While many area residents were preparing to watch the Super Bowl, at least 27 Upson County men and women were focused on a brutal and illegal bloodsport involving animals.
Charges are pending on 27 Upson County residents after they were found at a cockfight in Taylor County Sunday afternoon. It's not yet known who among them were owners of the fighting roosters and who attended to be entertained by the spectacle of watching the animals fight in a pen. Three roosters were dead when law enforcement officers arrived at the scene.
An estimated 25 suspects fled into the woods, many grabbing animals as they fled. In addition to the Upson residents, 24 others from as far away as Mississippi were detained and are expected to be charged.
The suspects were not arrested at the time, according to Taylor County Sheriff Jim Wainwright, because Taylor County's jail, like Upson's, couldn't hold that number of people. Wainwright said he is looking into charges of aggravated animal cruelty and perhaps gambling. At minimum, they will likely be charged with misdemeanor animal cruelty, making them subject to $1000 fines and one year in jail. Unlike dogfighting, Georgia has no specific law regarding cockfighting. Wainwright said he is awaiting the district attorney's office decision as to the charges.
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation is assisting Taylor County officials.
Sheriff Wainwright said the county's 'game warden' had received several tips in recent months about cockfighting in the area, but none had provided enough information to make arrests.
The tip Sunday directed Georgia Wildlife Resources Division Ranger Raymond Adams to the residence of Chris Starling on Black Creek Road in the western part of Taylor County, about eight miles from Butler.
Adams and deputy Arnold Robinson investigated the report.
"We had no idea it was as big as it was. As soon as we pulled up, somebody yelled 'game warden' and people began tossing items into a barrel to burn and they grabbed the two roosters fighting in a pen and fled into the woods," Adams told a newspaper reporter.
The officers called for re-enforcement and within 30 minutes more than 13 deputies had arrived at the scene to round up the suspects, who were described as cooperative. None appeared to have guns.
Wainwright said the event Sunday appeared to be a tournament, complete with a trophy to be awarded to one of the owners of the birds. The three-foot red, gold and walnut trophy featured a gold rooster on top and was engraved, "Ralph's Four Cock, First Place 2003."
Wainwright said most of the people present were spectators, with only about 10 of the 30 cars on the scene containing rooster cages. He said efforts are under way to identify those who escaped Sunday. Evidence suggests some may have spent the night in deer stands in the area, while temperatures plunged into the 20s.
In addition to the Upson County residents detained, seven suspects were from Pike County; six from Crawford County; two from Lamar County; one each from Bibb, Monroe and Clayton counties; and two from Mississippi.
Deputies seized two tackle boxes full of fighting spurs - sharp weapons attached to the feet of the birds in order to inflict maximum damage during the fight. The boxes also contained medicines, syringes, muffs used to train the birds to fight, tickets used to identify birds and record weight and other items.
"We want the public to know what these people are using during fights and be outraged," Wainwright said. "Hopefully that will lead to more tips about other fights."
Those allowed to leave the scene Sunday were permitted to take the animals which remained, the sheriff said.
Wainright said no money was seized.
"I know there was gambling going on, but all the money was gone," he said.
He said the information regarding the event indicated it had a winner-take-all purse of $3000 plus the trophy.