From The Tribune staff reports
WASHINGTON – A seventh and final Verbena, Alabama, resident was sentenced yesterday for violating the Animal Welfare Act’s prohibition against animal fighting ventures in connection with an expansive cockfighting operation. This marks the end of a week of sentencings in which the court held four Alabama residents accountable for their roles in operating a large-scale cockfighting arena (cockfighting pit) and massive fighting-bird breeding businesses, and for conspiring to violate the Animal Welfare Act and to operate an illegal gambling business.
The court determined that the illegal conduct involved animal fighting on an “exceptional scale” and imposed sentences that reflect the unusual cruelty of a business model that relies on the death or injury of thousands of birds for entertainment and profit. The court issued the following sentences for four defendants who pleaded guilty to multiple felonies on Aug. 5:
- On Dec. 6, George William “Billy” Easterling, 56, was sentenced to 22 months in prison followed by one year of supervised release for violating the Animal Welfare Act’s prohibition against animal fighting, and for conspiring with others to violate the Act in connection with the cockfighting pit and the Swift Creek Gamefarm fighting-bird breeding operation.
- On Nov. 30, Brent Colon Easterling, 38, was sentenced to 24 months in prison followed by one year of supervised release for violating the Animal Welfare Act’s prohibition against animal fighting, and for conspiring with others to violate the Act in connection with the cockfighting pit and the L&L Gamefarm fighting-bird breeding operation.
- On Nov. 30, William “Tyler” Easterling, 30, was sentenced to 20 months in prison followed by one year of supervised release for violating the Animal Welfare Act’s prohibition against animal fighting, and for conspiring with others to violate the Act in connection with the cockfighting pit and the Swift Creek Gamefarm fighting-bird breeding operation.
- On Nov. 30, William Colon “Jim” Easterling, 77, was sentenced to two years of home detention — rather than incarceration, which the court determined would be “extremely detrimental” to his declining health — and a fine of $8,000 for violating the Animal Welfare Act’s prohibition against animal fighting ventures, and for conspiring with others to violate the Act and to operate an illegal gambling business in connection with the cockfighting pit.
“The U.S. Department of Agriculture Office of Inspector General (USDA-OIG) actively investigates allegations of animal abuse and any associated gambling activities,” said Special Agent in Charge Jason Williams of the USDA-OIG. “This agency has made animal fighting a high priority to demonstrate that these blatant acts of cruelty to animals will not be tolerated. We would like to thank the Justice Department for aggressively prosecuting perpetrators of animal fighting and our federal, state and local law enforcement partners for assisting in enforcing these federal statutes.”
Three other residents of Verbena, Alabama, who are also members of the Easterling family, pleaded guilty on June 3 to conspiring to violate the Animal Welfare Act or to a substantive violation of the Act.
On Oct.13, the following individuals were sentenced:
- Kassi Brook Easterling, 39, was sentenced to two years of probation, including six months of home detention, for conspiring with others to violate the Animal Welfare Act’s prohibition against animal fighting ventures, including the sale of cockfighting knives, and for her involvement with the L&L Gamefarm fighting-bird breeding operation.
- Amber Nicole Easterling, 25, was sentenced to one year of probation for her involvement with the cockfighting pit.
- Thomas Glyn “Junior” Williams, 34, was sentenced to one year of probation for his involvement with the cockfighting pit and the Swift Creek Gamefarm fighting-bird breeding operation.
“As these sentences vividly show, the Department of Justice will continue to hold accountable those who encourage and profit from forcing animals to fight each other for human entertainment,” said Assistant Attorney General Todd Kim of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division.
According to court documents and information in the public record, from at least January 2018 through June 11, 2021, illegal cockfighting events were held at the cockfighting pit, which consisted of an arena with stadium-style seating for approximately 150 people that faced several cockfighting pits and several nearby outbuildings, including a merchandise stand.
The illegal derbies involved a series of cockfights in which at least two or more roosters fought each other, each with a sharp blade attached to its leg. These fights were conducted for the purpose of sport, wagering and entertainment. Participants were charged expensive fees to enter their birds in the derbies – such as $1,500 to fight seven roosters – and told what weapons to strap to the roosters’ legs, such as short knives, long knives or spurs. Consistent with his plea agreement, William Colon Easterling dismantled and destroyed the entire cockfighting arena and associated outbuildings.
Near the cockfighting pit, members of the Easterling family ran two large fighting-bird breeding businesses known as Swift Creek Gamefarm and L&L Gamefarm, at which thousands of birds were bred and sold to be used in fights between two or more birds for the purposes of sport, wagering or entertainment.
Combined, the seven convicted members of the Easterling family helped run one of the largest cockfighting enterprises in the country. With the help of six of his family members, Jim Easterling owned and operated the cockfighting pit for many years, even enlisting his granddaughter, Amber Easterling, to sell weapons used to kill birds in cockfights at the merchandise stand.
Brent Easterling was one of the most widely-known fighting-bird breeders in the country, running L&L Gamefarm with his wife Kassi Easterling, and charging $1,500 for three chickens because they were birds of select fighting pedigrees. Brent Easterling also promoted the cockfights at his father’s (Jim) cockfighting pit. Tyler Easterling helped his father, Billy Easterling, operate a vast fighting-bird breeding business known as Swift Creek Gamefarm, where they employed their in-law, Junior Williams, and others to help maintain and ship fighting birds. Tyler Easterling also promoted several cockfights at his grandfather’s (Jim) cockfighting pit.
“These sentences demonstrate the importance of enforcing the Animal Welfare Act to ensure the humane treatment of animals and prohibit cruel practices such as cockfighting,” said U.S. Attorney Sandra Stewart for the Middle District of Alabama.
The USDA-OIG and Homeland Security Investigations investigated the case with assistance from the U.S. Postal Inspection Service. The Alabama Law Enforcement Agency and the Greenville County Sheriff’s Office in South Carolina provided invaluable assistance to federal law enforcement officers.
Animal Wellness Action, according to a press release statement, provided compelling evidence to the federal government that aided the government’s investigation and prosecution.
“Every cockfighter in the United States should pay attention to what has happened to an Alabama family that was knee-deep in the enterprise of cockfighting,” Animal Wellness Action president Wayne Pacelle said. “These cockfighters have lost their assets and their freedom. That’s the potential fate of anyone involved in the barbaric practice of staged animal fighting. We thank the Department of Justice and other federal law enforcement actors for advocating for treating these crimes with the seriousness they deserve.”
Animal Wellness Action executive director and native Alabamian Marty Irby stated that the organization will continue to work with the U.S. Department of Justice.
“… no one involved in these activities should feel that they are immune from the hand of the law,” Irby stated. “Given the Yellowhammer State’s anti-cockfighting law warrants less in the way of penalties than a parking ticket, it’s vital that the federal government stepped in and delivered justice.”
Trial Attorney Leigh Rendé and Senior Trial Attorney Gary Donner of the Environment and Natural Resources Division’s Environmental Crimes Section and First Assistant U.S. Attorney Jonathan Ross for the Middle District of Alabama prosecuted the case.