JEFFERSONVILLE — Four years after police raided and shut down a Montgomery County cockfighting operation, the arena is back in business and under new ownership.
What was once called Spring Brook Farm is now the Bayou Springs Club near Jeffersonville, about 7 miles southeast of Mount Sterling. In late May, the 700-seat arena hosted what a schedule of events billed as the "World Championship."
Investigators for the Humane Society of the United States each paid a $20 admission fee to the event. Once inside, they secretly recorded video of specially bred roosters fighting each other inside rings while dozens of spectators watched.
Cockfighting is illegal in all 50 states and is a felony offense in 39. Animal rights activists contend that Kentucky's second-degree animal-cruelty law makes cockfighting a misdemeanor punishable by up to 12 months in jail and $500 fine, but some have interpreted it differently.
In cockfights, the roosters sometimes fight with sharp knives or with spurs that look like curved ice picks, called gaffs, fastened to their legs; the weapons are used to scratch, cut, maim and kill their opponents.
The Humane Society is gathering information to seek legislation that would make cockfighting a felony offense in Kentucky.
Some don't see the point in that.
Jeffersonville Mayor Anthony Henderson said there are "a lot worse problems out there than somebody cockfighting," and said it should be legalized so it could be taxed. He equated it with the Kentucky legislature's current consideration to put video lottery terminals or slots at horse racing tracks.
"I'm not trying to take up for the cockfighter," Henderson said. "But if they're going to go out here and legalize slot machines, and take money from a poor person that can get addicted to something, I don't know why in the world they can't legalize cockfighting and tax the dollars off it.
"In the economy that we've got right now, with a billion-dollar budget shortfall for the commonwealth of Kentucky ... it might be a great thing for the legislators to pass a bill on that and just tax that," Henderson said.
State Sen. Tom Buford, R-Nicholasville, said cockfighting and horse racing are two very different things.
"While some may view the race of a 2-year-old as a strain on a horse, many view that as a natural thing for a horse to do without becoming harmed," Buford said. "I think the majority of Kentuckians would view a cockfight as the death of a bird. That's the goal: to kill the other bird."
Richard Abshire, president of the Louisiana company that now owns Bayou Springs, would not talk about what goes on there.
"We've done that before in Louisiana, and it's always come to haunt us," Abshire said.
Asked why he did not want to talk about cockfighting, he said: "The words always get twisted and everything, and before you know it, the representatives end up passing something against it."
Abshire, 35, was charged in March after Louisiana State Police raided the Little Bayou Club, a cockfighting pit in Sulphur, La., said police spokesman Sgt. Stephen La Fargue. That raid — the first since Louisiana's cockfighting law went into effect in 2008 — seized 635 birds as well as cockfighting implements.
Abshire, who is out on bond, was charged with two counts of illegally gambling and wagering on cockfights, LaFargue said. Abshire's case has not gone to trial.
Diana Morales, public relations/community outreach director for animal services in Calcasieu Parish, said Louisiana State Police told her that Abshire was preparing an operation in Kentucky.
"They knew about Kentucky and had been in touch with Kentucky authorities," Morales said.
A poultry show
Abshire called the Montgomery County World Championship event "a poultry show" in which gamecocks are merely displayed and judged.
"There's absolutely nothing wrong with that," he said. "It was all the big major breeders who can come and sell their stuff."
But video recorded by a private investigator for the Humane Society of the United States on May 31 and shared with the Herald-Leader shows an audience watching gamecocks in a pit with two handlers and a referee. The roosters repeatedly jump into the air, flapping their wings and attacking each other.
Tom Farrow, a retired FBI agent who is now an investigator for the Humane Society, said he counted more than 160 people in attendance at Bayou Springs on May 30, and saw parked vehicles bearing license plates from Texas, New Jersey, Arkansas, West Virginia and Tennessee. The crowd on May 31 was slightly smaller, he said.
Farrow said he saw two roosters at Bayou Springs fighting for 40 minutes, one of the longest-running cockfights he'd ever witnessed.
"The guy next to me was like, 'C'mon! It's done! It's done! Call a winner!'" Farrow recalled. Finally, he said, a referee declared one bird the winner after its opponent keeled over.
