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'Right out of Freddy Krueger's closet': Blades used in cockfighting shipped to US from Mexico

Lauren Villagran
El Paso Times

One-and-a-half-inch cockfighting blades, shipped from Mexico and destined for rural America, may not have seemed like much in the way of international contraband, but Michael Neipert knew different.

The 14-year veteran of U.S. Customs and Border Protection had worked ports of entry in every state on the Mexican border before landing in Memphis, Tennessee, at an air cargo hub that is one of the world's busiest inland ports.

Those little knives were like keys that could unlock a transnational criminal enterprise. 

"It was historically seen as a 'nothing' seizure," Neipert said. "Officers would say, 'Why waste my time when there are hard narcotics and guns?' I drive these guys to look at the bigger picture.

"This isn’t a personal use item," he said. "It goes to an underworld of criminal activity."

U.S. Customs and Border Protection in Memphis, Tenn. seized shipments of cockspurs originating in Mexico. The metal talons are attached to the feet of roosters in illegal cockfighting and are pictured at the Memphis CBP office on Friday, Aug. 27, 2021.

Customs officers at the Memphis air cargo hub seized 5,029 spurs, knives or gaffes used in cockfighting during the past two fiscal years, compared with seizures of 50 pieces during the previous three — an increase due in large part to Neipert's focus on targeting the contraband. 

CBP's work in Memphis reflects a broader national trend of law enforcement taking illegal animal fighting more seriously, as congress and presidents of both parties have strengthened federal law and made penalties more severe over the past 20 years. Cockfighting is also illegal in all 50 states. 

Increasingly, Neipert said, CBP is working with federal investigators who do controlled deliveries of cockfighting paraphernalia to bust criminal rings linked to illegal gambling, narcotics, prostitution and other crimes.

"My goal is to get downstream prosecutions on greater offenses," Neipert said.

The packages from Mexico come addressed to cities and towns across the U.S. A recent haul from the Memphis processing center included paraphernalia shipped to Austin, Texas; North Las Vegas, Nevada; Holahuloa, Hawaii; Topeka, Kansas; Wilmington, Delaware; Stanfield, North Carolina and Whitesburg, Georgia.

Images of an illegal cockfighting ring during a U.S. Attorney's Office investigation in the Southern District of Georgia.

El Paso sheriff's deputies have uncovered cockfighting operations in the county, most recently near Clint, while CBP in El Paso recently stopped a man from crossing cockfighting navajas from Juárez at the Bridge of the Americas.

More:California authorities recover 2,000 to 3,000 roosters in raid of alleged illegal cockfighting ring

There was a significant case in California about a decade ago, in which federal and local law enforcement seized more than 380 game birds outside Fresno and about 1,200 cockfighting knives; blades were stuffed in fake Pringles chip containers, hidden inside a house on the property. The husband-wife team at the helm worked as distributors for a Mexico-based maker of cockfighting paraphernalia.

The Humane Society, whose confidential sources helped break open that case and others since, considers the bust a seminal one that called attention to animal cruelty and its connection to other crimes, said Janette Reever, a Humane Society senior specialist who has trained law enforcement in animal fighting investigations.

"Almost every time we have done a case, there is a connection to drugs, guns or prostitution," Reever said. "You are dealing with people who are committing felonies."

Cockfight pit takedown

In the dense woods of Georgia, about three hours outside of Atlanta, two cockfighting operations were drawing hundreds of spectators and gamblers to weekend tournaments in the summer of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Wendell Allan Strickland ran a spot called The Red Barn outside the small town of Swainsboro, where gamblers packed wood plank bleachers situated around a red-clay pit. He had a concession stand and a back office with a whiteboard to draw up dozens of bird bouts.

Images of an illegal cockfighting ring during a U.S. Attorney's Office investigation in the Southern District of Georgia.

Roosters — bred for aggression and armed with razor-sharp spurs on their legs — would be released into the pit two at a time. Depending on the rules, they'd fight for a set time or until one killed the other.

More:Cockfighting ring busted in Arkansas: 130-plus arrested and nearly 200 chickens saved

Down the road in Midville, Georgia, population 269, William Shannon Scott ran another illegal cockfighting venue called Little Sunset, also equipped with bleachers set around a pit. An American flag and a Confederate battle flag hung side by side on one wall.

Strickland and Scott had been running their cockfights for about a decade and allegedly coordinated their fights to fall on alternating weekends, according to prosecutors.

"You would be amazed that people would come from five or six different states to attend a Saturday afternoon cockfight," said Special Assistant U.S. Attorney Jessica Rock, a federal prosecutor who also serves as a Georgia state district attorney focused on animal crimes prosecutions.

Police are investigating a possible narcotics and cock fighting ring on Sixth Ave in Paterson, N.J. on Wednesday Dec. 4, 2019.

