Seven members of a Chilton County family accused of operating one of the largest cockfighting rings in the country have pleaded guilty to felony charges and sentenced to as long as two years in federal prison for their role in the underground operation, the U.S. Department of Justice announced Wednesday.
Led by William Colon "Jim" Easterling, 77, the Easterling family of Verbena ran the illegal enterprise for many years, hosting bloody cockfighting events drawing in hundreds of attendees to gamble on and watch the fights.
The family also ran two large breeding operations for the sale of fighting birds. Brent Easterling, son of Jim Easterling, was "one of the most widely known fighting-bird breeders in the country," and ran L&L Gamefarm with his wife Kassi Easterling to breed and sell chickens of a known fighting pedigree, the Justice Department said.
Another of Jim's sons, George William "Billy" Easterling, ran Swift Creek Gamefarm with his son William "Tyler" Easterling. They employed an in-law of the family, Thomas Glyn "Junior" Williams, to help maintain and ship the fighting birds.
The final family member sentenced for their involvement in the enterprise was leader Jim Easterling's granddaughter, Amber Nicole Easterling. The Justice Deparment said Amber Easterling sold weapons to be used in the cockfights at the arena's merchandise stand.
"… The Department of Justice will continue to hold accountable those who encourage and profit from forcing animals to fight each other for human entertainment," Assistant Attorney General Todd Kim said in a news release.
A cockfight is a contest where two or more specially bred fighting chickens, commonly known as gamecocks, are made to fight in an enclosed pit. People attach knives or other sharp instruments to the legs of the birds. The fight ends when one gamecock dies or stops fighting, but it's common for both birds to die after a fight.
Cockfighting has long been a thorn in the side of law enforcement in Chilton County and Alabama generally, where the crime is a misdemeanor punished only by a $50 fine, enabling operations like the Easterlings' to thrive.
In a 2021 interview with the Montgomery Advertiser, former District Attorney Randall Houston called it "the worst kept secret in Chilton County."
Law enforcement in the county had long struggled to mount a case against those running cockfighting operations. But a months-long investigation eventually culminated in a raid of the Easterling farms in late summer 2021, which included several agents from the Department of Homeland Security and other federal agencies.
The Justice Department said the Easterling cockfighting arena held stadium seating capable for about 150 people and several cockfighting pits, where the family would host illegal series of cockfights called "derbies."
The members of the family were indicted on 23 federal charges last December. The defendants pleaded guilty this summer to several of the charges, including violating or conspiring to violate the Animal Welfare Act. Sentences for the Easterlings were determined throughout the fall, with the final sentence handed down on Tuesday.
Billy Easterling, 56, who ran the Swift Creek Gamefarm breeding operation, was sentenced on Tuesday to 22 months in prison followed by one year of supervised release for violating the Animal Welfare Act's prohibition against animal fighting and for conspiring with others to violate the Act.
Brent Easterling, 38; Tyler Easterling, 30; and Jim Easterling pleaded guilty to the same and were sentenced on Nov. 30. The men received 24 months in prison followed by a year of supervised release; 20 months in prison followed by one year of supervised released; and two years of home detention and an $8,000 fine, respectively. The Justice Department said the court determined incarceration would be "extremely detrimental" to the health of aging Jim Easterling.
Three others were sentenced on Oct. 13. Kassi Easterling, 39, received two years of probation, including six months of home detention for conspiring with others to violate the Animal Welfare Act's prohibition against animal fighting ventures. Amber Easterling, 25, was sentenced to one year of probation for conspiring to violate the act for her involvement with the cockfighting pit. Junior Williams, 34, was sentenced to one year of probation for conspiring to violate the Act for his involvement in the cockfighting pit and Swift Creek Gamefarm breeding operation.
"These sentences demonstrate the importance of enforcing the Animal Welfare Act to ensure the humane treatment of animals and prohibit cruel practices such as cockfighting," said U.S. Attorney Sandra Stewart for the Middle District of Alabama in the Justice Department's release.
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This article originally appeared on Montgomery Advertiser: Alabama family in cockfighting ring sentenced to prison, probation