7 face federal gambling, cruelty charges connected to alleged Chilton County cockfighting operation :Montgomery Advertiser
December 10, 2021
Several members of a Chilton County family, believed to be major players in the county's underground cockfighting community, are facing a raft of federal charges ranging from promoting gambling to illegally killing a federally protected owl.
Members of the Easterling family, of Verbena, face 23 indictments on charges including conspiracy to violate the Animal Welfare Act and to operate an illegal gambling business, among other violations, in connection with a large-scale cockfighting and fighting bird breeding operation, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
Those charged are well known in Chilton County, a rural central Alabama county about 50 miles north of Montgomery.
'Worst kept secret': Cockfighting has long been part of underground culture in Chilton County
William Colon “Big Jim” Easterling, 75; Brent Colon Easterling, 37; Kassi Brook Easterling, 38; William Tyler Easterling, 29; George William “Billy” Easterling, 55; and Thomas Glyn “Junior” Williams, 33, each face one count of conspiracy to violate the Animal Welfare Act and to operate an illegal gambling business since at least 2018.
Those named above and Amber Nicole Easterling, 23, are each charged with a single count of operating an illegal gambling business. Tyler Easterling is additionally charged with a single violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act for capturing and killing a Great Horned Owl.
The federal charges came in the wake on a months-long investigation that culminated in a raid of the Easterling farms in late summer, and included dozens of agents from the Department of Homeland Security, along with other federal law enforcement officers.
While the federal charges are serious, the reaction has been defiant among some local residents since the indictments were handed down in late October.
"Homeland Security hitting a farm over chicken fighting?" said Jay Mims, who says he lives near the Easterling properties at the center of the investigation. "Man, give me a break. Don't they have something more important to be doing?"
The U.S. Department of Agriculture Office of Inspector General and Homeland Security Investigations are handling the case.
The indictment reads that, beginning at least as early as January of 2018 and continuing through June of 2021, the defendants maintained a cockfighting arena or “pit” with stadium seating for about 150 people and several rings to host cockfights.
Cockfighting is a contest in which a person attaches a knife, gaff or other sharp instrument to the leg of a gamecock or rooster for the purpose of fighting another rooster. A cockfight ends when one rooster is dead or refuses to continue to fight. Commonly, one or both roosters die after a fight.
Owners of cockfighting pits hold organized fights where people can fight their trained birds against the fighting birds of other people, according to the DOJ. A series of individual cockfights is referred to as a “derby,” which usually consists of dozens of individual cockfights or matches that can last for several hours, or days.
Cockfighting arenas, depending on the level of sophistication, will have multiple fighting pits. “Main fights” occur in the main pit, while “drag pits” are used to finish fights from the main pit that have lasted so long that many of the spectators have lost interest. Mortally injured roosters are sometimes placed off to the side where people can then gamble on which animal will die first, the DOJ stated.
The indictment also alleges that the Easterlings operated three adjacent fighting bird breeding operations: one owned and operated by Big Jim Easterling; one called L&L Gamefarm, owned and operated by Brent and Kassi Easterling; one called Swift Creek Gamefarm, owned and operated by Billy and Tyler Easterling, with help from Junior Williams, according to court documents.
At these operations, birds were allegedly bred, sold and shipped from the breeding operations to other people for purposes of cockfighting and producing more birds to fight, and promoted the fighting abilities of the birds they bred. Brent and Kassi Easterling also are alleged to have promoted and sold cockfighting weapons from their breeding operation.
At least one buyer is alleged to have paid $800 for a single rooster, according to the indictment, which totals more than 30 pages.
Under Alabama law, cockfighting is a misdemeanor with a maximum fine of $50. It is not illegal under state law to possess, sell or raise gamecocks or game hens. In 2020, the Animal Wellness Action, an animal rights group, labeled Alabama, "The cockfighting capital of the Southeast."
Brent Easterling, particularly, has a reputation among some of the nation's animal rights groups.
In June of 2020, Animal Wellness Action and AWF released a report identifying Brent Easterling as a "major trafficker" in fighting animals and implements. The groups presented evidence to the United States about his involvement and shared a dossier on him with the U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Alabama and with other federal law enforcement officials.
“The arrests...by federal authorities send an unmistakable signal to every major cockfighting operator that there is no more business as usual when it comes to involvement in the barbaric practice of cockfighting,” said Wayne Pacelle, president of Animal Wellness Action.
“The Easterlings have been known to us for a long time as cockfighting traffickers, but also are part of a far larger network of animal fighters in Alabama and throughout the United States that have made America the breeding ground for the global cockfighting industry. While some are destined for fighting pits in the U.S., hundreds of thousands of birds move from cockfighting farms here to dozens of nations throughout the world,” Pacelle said.
The criminal investigation into the Easterlings generated an unusual restraining order request filed in federal court in September to preserve and protect from movement or destruction about 2,400 "...roosters, hens, young chickens and unhatched chickens..." located on three separate properties off Chilton County Road 528 in Verbena.
Federal law makes it unlawful “for any person to knowingly sponsor or exhibit an animal in an animal fighting venture," the motion reads.
The motion referred to video evidence in support of the restraining order: "...Perhaps the most compelling evidence was video obtained from William Easterling’s cell phone, which clearly showed Brent Easterling participating in a cockfight at the above-mentioned cockfighting pit, while William Easterling watched with approval (along with other spectators)," the motion reads.
During the hearing on the order, the Easterlings put on two witnesses who testified that the Easterlings raised the fowl on the properties for "...legitimate purposes, such as for food or for bird collectors or bird shows," the motion reads.
The court granted the restraining order in place until Oct. 30, after the federal grand jury had ended its deliberations into the cases.
If convicted of conspiracy, Animal Welfare Act violations or operating an illegal gambling business, the defendants each face a maximum penalty of five years in prison. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act has a maximum penalty of six months in prison.
Contact Montgomery Advertiser reporter Marty Roney at firstname.lastname@example.org.