In the summer of 2020, federal and state investigators, led by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Office of the Inspector General, were closing in.

More:Almost 300 roosters rescued by Michigan Humane Society amid possible illegal cockfighting ring

Handmade blades, spurs

The spurs and knives used in cockfighting are "fairly expensive" and often handmade, said Eric Sakach, a consultant to state and federal district attorneys on animal fighting who worked with the Humane Society for four decades.

Steel gaffs or spurs are shaped like a curved ice pick and are fastened on gamecocks over their natural spur. Knives, or slashers, are curved blades often attached to a rooster's left leg; Mexican-made blades can cost about $30 apiece, he said.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection intercepted shipments of cockfighting knives at a Memphis, Tenn., air cargo hub. The blades are pictured at the CBP Memphis office on Friday, Aug. 27, 2021. The packaging is branded with the name 'Moda Futura.'

The implements are marketed on social media such as Instagram, Facebook or Pinterest, Sakach said, and they're either carried over the U.S.-Mexico border or mailed to buyers — all federal crimes.

"Mexico tends to make the 1.5-inch slasher-type knife, shaped like a scythe," Sakach said. "The Philippines make a knife three inches in length. Gaffes, which are shaped like a curved ice pick, are primarily being manufactured in the U.S.

"It’s pretty nasty stuff," he said. "It’s right out of Freddy Krueger’s closet."

More:California man accused of trying to cross cockfighting razors at El Paso port of entry

U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers run suspicious packages through an X-ray machine at an international air cargo hub in Memphis, Tenn. Seized cockfighting knives are pictured on Friday, Aug. 27, 2021.

'It creates a bloodbath'

In Georgia, in December 2019, investigators had raided and arrested the leader of a cockfighting ring in Lincolnton, about an hour north of where Strickland and Scott were running their pits. Lanier Augustus Hightower Jr. and more than a dozen other defendants were indicted.

"People just sit there all day and watch these birds fight, which is incredibly inhumane and disgusting but people go for the money," Rock said, adding that winnings can be in the thousands.

"You raid a cockfight and you are going to find a bunch bloody birds," she said. "A lot of times it is the men who are most involved but there are females, too. The females will tell us: 'This is the only way I spend time with my husband, because this is what he does every Saturday.' Sometimes places allow children. It creates a bloodbath, it really does."

What was a centuries-old tradition for some is now a felony. The increasing federal penalties for animal fighting, Sakach said, reflect public disapproval of "these archaic forms of cruelty done for no other reason but entertainment and gambling."

Images of an illegal cockfighting ring during a U.S. Attorney's Office investigation in the Southern District of Georgia.

More than 150 law enforcement officers took down Scott's Little Sunset pit first, raiding his farm during a tournament in June 2020, arresting Scott and identifying an additional 200 possible defendants, Rock said. 

More:Man arrested after El Paso County Sheriff's Office inquiry into cockfighting near Clint

Next, in September 2020, agents searched Strickland's Red Barn, seizing cockfighting gear and arresting Strickland.

Hightower pleaded guilty to federal animal fighting charges in 2020, and a federal judge last week sentenced him to 14 months in prison; there is no parole in the federal penal system. Hightower also forfeited his 100-acre property.

Images of an illegal cockfighting ring during a U.S. Attorney's Office investigation in the Southern District of Georgia.

Strickland and Scott each pleaded guilty to animal fighting charges earlier this year and are awaiting sentencing.

Rock said CBP and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement have been involved in some of the Georgia cases but declined to confirm whether prosecutors are pursuing charges for additional crimes. 

"I don't know of a single cockfight where there have not been guns and drugs," she said, adding, "We do have active investigations based on those cases. We're not finished yet."

'Cockspurs are seized'

Back in Memphis, planes fly in at all hours of the night carrying more than 250,000 parcels shipped to U.S. destinations from all over the world.

CBP's team of customs officers work 10-hour shifts at the hub, on the hunt for illicit drugs, weapons and other contraband; undeclared currency; and cockfighting implements, too.

Police are investigating a possible narcotics and cock fighting ring on Sixth Ave in Paterson, N.J. on Wednesday Dec. 4, 2019.

Officers screen a computer database of manifests for packages they'll flag based on certain information: a package's size or weight, an unusual declaration, where it's coming from or where it's going. Then they head to a room where the cargo hub workers send the flagged packages — roughly 2,000 per night — down a chute for CBP inspection, said CBP spokesman Matthew Dyman.

They pass them through an X-ray machine, put a K-9 on them or open them up for search and possible seizure.

Neipert said that, once officers know what to look for in flagging packages from Mexico, cockspurs and knives are "easily detected" by X-ray.

"It’s a funny headline," he said. "'Cockspurs are seized.' But at the end of the day it’s getting past something we saw as not that big of deal and going for that whole criminal organization."

Lauren Villagran can be reached at