After the Webinar: Building Cases against Cock Fighters. Q&A with Michelle Welch

Webinar presenter Michelle Welch answered a number of your questions after his presentation  "What Investigators and Prosecutors Need to Know about Building Cases Against Cock Fighting Perpetrators." Here are a few of her responses. 

 

Audience Question: An audience member said that they recently read somewhere advising that the state vet can make the decision to euthanize all state birds. Is that correct or is that on a state by state basis? 

Michelle Welch: A state vet has a lot of power. A state vet is trying to make sure that infectious disease does not spread. In chickens, we have something called mycoplasma. We also have to test for Newcastle which is a highly contagious disease. In cockfighting operations, the first thing we have to do because the state vet orders us to is to take samples of their blood. If it comes back then they will often order the animals euthanized and we humanely euthanize them. Despite that, it would be hard to place 150 roosters. It's just really hard to do. Because of that we often don't see them making it out to rescue. A humane death is preferable to what they have to go through in the cockfighting ring. In one of my last cases, the birds were severely dehydrated and severely emaciated — they are not being taken care of either. There are cruelty issues there. Yes, state vets across the US have the authority and power to order cockfighting birds euthanized.  They're going to make that decision, they can order any agricultural animal euthanized if they think they're a threat to other livestock in the state.

 

Audience Question: An audience member wanted everyone to know that the ASPC actually bring legal teams in to help train your personnel or prosecutors if requested.

Michelle Welch: I have a lot of respect to the ASPCA, they really know their stuff. In my operation, it was a privilege to watch them work, they were amazing

 

 

Audience Question: Where did the family who was running the Big Blue Operation relocate to? How likely is it that they're still facilitating and profiting from cockfighting in another area? 

Michelle Welch: I think it is very unlikely because I would say this — they're back in Kentucky because that's where they're from. They were in their late 50s and as part of the federal forfeiture, we took their house, their bank accounts, their cars. We took their whole livelihood. By doing that, I think it's unlikely that they're going to ever be involved in cockfighting again. Having said that, most cockfighters are recidivists. The case I talked about in Powhatan, the first time I tried anyone on that property, it was a man named Robert E. Lee and I'm not kidding. He was old then and the second time around, he had other people on his property that were cockfighting. It is a recidivist kind of thing; dog fighters are the same. They do tend to not get out of it. But I think in that instance, we prosecuted Dale Stumbo, I think he got 22 months, his wife took a jury trial, she got 6 months. Her defense was that she wasn't a part of the cockfighting operation, she just ran the diner but we had pictures of her in the middle of the bloody pit giving a trophy to a cockfighter and with her grandchild in the bloody pit as well. The son was a racecar driver and probably could have had quite a career in race car driving, we seized one of his cars from him as well and they just dragged him into that life.

 

Audience Question: Ray from Connecticut says that in Connecticut, they had quite a few cockfighting raids, most of them in Saturday nights in garages, basements and once even in a car dealership — big money seized as well as weapons. All were charged felony charges including building owners and spectators. There were lots of fighter from Massachusetts, New York, and New Jersey.

Michelle Welch: Definitely across the state lines and I agree it can be anywhere — in the woods, the basement, in a room. They will do it almost anywhere especially with roosters because they're so little. Even dogfighters do that. It can look like a perfectly nice place outside and have it in a room in the house.

 

Audience Question: We have a huge problem with animal fighting in our state, how do we go about getting a task force started in our state? 

