WAGENER - Authorities will decide this week whether to pursue gambling charges in a raid of an elaborate cockfighting operation near Wagener, where 120 members of what was known as the Carolina Club were cited Saturday.
Jimmy Collins and Michael Grooms, whose ages and addresses were not immediately available, are suspected of being the organizers of the operation, which drew spectators from Georgia, North Carolina, Louisiana and Nebraska, Aiken County Sheriff Mike Hunt said.
The fights were put on in a makeshift arena with bleachers surrounding a cage. The building housing the arena is at the end of a dirt drive on a remote area of hunting land at the intersection of two dirt roads, Friendly Street and Thunder Road, near the Highway 39 exit of I-20. On Sunday, a locked gate and a no-trespassing sign barred entrance to the property.
Authorities were still determining who owned the property, though they suspect either Mr. Collins or Mr. Grooms is the owner.
On Saturday, two roosters, outfitted with "gaffs" - razor-sharp spurs attached to their feet, were in the midst of fighting before a raucous, cheering crowd when more than 40 deputies and SWAT team members descended on the arena. The crowd quickly grew hushed as they were lined up for their names and other booking information.
Two undercover officers were in the crowd Saturday prior to the raid, Sheriff Hunt said. A similar event was held a week earlier, and cockfighting tournaments apparently were being held regularly since early October, the sheriff said.
The participants were issued citations and can either pay a $440 fine or report to court at a later date. Cockfighting is one of 39 offenses, including ticket scalping and glue-sniffing, for which South Carolina authorities are allowed to issue what is known as a "uniform traffic ticket" and release offenders on their own recognizance. Cockfighting is a misdemeanor punishable by not more than 30 days in jail, regardless of whether you are a participant or a spectator.
Several participants were allowed to leave the arena with their own caged roosters that had not yet fought, the sheriff said.
"It's not against the law to raise or possess fighting cocks, it's just against the law to fight them," he said.
Though authorities seized about $50,000 in cash during the raid, Sheriff Hunt would not elaborate on what, if any, wagering was taking place, other than to say, "you have a lot of people who enjoy watching cockfighting and placing bets on it."
"We have not charged them with gambling or running a gambling house, but we will speak with the solicitor this week to see if there's anything we can charge them with," the sheriff said.
According to the Animal Protection Institute, birds used in cockfighting are bred for aggressiveness and are often given supplements to maximize stamina.
Their natural foot spurs are sawed off and replaced by the gaffs, lethal instruments used to cut opponents. About one-half to one-third of all roosters used in cockfighting tournaments die, the institute estimates.
On Saturday, sheriff's officials videotaped the remains of about 15 dead roosters found discarded in a small wagon. All had been killed in fights between 9 a.m. and noon Saturday, the sheriff said.
"Cockfighting is an intense, bloody operation," he said.
Though the gamecock is the mascot of the University of South Carolina, gamecock fighting has been illegal in the state since 1887.
Only Louisiana and New Mexico allow legal cockfighting. Oklahoma banned the practice in 2002, and Arizona and Missouri outlawed it in 1998.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals lobbied the University of South Carolina in 2001 to change its mascot from the fighting gamecock. University President John Palms responded that the university would continue to use the mascot "as long as we are the University of South Carolina."
Mr. Palms went on to say that the mascot had its origins in South Carolina Revolutionary War Gen. Thomas Sumter, who was scornfully referred to by the British as the "South Carolina Game [filtered word]," for his aggressive spirit.
Reach Stephen Gurr at (803) 648-1395, ext. 110.