Cockfighting - Inside Little Boxwood
Inside Little Boxwood
Cockfighting Pit Brought Down Page County Sheriff
By Pete DeLea
STANLEY - Monday marked the first time animal rights activist John Goodwin caught a glimpse inside the Page County cockfighting pit he worked years to close.
A bright red barn housed the pit known as Little Boxwood, where for decades countless chicken fights were held. Then, in May 2007, a raid by federal agents shut down the venture located off Kite Hollow Road, just outside Stanley.
As Goodwin, manager of the U.S. Humane Society's anti-animal-fighting campaign, entered the barn, he first noticed the roughly 15-by-10-foot fenced fighting pit surrounded by stadium-style seating.
"It was an elaborate criminal operation," said Goodwin as he led a Daily News-Record reporter and photographer through the building. "Little Boxwood was on the national circuit."
Nearby, there were three drag pits, the spot where organizers tossed the birds to finish a fight if it went too long.
Behind the seating were more than two dozen rooms used to store chickens before fights. Each room held about a dozen chickens. Combined with 14 storage sheds outside the barn, more than 500 chickens could be stored for one derby.
Inside the rooms, evidence of cockfighting still exists: feathers, a syringe with drugs used to boost a chicken's adrenaline and a 1961 Modern Tournament and Derby rulebook.
The rooms also yielded proof of the pit's draw to out-of-state fighters: a Days Inn room key and several newspapers from New York and Pennsylvania.
Among the more alarming finds were the often obscene messages left for law enforcement and animal rights advocates written around the building following the raid.
"You'll never stop it," read one message scribbled on the wall below the cockpit's scoreboard. "For another 100 years, it'll still happen. Always has. Always will."
But Goodwin said his Washington, D.C., area agency has seen a steep decline in Page County and throughout Virginia in the so-called "heritage sport" since the federal government's case came to fruition.
In September 2007, a federal grand jury indicted four Virginia men, including Little Boxwood's owner, two other organizers and a county Republican leader, who was accused of funneling a $500 bribe to former Page County Sheriff Daniel Presgraves
through a campaign contribution.
Discussion of the bribe was recorded during an undercover operation.
"It's had a huge impact on Virginia," said Goodwin, who added the Page County case, along with a Mecklenburg County raid, helped lead to legislation making animal fighting a felony in the state. "It was ammunition that got a cockfighting bill through the General Assembly."
Goodwin's involvement in Page County started in 2005, when a tipster gave him directions to a cockpit in the Naked Creek area of the county.
He said he called Presgraves, who passed him off to a Virginia State Police trooper. The trooper said he couldn't find anything, Goodwin said.
"I had no idea [Presgraves] was corrupt," he said. "He played it off like he wouldn't tolerate it."
Two years later, Goodwin was in Abingdon speaking to Assistant U.S. Attorney Tom Bondurant regarding the Virginia Gamefowl Breeders Association. During that conversation, Presgraves' name came up.
In October 2008, federal grand jury indicted Presgraves, the Virginia Gamefowl Breeders Association and its president, Chester William Fannon III.
Goodwin testified against Presgraves in front of the grand jury and he was slated to do so again if the former sheriff had gone to trial in September as planned.
On Friday, Presgraves pleaded guilty to federal racketeering charges in U.S. District Court in Harrisonburg and is awaiting sentencing.
Everyone involved in the Little Boxwood case has either pleaded guilty or been convicted of various federal charges.
Although Goodwin would have preferred seeing Presgraves admit his role in the cockfighting operation, the plea agreement doesn't hurt the overall message, he said.
"A message has been sent: That level of corruption carries great consequences and little benefit," Goodwin said. "It's an industry that's certainly declining."
That decline has happened in Page County, Goodwin said, adding that only unorganized "backyard" operations still exist. Those, he said, are starting to dry up as well because deputies are now free to enforce the law without the interference and scrutiny of a corrupt boss.
"It had been a refuge for cockfighting," Goodwin said. "Page County has done a 180."
Ten days after interim Sheriff John Thomas took office in Page County in April, the department raided a small cockfighting operation on Fleeburg Road and nabbed four people.
Bo Cook, an investigator with the sheriff's office, said the community is more willing to phone in tips since the change in leadership.
"We've received several tips since Little Boxwood and we looked into all of them," Cook said.
While deputies step up their efforts, they won't have to worry about Little Boxwood anymore.
The venue is being destroyed.
Three weeks ago, Stanley resident Mike Shank, who owns adjacent property, purchased the now infamous local landmark.
He's spent the last few days gutting the place. Outside the barn, which used to have signs declaring its loyalty to the Gamefowl Breeders Association, is a Dumpster full of movie-seat-style chairs he ripped from the wooden bleachers.
Soon, the building where roosters went to die will provide shelter for other animals.
"Lord willing, I'm going to have a horse barn," Shank said.
Contact Pete DeLea at 574-6278 or pdelea@...
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