"It was still alive, but it was just exhausted," Farrow said.
The arena had stadium seating, a public address system, scoreboards and a restaurant that sold gumbo and burgers. Souvenir T-shirts that depicted gamecocks were for sale and could be personalized with the buyer's name.
Although signs posted in the building said gambling was prohibited, Farrow said he saw bettors with wads of cash and others soliciting bets. The largest wager Farrow heard was for $500.
"There were a couple of guys sporting some pretty big rolls of money in there," Farrow said.
A boost to the county
Marvin Watkins of Jeffersonville built the 700-seat arena on Long Branch Road in 1992. It operated for years with the knowledge of many in and around Jeffersonville, a city of about 1,900 residents.
Mayor Henderson said the arena in the past was an important part of the local economy as it attracted hundreds of out-of-town visitors.
"When Spring Brook had an event going on, you couldn't find a motel room from Winchester on," Henderson recalled. "I am sitting here telling you that the businesses around there stayed full, the restaurant areas, the gas pumps. It absolutely boosted Montgomery County."
(Henderson said he was unaware that events had resumed at the arena.)
In April 2005, Kentucky State Police raided Spring Brook, charged Watkins and his wife with running a criminal syndicate, and cited 507 spectators with animal-cruelty. Some of those cited came from as far away as California, Ontario and Guam.
But Montgomery County District Judge William Lane threw out the charges against the spectators, saying the animal-cruelty law was unclear.
A clause in the law refers to spectators and vendors "at an event where a four (4) legged animal is caused to fight for pleasure or profit."
Chickens have only two legs, the judge noted in a ruling filed in August 2005 in Montgomery District Court.
In July 2006, Marvin Watkins pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of conspiracy to promote gambling. Under the plea agreement, his two-year sentence was probated for five years. A similar charge against his wife, Charlene, was dropped.
The couple also had to rid their farm of all cockfighting materials, including pits and cages. State police kept $171,000 in fees paid by entrants the day of the raid. Another $257,038 went to the Internal Revenue Service and/or the Kentucky Revenue Cabinet.
Fast forward to November, when the Watkinses sold nearly 8 acres, the arena, a mobile home and a garage for $550,000 to a company called Bubab LLC, whose mailing address is in Vinton, La., according to a deed in the Montgomery County Clerk's office and a property card in the Montgomery County Property Valuation Administrator's office.
The deed listed Bubab's president as Richard Abshire, whose name is also on an April application to operate a restaurant at Bayou Springs filed with the Montgomery County Health Department.
Why should anyone care?
The Montgomery County arena is among sites in Alabama and Tennessee that are under investigation by the Humane Society.
As states have passed laws with stronger penalties for cockfighting, operators have set up shop in states like Kentucky with weaker laws, said John Goodwin, manager of animal fighting issues for the Humane Society.
For example, a cockfighting pit in Pound, Va., moved to Jenkins in eastern Kentucky after the Virginia legislature made cockfighting a felony, Goodwin said. The Humane Society has identified other cockfighting pits in Floyd and Laurel counties, and estimates there are many more throughout the state.
While cockfighters and others say it is a waste of money and resources to prosecute the practice, Farrow said other problems are often associated with cockfighting. He should know. Before retiring from the FBI in 2008, he was the lead investigator in a seven-year federal corruption case in Cocke County, Tenn., that included cockfighting, illegal gambling, drug trafficking and bribes to police.
Where there is cockfighting, there often are drugs, alcohol and guns, although Farrow said he did not see those at Bayou Springs.
Still, it is an illegal activity that has the potential to corrupt law enforcement, Farrow said. He testified to that last year before a Tennessee legislative committee.
"I was floored by some of the questions I got in the (Tennessee) House of Representatives," Farrow said. "Why should anybody care? Why should we strengthen the law?' And my argument then and still is you should strengthen any law regarding corruption in law enforcement because our whole judicial system is destabilized by corrupt activities."
Greg Kocher covers Montgomery County for the Herald-Leader. Reach him in the Nicholasville bureau at (859) 885-5775.