Michelle Welch: Not to advertise but I'm going to do a whole webinar for Justice Clearinghouse on task forces, but I'll answer your question briefly and if you want to contact me, I can try to help you. The way we started the Virginia Animal Fighting Task Force is actually to create a non-profit but we really want it to be a like a law enforcement task force where we actually go in on search warrants with law enforcement agencies.   You need to have some people who know what they're doing. If you don't have anyone that does then get training for them — ASPCA has some online courses. HSUS also provides training. I'm happy to help anyone that wants to be trained, my task force does do training. It is very much hands-on, it's almost like 3 or 4 days of training for you to be able to know everything that you need to know. It's harder to get the state police to invest in a task force, so it has got to be a loose group of experts. In Virginia, we have one designed under the Director of Animal Law Unit. I have one other prosecutor from Southwest Virginia. We have two experts who serve as our experts to put on the stand. If you don't already have animal fighting experts, you can create them. You need to send them to some classes and get them up and running.  Rachel Touroo, a forensic vet from ASPCA, has been declared an expert in animal fighting in many states. One of my experts just helped the federal animal law unit of the Department of Justice in a week-long jury trial up in New Jersey. Your law enforcement officers can become experts you just have to get them training. At this point, my experts have been out on hundreds of raids and they've handled hundreds of dogs and roosters. Just that on-the-ground training matters. If you want more information, I can give you the nitty-gritty. You're going in as an expert or consultant for law enforcement so they're asking you in, it's their case but you're coming in as an asset to them.

 

Audience Question: Is the dubbing always indicative of fighting? I've come across one of two roosters in a home that have dubbing. I've investigated for cockfighting but never gotten enough to charge.  

Michelle Welch: If they're only dubbing one or two, that's a harder case, when we talked about evidence, it kind of matters how much you have. We have on our task force as an asset now someone that we kind of recruited because one defense we've gotten is that they are show birds and dubbing is done for that. That's unlikely. We can discount that defense by putting on a veterinarian. The way I do animal fighting cases, I get a veterinarian to talk about the animal and then I put on my animal fighting expert to talk about why all these pieces evidence adds up to animal fighting. I have questions to ask like model questions — I have them, an outline,  if you want them, you can contact me. The way we combatted that is that most of the time that's what they are going to say, that's not a normal way to show birds. Now, we have this person who actually does show birds, her take on it was that was highly unusual. The way they're dubbing it is not the way that the show birds are dubbed. There is definitely a way I will combat that in court is to put on the veterinary expert or another resource to say that this isn't the way they're shown. In dogfighting, they always say that they're weight pullers, though I haven't had that defense in a really long time — that's one of the defenses they come up with. The other defense on dubbing is they say they do it for frostbite, so the animals don't get frostbite — that's why they're dubbed. A veterinarian can dispel that pretty quickly on the stand.

 

Audience Question: Have you been able to get a cruelty charge based on dubbing alone or do you need the undercover video and all that other evidence that you collected in the Big Blue case?

Michelle Welch: Yes, I've done that. Big Blue is kind of a once in a lifetime case where I have 200 hours of undercover video. Normally, it's a circumstantial case. What I do is I charge for cruelty for the dubbing, because most of the time we ask them how they did it, if they gave them any pain meds or anesthetics. That's all about being a seasoned officer and knowing how to interview people. With cockfighting, we always send in my two experts and they know how to talk to them. They know when they're lying and all that. They also have a strategy about how they do it. The bottom line is when you're looking at it — today I was supposed to be attending a case in Northern Virginia, and luckily, we got possession of the animals. Often, prosecutors go wrong when they don't charge what is really there. In animal fighting and cruelty in particular, if you have the death of an animal and that makes it a felony in your state, you should be charging the felony. What happens with me is I look at how many birds I had. I don't charge 250 counts of felony for each bird but I put them in categories. I usually do at least 10 felonies for animal fighting for the 150 birds and they I do 10 counts of cruelty. Animal fighting is cruelty and most vets are going to be able to articulate that for you. I know that Rachel Touroo with the ASPCA in my state can articulate that animal fighting is cruel. As you know, you have different elements, so the elements for animal fighting is the paraphernalia, but the cruelty is what they're actually doing with the animals. Dubbing would fall into that category for me.

 

Click Here to Watch a Recording of "What Investigators and Prosecutors Need to Know about Building Cases Against Cock Fighting Perpetrators."

 

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