A Pee Dee cockfighting raid that netted 27 suspects, including one from the Charleston area, shows how lax laws have made South Carolina a haven for such operations, activists and legislators said Monday.
Lawmakers have proposed two ways to increase the penalties for cockfighting and make it easier for the police to hamper the activity.
One bill would turn a second offense into a felony, as cockfighting is in 41 other states.
It’s now misdemeanor here, no matter how many times a person is caught.
But the measures have gained little steam this year.
The operation that unraveled Saturday night in Marlboro County had attracted seven people from North Carolina, where cockfighting is a felony, as well as a man from Huger.
As first-time offenders, they face up to a $1,000 fine and a year in jail.
With some participants hauling in thousands of dollars per fight, though, the penalties do little to discourage them from getting back into the action, advocates said.
“They come here knowing it’s only a misdemeanor,” said Kim Kelly, the Charleston-based South Carolina director for The Humane Society of the United States. “On any given weekend, a cockfighter can walk away with well over $10,000, so paying a fine is just the cost of doing business.”
A team of advocates and animal rescuers that included Kelly stood by Saturday as officers from three state agencies and the Marlboro County Sheriff’s Office converged on a home on Kollock Road in Wallace.
More than two dozen people were participating in fights and tried to run away when the officers showed up, a sheriff’s report stated.
The investigators found 122 birds, most of which were perched under metal cages. Four of them were in such bad shape that they were euthanized, Kelly said.
Deputies said they also came across a safe with $2,400 in admission fees that Carson Clark, 38, the event’s promoter who lived on the land, and other organizers had collected from participants and spectators.
The authorities first got wind of the operation from an anonymous tipster and did hours of surveillance before the bust. Sheriff Fred Knight said in a statement that it was the second cockfighting ring his agency had broken up since he was elected in January 2005.
Some of the people arrested that day had firearms and small amounts of cocaine and marijuana.
“It takes a lot of planning, manpower and hard work to successfully complete this type of case,” Knight said. “The fights themselves are inhumane for the animals involved, but so many crimes come about at these events,” including gambling, drugs and violence.
The property included several rectangular pens where roosters were thrust into a fight for their lives.
Owners breed the naturally aggressive birds to be more vicious by pumping them full of drugs, Kelly said. Officers gathered some of the drugs last weekend, as well as the razor-sharp gaffs that are strapped to the roosters’ feet before bouts.
“Sometimes, it’s quick; sometimes, it takes a long time,” Kelly said. “Either one bird will die or give up, and then they’re tossed away like the trash.”
Some of the alleged participants had not shied away from publicly expressing their affinity for cockfighting.
Eddie William Folberth, 44, of Daniels Way in Huger, who is among those facing a charge, posted on his Facebook page last fall an image that said, “I’ve got OCD: obsessive chicken disorder.” He had borrowed the post from “Cockers against the HSUS and PETA,” a Facebook group with nearly 12,000 members that opposes Kelly’s organization and the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
Folberth has one past arrest in South Carolina, for check fraud in 2008, according to the State Law Enforcement Division.
Attempts to reach him on Facebook and over a telephone line listed for his landscaping business were not immediately successful.
If Folberth and the 26 others arrested Saturday are convicted and arrested again for the same crime, they could face up to $3,000 in fines and three years in prison.
But Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, said cockfighting participants often are let go after paying a few hundred dollars in fines.
A bill she introduced this year would mandate a fine of between $500 and $1,000 for a first offense. Any charges after the first conviction would be a felony, she said, punishable with between $1,000 and $3,000 in fines and five years in prison.
Shealy’s proposal also would criminalize watching the fights. By their third offense, spectators would face a felony and up to five years in prison.
“If we made these penalties higher and make it a serious offense, then maybe people will actually take it seriously,” she said. “Now, they’re just paying the fine, waiting a couple of weeks and doing it again.”
Similar legislation has gone nowhere in the past, Shealy acknowledged. Her bill and a cockfighting measure in the House have not yet been assigned to a subcommittee.
The House proposal would keep cockfighting a misdemeanor but would outlaw bringing a child or selling a ticket to one. Three children were at the Marlboro County event.
It also would make it illegal to possess equipment, or paraphernalia, used in cockfighting. Advocates said the police could use it to better target cockfighting rings because it wouldn’t require them to catch participants in the act. In social media groups, some people who sell the equipment market items as “collectibles.”
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Deborah Long, R-Lancaster, said members of the Judiciary Committee would not support making cockfighting a felony, but the proposal still faces hurdles. She adopted the measure because another lawmaker had dropped it when his wife fielded several threats by telephone, Long said.
“It’s not just cockfighting,” Long said. “There’s other stuff that goes on — the drugs, the weapons — and we want to keep that out of South Carolina as much as possible.”
Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.