From The Tribune staff reports
WASHINGTON — A federal grand jury returned a 23-count indictment this week charging seven Verbena, Alabama, residents with conspiracy to violate the Animal Welfare Act and operate an illegal gambling business, among other violations, in connection with large-scale cockfighting and fighting bird breeding operation.
The Easterlings also operated three adjacent fighting bird breeding operations, one owned and operated by Big Jim Easterling; one called L&L Gamefarm, owned and operated by Brent and Kassi Easterling; and one called Swift Creek Gamefarm, owned and operated by Billy and Tyler Easterling with help from Junior Williams. At these operations, the defendants bred birds for promising fighting traits, sold and shipped birds from their breeding operations to other people for purposes of cockfighting and producing more birds to fight, and promoted the fighting abilities of the birds they bred. Brent and Kassi Easterling also promoted and sold cockfighting weapons from their breeding operation. At least one buyer is alleged to have paid $800 for a single rooster.
The indictment alleges that beginning at least as early as January 2018 and continuing through June of this year, the defendants maintained a cockfighting arena or “pit” with stadium seating for approximately 150 people and several rings to host cockfights. Cockfighting is a contest in which a person attaches a knife, gaff, or other sharp instruments to the leg of a “gamecock” or rooster to fight another rooster. After a cockfighter straps a blade to a rooster, he or she intentionally faces the bird toward another similarly-armed rooster. Then, he or she sets it down within a few inches of that rooster. This results in a fight during which the roosters flap their wings and jump while stabbing each other with the fastened weapons to their legs. A cockfight ends when one rooster is dead or refuses to continue to fight. Commonly, one or both roosters die after a fight.
Owners of cockfighting pits hold organized fights where many people can fight their trained birds against the fighting birds of other people. A series of individual cockfights is called a “derby,” usually consisting of dozens of individual cockfights or matches that can last for several hours or days. Cockfighting arenas, depending on the level of sophistication, will have multiple fighting pits. “Main fights” occur in the main pit, while “drag pits” are used to finish fights from the main pit that have lasted so long that many spectators have lost interest. Mortally injured roosters are sometimes placed off to the side where people can then gamble on which animal will die first.
The defendants had their initial court appearance Friday, October 29, before U.S. Magistrate Judge Susan Russ Walker of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama.
If convicted of conspiracy, Animal Welfare Act violations, or operating an illegal gambling business, the defendants each face a maximum penalty of five years in prison. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act has a maximum penalty of six months in prison. Upon conviction, a federal district court judge will determine any sentence after considering the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines and other statutory factors.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture Office of Inspector General and Homeland Security Investigations are investigating the case.
An indictment is merely an allegation, and all defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.