FRANKFORT — Undercover investigators for The Humane Society of the United States released a video Tuesday showing a Kentucky State Police trooper and another law enforcement officer attending cockfights in Manchester — apparently without taking any action.
In the video, the officers are in uniform, mingling with spectators and chatting at Laurel Creek Game Club.
Kentucky State Police said there is an internal investigation of the trooper's actions.
But Clay County Sheriff Kevin Johnson said he has been told by the county attorney he doesn't have the authority to shut down the club because of questions about state law governing cockfighting.
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"From my understanding, we don't technically know what to charge somebody with," Johnson said.
Meanwhile, House Speaker Greg Stumbo, a former attorney general, said he's not sure cockfighting should be illegal. "A lot of people argue that it's a tradition in our country — dates back to Thomas Jefferson and George Washington," Stumbo said.
"I don't necessarily believe that it's the worst crime that's ever been committed."
He said in his opinion it doesn't compare to dog fighting, which "is a pretty bad crime."
Asked the difference between dog fighting and cockfighting, Stumbo replied: "You don't eat a dog in a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant."
Rep. Joni Jenkins, D-Louisville, has filed House Bill 169 to make cockfighting a felony, but the bill is stalled in committee.
Jenkins said Tuesday she is dropping the felony provision but will continue to push for clearer language, which she said is likely to have a better chance of passing.
Rep. John Tilley, D-Hopkinsville, and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said he hasn't had the opportunity to look at Jenkins' proposed changes. Jenkins' bill would make it clear that participating in and witnessing cockfighting is a misdemeanor.
The current law covers fighting "including but not limited to ... four-legged animals."
"I don't sense a great deal of support for that bill," Stumbo said. "It probably needs to be clarified, but I don't know if it rises to the level of a felony. Any time there is a misunderstanding of what the law is, it should be clarified."
However, Johnson said he supports changing the law. "In my opinion, yes, it's animal cruelty," he said.
An 'ambiguous' law
The video was shot at Laurel Creek Game Club with a hidden camera in January 2009 and February 2010, according to John Goodwin, the Humane Society's animal fighting expert.
Melinda Sizemore, a co-owner of the club, said she had no comment.
"We approached the state police with this footage right after gathering it and gave them a chance to respond," said Goodwin. "Their position is the current law on cockfighting in Kentucky is ambiguous.
"What we're showing here is clearly there is a problem. Uniformed officers are hanging around the cockfighting pit, and nothing's being done."
Johnson identified the state trooper as Greg Hill of the London post. The other officer in the video is De wayne Hess, a volunteer Clay County sheriff's deputy, Johnson said.
Johnson said that, according to his records, the officers were looking for a fugitive who was wanted on a criminal mischief warrant when the 2009 video was shot.
Kentucky State Police issued a statement Tuesday saying officers have at times responded to calls to investigate drug and alcohol complaints at cockfighting events. At times, charges have been filed, but there were none related to the cockfighting.
Flocking to Kentucky
Cockfighting is a felony in 37 states and the District of Columbia. Felony cockfighting bills are pending in Ohio and West Virginia, and a bill is moving through the Tennessee legislature that would make it a misdemeanor to attend a cockfight.
"Kentucky is becoming a magnet for these people that want to bring in roosters here, these big gambling houses," Goodwin said. "Why wouldn't they flock to Kentucky? ... Kentucky is one of 11 states where it's a misdemeanor, and the state police and other law enforcement agencies believe their hands are tied because of the wording of the law."
He said cockfighting and the illegal gambling surrounding it are huge industries in Kentucky. When the police aren't around, "the gambling is robust," Goodwin said. He urged state police to endorse the bill; 25 sheriffs from across the state have endorsed it.
"If the (Kentucky) legislature doesn't take action and fix this problem, Kentucky is going to see even more of this because all of the neighboring states have taken action," Goodwin said.
In July, the Louisiana-based owner of an arena in Montgomery County was indicted on three gambling charges after an undercover raid by Kentucky State Police. The operation moved to Kentucky from Louisiana after that state toughened its laws. That case against Richard Joseph Abshire is pending.
Goodwin said there are at least 15 large-scale cockfighting pits in Kentucky, mostly in the southeast, with smaller operations scattered through the state. Hundreds of thousands of dollars change hands in winnings and illegal gambling, not to mention concession sales, he said.
"This is all untaxed illegal gambling and animal cruelty. I hope every legislator that takes a hard line on gambling will take a hard line on this," Goodwin said.