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Infiltrating The Cockfights
By Pete DeLea on DNROnline.com
Informant got the goods on Little Boxwood
Roughly three years ago, a confidential informant working for California-based Last Chance for Animals made his first undercover trip inside Little Boxwood, a Page County, Virginia, cockfighting pit that allegedly was receiving police protection in exchange for bribes.
As he turned onto rural Kite Hollow Road, which led to the pit off Acorn Springs Lane, he knew something was up when he saw a Page County Sheriff's Office vehicle parked at one of the homes.
He figured a few hundred cars driving past the house would likely seem out of place to most cops.
"You had to pass a sheriff's deputy's house, so I was confident they knew," said the informant, who spoke to the Daily News-Record on Wednesday on the condition of anonymity.
At the time, he said, he had no idea that former Page County Sheriff Daniel Presgraves might be involved.
"I just thought it was laziness," he said. "That's what I truly believed at the beginning."
But his opinion would soon change.
A still frame from a video secretly shot by a confidential informant shows cockfighting activity at Little Boxwood near Stanley. The informant says he was "confident" from the beginning that someone at the Page County Sheriff's Office knew what was going on at the site.
Informant's First Trip
As he approached Acorn Springs Lane, a sign declaring "Little Boxwood Sportsman's Club" pointed him down the road. About a half-mile away was a gate with a man taking admission fees and checking for Virginia Gamefowl Breeders Association membership cards.
"I didn't have one, so I was required to purchase one to get in," said the informant.
Over the next 18 months, the informant made 39 more trips to the pit located outside Stanley.
Inside, he saw a horrific scene, he said.
"I saw birds with their air sacs punctured," the informant said, adding that fights would last 3 to 5 minutes in the main cage before the birds were tossed into drag pits to finish their fights. "They were struggling to breathe."
He said the pit would always draw hundreds of spectators. Some nights, those in attendance were mostly white, but at other times, when a different style of fighting was taking place, most spectators were Hispanic.
"The gambling would be steeper" among Hispanics, he said. "I saw one person bet $1,000 on one bird."
Helping The Agents
After he infiltrated the cockfighting pit, the informant turned to federal agents with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which began its investigation in fall 2006. He then introduced an undercover agent to the group, who recorded the cockpit's organizers talking about how to bribe the sheriff.
As a result of the investigation, the pit was raided in May 2007, which would ultimately lead to six people, including Presgraves, and the VGBA being indicted on federal charges.
In the secretly recorded conversation, Luray resident Albert Taylor, described as a longtime local member of the Republican Party, mentions the police protection to several cockpit organizers and the undercover agent.
"The only thing [Presgraves] told me is his position hasn't changed. ... We don't have to worry about" the sheriff investigating or shutting down the pit, Taylor says on the recording. "As long as he don't get pressure to ... I'm sure if he gets any pressure, we'll know unless somebody hangs on his ... elbow."
They also discuss how the undercover agent, who was posing as a potential buyer of the cockpit, could continue to receive the protection.
"I'll make a donation to [Presgraves] and he can put that into his coffers," Taylor states on the recording. He made a $500 contribution to Presgraves' re-election campaign in April 2007, shortly after the tape-recorded conversation.
Eighteen months later, on Oct. 21, 2008, Presgraves was indicted on 22 counts, including a racketeering charge that outlined the alleged bribe and various other accusations, including the sexual assault of female employees at the sheriff's office.
On Friday, Presgraves pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Harrisonburg to the racketeering charge, but did not admit being involved in Little Boxwood.
All the other defendants connected with the case have pleaded guilty or been found guilty on various counts.
The informant, who was scheduled to testify during Presgraves' trial, was released from his subpoena Wednesday.
Prosecutors confirmed his version of events.
The Biggest Pit
Chris DeRose, the president of Last Chance for Animals, said cockfighting has been an issue he's been investigating for years. But only now are all those investigations bearing fruit.
"It's an issue we want to bring to the forefront," said DeRose, an actor who formed the organization in 1984. "Cockfighting has been an issue that hasn't been brought to the surface."
Besides cruelty to animals, he said cockfighting introduces children to violence. According to the informant, children would often attend the cockfights at Little Boxwood.
"They become the cockfighters and the dog fighters," he said. "This is a cycle that needs to be broken."
DeRose said Little Boxwood, which evidence suggests was known to cockfighters throughout the country, was the biggest he's investigated.
"Boxwood was the most organized and most protected because the sheriff ... [was] so involved in it," he said.
Although he wasn't shocked to see Presgraves involved, DeRose said he was disappointed.
"It disgusts us," he said. "He was supposed to be representing the law. He thought he was beyond and above the law. But he was not."
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