Members of an Illinois-based animal protection group say one of their members was assaulted and another was driven off the road recently after confronting a suspected cockfighting event in southeastern Ohio.
Animal rights activist Steve Hindi said his group Showing Animals Respect & Kindness, or SHARK, received a tip from the group’s hotline about a cockfight planned in Lawrence County, Ohio. It is a felony in Ohio to engage in a cockfight. Hindi and another member approached the rural property on Jan. 3 where the suspected cockfighting event was said to be happening.
“We saw a really massive number of cars. This was the biggest cockfight I ever saw. And I've I've seen a number of them,” Hindi said. “What I did hear was roosters, and so that means it’s not a church revival. It's a cockfight.”
Hindi estimated there were hundreds of people at the property. He said he and other members of his group knew it was an illegal cockfight happening on the property because of the roosters they heard and the number of trailers on the property, suspected to be used to store roosters for cockfighting.
Hindi said when he and another SHARK member approached those on the property and told them that he thought an illegal cockfight was happening. They told him he was on private property and to leave. And that’s when, according to video, things turned ugly.
The video published by SHARK in early January shows Hindi pulling out a drone and a man, wearing a black hoodie depicting a rooster on the back, knocking the drone controller out of Hindi’s hands.
The video shows Hindi knocked to the ground, crying out in pain. He said he was kicked and punched multiple times on the head and in the ribs by at least two people.
Hindi said he walked away from the property and asked a man along the neighboring road if he had any cell phone coverage. He said a pickup truck then pulled up to him along the road, carrying two men who began assaulting him again. Hindi then decided after the second assault to hide in the nearby woods until another SHARK member could communicate to him via walkie talkie and pick him up.
“I thought these guys were so completely unrestrained,” Hindi said. “At one point I said, ‘you know, the sheriff's coming.’ And the one guy said, ‘we don't give a f--- about the sheriff.’ And I absolutely believe that was true.”
Hindi said he was taken to a hospital in Ironton, Ohio, where he was treated for a broken rib and a head laceration that required six staples. The video also shows another SHARK member allegedly being pursued by a pickup truck. The blue Hyundai is hit multiple times in the rear before being forced off the road, crashing into a ditch.
Ohio State Highway Patrol Spokesperson Brice Nihiser said a patrol trooper responded and determined the crash was due to “intentional contact with another vehicle.” Nihiser said because of the intentional nature of the incident and that fact the crash stemmed from something that happened on private property, the patrol handed the matter over to the Lawrence County Sheriff’s Office for investigation.
Hindi said he suspected the sheriff’s office knew about the cockfighting event because of the number of people at the event and the lack of restraint by those who assaulted him.
“I mean, you can't get any help from any county sheriff where cockfighting is ongoing because they're all concerned about the votes,” Hindi said. “And this big operation, this really large operation happening on Sunday mornings in a way out of the way area of Lawrence County, they know what's going on.”
Lawrence County Sheriff Jeff Lawless said his office had no previous knowledge of the cockfighting event, and he had wished the group would have reached out to his office before going to the property. He said the investigation into what happened is still early but that they’re pursuing potential assault charges against those involved.
“This group did not witness any cockfighting to my knowledge and did not have any video of any such thing,” Lawless said. “When it comes to the assault, we certainly have some videos and things that we'll be working on. But when it comes to the fact of possible cockfighting...you have to develop evidence.”
Lawless said he’s been in touch with other agencies regarding the investigation and that anyone who may have evidence of cockfighting at the property should come forward.
SHARK last year was trying to seek an investigation after two sheriff’s deputies in eastern Kentucky attended a cockfight but did not charge anyone for animal cruelty. The Ohio Valley ReSource previously reported on a separate animal rights advocacy group’s investigation and report which claimed that Kentucky was a center for breeding birds for illegal cockfighting.
David Hunt is the chief of the enforcement division for the Ohio Department of Agriculture, helping other agencies in the state with animal fighting investigations. He said that the geography of Appalachian Ohio tends to make animal fighting easier to hide, and that cockfighting also tends to attract other illicit activities.
“Any kind of criminal activity revolves around money. So with dogfighting and cockfighting, that not only generates revenue but it's an illicit activity,” Hunt said. “And for lack of a better term, it kind of provides a social outlet for a lot of drug traffickers to socialize.”
Hunt’s background before joining the Department of Agriculture in 2013 is in law enforcement; he was a sergeant with the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office investigative unit for nearly two decades.
He said while law enforcement corruption regarding cockfighting isn’t unprecedented, he’s worked with most sheriffs in the state and believes the lack of resources for a rural sheriff’s office can make it hard to uncover events such as cockfighting.
“It's very plausible to not be aware of a large event like that if it's out in the middle of nowhere,” Hunt said. “I think you have to kind of look at that big picture in terms of the amount of resources available, the amount of intelligence available.”
In Ohio, the penalty only rises to a felony if one is caught in the act of cockfighting. Hunt said he wishes cockfighting laws in the state could be strengthened to align with dogfighting laws, which makes training, selling, and possessing a dog for dogfighting, along with witnessing a dog fight, felonies.
Hindi said his group will continue to pursue appropriate charges to the fullest extent possible and to continue their work exposing cockfighting.
“I frankly never thought that I was going to live this long. So every day for me is a gift. And every day is a good day to die. I believe in, we believe in what we're doing,” Hindi said.