HESPERIA • Sixty-eight people were arrested and $20,000 was seized over the weekend when members of the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Rural Crimes Task Force broke up a cockfighting operation in Hesperia, officials said Monday.
Daniel Urena of La Puente was identified as the event coordinator and owner of the property located in the 14000 block of Summit Valley Road.
Deputies from several stations including Hesperia, Apple Valley, Narcotic Enforcement, Yucaipa and Victor Valley raided the barn on Urena's property Saturday morning, officials said.
Authorities made nine felony arrests, 59 misdemeanor arrests and placed 32 people on immigration holds during the large-scale operation, according to a sheriff's release. People from as far away as Panorama City and Riverside attended the clandestine event, according to Jodi Miller, spokeswoman for the sheriff's department.
Investigators also seized a total of 63 fighting roosters from the property.
Five of them were being held Monday at the Devore Animal Shelter, according to David Wert, spokesman for San Bernardino County.
"Fourteen of the birds were deceased when we arrived at the property," said Greg Becks, program manager with county Animal Care and Control. "The rest were euthanized. These birds are not able to be rehabilitated."
Authorities also recovered $20,000 in gambling money.
While it's common for these events to be associated with the Mexican cartels, Miller said Saturday's raid had no ties to organized crime. And while members of the sheriff's Narcotics Detail was involved in the operation, Miller stated there were no reports of drugs being found.
But according to Eric Sakach, senior law enforcement specialist with the Humane Society of the United States, there is a direct connection between the ancient blood sport and a wide variety of crimes including homicide, drug crimes and illegal gambling.
The murder of 68-year-old Helendale man Jesus Rocha in December 2009 was believed to have been linked to cockfighting, according to sheriff's reports.
In 2009, Drug Enforcement Administration authorities in New Orleans conducted Operation Fowl Play which took down a Louisiana man, Pedro Mendez Ramos. Ramos, an avid pit bull and cockfighter, used the illegal events as networking tools to recruit members to transport and sell cocaine and marijuana for his criminal organization. Ramos' organization was supplied cocaine and marijuana directly from members of the Gulf Cartel, a multi-national drug trafficking organization located in Matamoros, Mexico.
Miller hopes an increased awareness of the illegal sport will help investigators find more fighting groups.
"If people are seeing a number of vehicles arriving at a location and they're bringing in these game fowl in cages, that's considered suspicious activity," Miller said. "Bottom line is it's illegal and it's cruel to the animals."
The PAL Humane Society in Apple Valley is working to get more information about cockfighting available to the public, said Mary Shanks, president and CEO of the organization.
Becks said the increased awareness surrounding cockfighting has resulted in more people alerting investigators to the illegal activity.
While Gov. Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 426 into law last July making it easier for landlords to evict tenants who use the property for animal fighting, Sakach points out the weak animal fighting laws in California make it a destination of choice for those who find the laws in border states like Arizona and Oregon much tougher.
"We're a bit of a magnet for cockfighters from surrounding states," Sakach said. "They want to take advantage of areas that have wide open spaces, making California and San Bernardino County very attractive."
Currently, a first offense for cockfighting is a misdemeanor in California, Sakach said. It doesn't become a felony until the second offense. Forty states have felony cockfighting and animal fighting laws.
The case is still under investigation. Anyone with information is asked to contact the Rural Crimes Task Force at (760) 868-1006 or call WeTip at (800) 78-CRIME.
Beatriz E. Valenzuela may be reached at (760) 951-6276 or at BValenzuela@VVDailyPress.com.