Three from Floyd County charged with operating one of nation's largest cockfighting rings

bestep@herald-leader.comMay 6, 2014 Updated 2 hours ago

Steel spurs are attached to a bird's legs before a cockfighting match held on a farm near Spears, Ky, March 13, 1992.

CHARLES BERTRAM — LEXINGTON HERALD-LEADER Buy Photo

Three Floyd County residents helped operate one of the largest, most lucrative cockfighting rings in the country, a federal investigator alleged in a sworn statement.

Federal authorities charged Walter Dale Stumbo, 51; his wife Sonya Stumbo, 51; and his son Joshua Stumbo, 25, with conspiring to operate an illegal gambling enterprise and with illegally conducting cockfights, according to documents in federal court.

The three allegedly helped run a cockfighting pit at McDowell called the Big Blue Sportsmen's Club, which featured arena-style seating, a full-service restaurant and laminated membership cards.

A federal investigator said that at various times during a yearlong undercover investigation, police saw vehicles at Big Blue from states throughout the Southeast and as far away as Illinois, Michigan and Maryland.

Hundreds of people, including children, attended fights that left bloodied birds dead or dying, Stan Wojtkonski, an investigator for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said in an affidavit.

Sonya Stumbo told one undercover officer the club had memberships on file for more than 6,000 people.

The club — which had photos of known police informants posted — scheduled cockfighting on more than 30 days in the 2013-14 season, including a Kentucky state championship and a "World Cup," Wojtkonski said.

The club allegedly charged bird owners fees of hundreds or thousands of dollars to enter contests.

Based on the schedule, Wojtkonski estimated the business took in more than $1 million annually. Untold thousands more changed hands in betting, according to the affidavit.

Political implications

The case has managed to again raise the issue of cockfighting in Kentucky's U.S. Senate race.

At a cockfighting derby in April, Walter Stumbo asked people in the crowd to work to overturn a federal measure that toughened rules against cockfighting this year. Undercover officers at the event heard Stumbo's speech.

Walter Stumbo said that there were "people in Kentucky government that were changing the federal law but couldn't publicly come out and say it," according to Wojtkonski's affidavit.

Walter Stumbo mentioned Alison Lundergan Grimes and Greg Stumbo, according to the affidavit.

Grimes, the Democratic secretary of state who hopes to unseat Republican U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell in November, opposes cockfighting and is not working to get the federal law changed, spokeswoman Charly Norton said Tuesday.

​"Alison was an early advocate for the farm bill that cracked down on this practice and called for Mitch McConnell to support this measure well before he did," Norton said.

McConnell angered cockfighters by voting for the change in federal law. Later, his primary opponent, Louisville businessman Matt Bevin, faced criticism after attending a rally of cockfighting enthusiasts.

House Speaker Greg Stumbo, who is from Floyd County, said in a statement that he has no say in federal legislation. And as an elected official, he said, "I have not and would not participate in any way, form or fashion an activity that is criminal in nature."

Prestonsburg attorney Ned Pillersdorf, who represented Walter, Sonya and Joshua Stumbo at an initial court appearance Tuesday, said Greg Stumbo is distantly related to Walter Stumbo — as is Pillersdorf's wife, state Appeals Court Judge Janet Stumbo.

'It's no secret'

Pillersdorf said the existence of the cockfighting arena — formerly the site of a local squirrel festival — was widely known and "openly tolerated."

"It's no secret that it's been there for 25 years," Pillersdorf said.

Walter, Sonya and Joshua Stumbo plan to plead not guilty. Their defense will be that they had nothing to do with gambling, Pillersdorf said.

Wesley Dean Robinson, 57, and his son, Joshua Robinson, 33, of Wise County, Va., also were charged in the alleged conspiracy.

The federal affidavit said Joshua Robinson handled fighting birds at the Big Blue pit, while Wesley Robinson allegedly sold gaffs — sharp, curved spears that owners attach to the legs of fighting birds so they can slash opponents.

The case originated in Virginia, where authorities investigating illegal alcohol production saw ties to illegal animal fighting and called in federal investigators, Wojtkonski said.

Cockfighting is a felony in Virginia, so many residents who wanted to fight their birds traveled to Kentucky, where cockfighting is a misdemeanor, Wojtkonski said.

Two undercover investigators from Virginia posed as gamecock owners and attended a number of fights at the Big Blue pit, beginning in early 2013, according to the federal affidavit.

People who take part in cockfighting have reacted strongly against efforts to crack down on it.

B.L. Cozad Jr., who said he is a gamecock farmer from Lawton, Okla., called the Herald-Leader yesterday to argue that the government is infringing on people's rights by prosecuting cockfighting.

A gamecock owner "has the right to own, possess and harvest his livestock," just as a cattle rancher does, C5ozad said.

"God gave man dominion over the Earth, animals, fish and fowl," said Cozad.

The Humane Society of the United States and others, however, see cockfighting as barbaric, not a way to "harvest" chickens.

Wojtkonski described it this way: "Due to the enhanced stabbing and slashing ability bestowed upon the birds by the manmade weapons, cockfighting is an extremely painful, bloody, and deadly event. Birds are stabbed, slashed open, eviscerated, and partially decapitated. Birds that lose a match most often die."

At events at the Big Blue pit, he said, dead and dying birds were tossed in metal barrels.

Bill Estep: (606) 678-4655. Twitter: @billestep1.

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