Cockfighting is a vicious, hidden, backyard bloodsport. State and federal agents gave Action News access to a local investigation into a cockfighting ring that allegedly revolved around big money, guns and drugs. It's a combination that can endanger neighborhoods across our region.
And surprisingly, even a member of a royal family has been indicted. Though when we approached Irina Kreuger Walker outside her Irrigon, Oregon home, her only comment was, "no comment."
She's a real-life princess, fifth in line to the Romanian throne. But there's nothing royal about the crimes she's charged with committing: running an illegal gambling ring and cockfighting.
But this is not the end of the story. Stick with us as we peel back the layers of a savage industry,
"It's a bloody, barbaric thing," said animal control agent Jody White. "It has no place in a civilized world."
It began two years ago as state and federal law enforcement agents infiltrated seemingly peaceful farm and ranch operations across central Washington and northeast Oregon. They were working to get front row seats and video evidence from the bloodthirsty dramas they say play out week after week after week.
The investigation focused on cockfighting "derbies," which are fights that make up a daylong festival of bloody battles. The roosters are armed with razor sharp knives strapped to their legs. They're pitted against each other again and again until one, or sometimes both, are dead.
White is an expert in evaluating fighting roosters.
"Birds are typically hopped up on cocaine, meth, Ritalin. I mean all kinds of stuff to enhance their performance, and make them extra aggressive," White said.
Cockfighting is illegal, but investigators with Washington's Gambling Commission say the backyard bloodsport thrives in the shadows.
"It's a very close-knit group of people," one undercover special agent said. "They don't trust outsiders."
By last August, when officers busted this alleged ring, they had enough evidence to arrest 18 people at four different locations. All the way from an alleged breeder in Kennewick up to Irina Kreuger Walker and her husband John Walker, a former Sheriff's deputy. Both are charged in federal court with conspiracy and running an illegal gambling operation. They've pled not guilty.
Gambling Commission special agent Gary Drumheller said it's one of the biggest cockfighting rings he's ever seen.
"It becomes a very organized operation and that's where it becomes very dangerous for everybody involved," he said.
At the breeding farm in Kennewick, which is not owned by the Walkers, agents point out evidence that birds are raised only to fight. From the small boxing gloves used to spar to the drugs used to build up the birds to the roosters themselves with combs and wattles on their heads removed to prevent excessive bleeding in the ring.
"Those are cut with scissors without the benefit of anesthesia," White said. "It's pretty bloody, then they're cauterized -- very painful."
Charging documents make it clear that Irina and John Walker's property in Oregon, with the barn tucked away in the back corner of that property, was the center of this high-profit operation.
In a typical derby, agents say the sponsor or promoter keeps admission fees, concession sales, and 10 percent of all purses. They add the cock-fighting derbies run through the arena on the Walker property easily brought in over a million dollars.
But breaking up an operation like the alleged Walker ring isn't just about illegal gambling or animal cruelty.
"Nowadays we're seeing a lot of drug dealers," the undercover agent said..
Agents also say cockfighting derbies are centers for drugs and black-market guns. Photos from the recent raids show multiple guns, ammo and drugs -- just some of what was seized.
"They'll roll up with their fancy cars and all the jewelry and it's kind of a status symbol for them to drop tens of thousands of dollars at a derby," the undercover agent said.
And agents warn those drugs and guns inevitably wind up in our neighborhoods.
Investigators believe this most recent raid has at least put a dent in this backyard bloodsport. But with so much money on the line, they know it's likely there are already other cockfights happening underground.