continued Hindi. “By all means, let’s get them some support so they can do more of nothing in Kentucky.
“Yesterday’s story also has quotes from Marty Irby,” Hindi added, “who we’ve never seen working in Kentucky cockfights. I have to admit, though, Irby and Wayne Pacelle,” the former Humane Society of the United States president who formed Animal Wellness Action after resigning from HSUS amid allegations of sexual harassment in 2018, “are damned good at issuing press releases and proclamations from their condos. Real, on the ground efforts? Not so much.
“Truly outstanding journalism, Bill”
“Truly outstanding journalism, Bill,” said Hindi. “Really something. No wonder Kentucky is what it is.
“One good journalist who would focus on the outrageous scandal of the Kentucky cockfighting mafia and its grip on the police and politicians could make real change in Kentucky,” Hindi suggested.
“God knows, Kentucky needs real change. Unfortunately, one good journalist is just not to be found in the Bluegrass State. Plenty of hacks, but not one good journalist. Instead you’re pandering to monied groups for whom animal issues are just fundraising tools. How repulsive.”
Journalism 1-A: set the record straight
Starting in journalism at about the same time Estep started kindergarten, ANIMALS 24-7 learned very early that the first thing to do when someone doing something significant has been inadvertently overlooked in a news story, is to apologize and set the public record straight, and to expect people who feel ignored to be a bit annoyed.
Responding with appropriate patience and understanding tends to make friends––and often good sources for future reporting, too.
Estep started out in that direction, for all of 13 words.
“Mr. Hindi,” Estep wrote, “I appreciate that SHARK has done good work on this issue and I’ve covered that work (exposing the attendance of Clay County deputies at a cockfight).”
That, however, was not quite true, since Estep did not mention SHARK then either.
“A complete lack of class”
“But other groups, including Marty Irby’s, have done good work on the subject as well,” Estep continued, without saying what that work might have been beyond sending Estep himself a media release.
“Denigrating [Animal Wellness Action and the Humane Society of the U.S.] shows a complete lack of class,” Estep alleged, never mind that Hindi was factually correct: the Humane Society of the U.S. is not known to have done on-the-ground investigative work on cockfighting in Kentucky since five years before Showing Animals Respect & Kindness began their investigations, and Animal Wellness Act is not known to have done any, ever.
“As for my status as a journalist, I don’t have to defend it to anyone and couldn’t care less what you think,” Estep finished, “I started to delete your message but decided to pay you the courtesy of a response. If you have further investigations in Kentucky, feel free to send me releases. Aside from that, keep your crap to yourself.”
What the Bill Estep record shows
A series of byline searches by ANIMALS 24-7 discovered seven Bill Estep articles pertaining to cockfighting published during his 38 years of “covering southern and eastern Kentucky,” one in 2007, three about a single major case in 2014 that was more extensively covered by other media, one in 2020, and two in 2022.
None of the Estep articles about cockfighting appear to have involved original investigative reporting, or any reporting from the scene of events. All appear to have been rewrites of media releases, chiefly from law enforcement agencies. Most cited only one source of information.
Only one Estep article about cockfighting included a direct quote from a primary source, and that quote was taken from a court transcript.
Estep may not have to defend his journalism to anyone, if only because the management of the Lexington Herald Leader are not asking questions, but on the topic of cockfighting, at least, it is much less than impressive.