Oklahoma County District Attorney Vicki Behenna has filed 59 felony counts related to cockfighting against a Newalla couple caught with “a large number of roosters,” some tied to stakes outside their home.
Investigators with the Oklahoma City Animal Welfare Division confiscated 93 game-type birds — 50 roosters and 43 hens — along with 158 eggs from the property, along with a large number of vitamins, antibiotics and leg tethers, according to affidavits filed in the case.
Also recovered, according to court papers, were 181 magazines related to cockfighting with dates ranging from 1960 through 2014 and six handwritten notebooks filled with notes on contacts, breeding, fighting, keep schedules and rooster fight analyses, along with papers on the way to attach the metal spurs — called knives and gaffs — used in cockfighting. The journals dated from 2000 through 2018.
Cockfighting, a blood sport made felonious by 56 percent of Oklahomans in 2002, briefly resurfaced as a hot political issue at the Legislature this spring when a bill to let county voters decrease penalties to misdemeanors passed the House.
Ellie Pennit Grino and his wife, Jannine Crespo Yee, were charged Monday in Oklahoma County District Court.
Grino, 50, is named in all 59 cockfighting-related counts filed by the Oklahoma County District Attorney’s Office.
Grino and Yee, 45, are charged with one count of keeping a place, equipment or facility to be used in permitting cockfighting. They are accused of having equipment used in permitting cockfighting in their home about one mile north of Interstate 40 on Harrah Road in Newalla.
Grino is charged with 50 counts of possessing birds with the intent to engage in a cockfight. Each count accuses him of having in his possession a rooster that was to be used in a cockfight.
He also is charged with eight counts of cruelty to animals for not providing necessary shelter for the roosters, which were kept on the back of his property in Newalla, an unincorporated community in eastern Oklahoma County, just west of State Highway 270.
Charges rarely have been filed since Oklahoma voters made cockfighting illegal 21 years ago. It may be the first time anyone has been charged with possessing birds with the intent to engage in a cockfight.
Oklahoma County District Attorney Vicki Behenna is out of the country and unavailable for comment, a spokeswoman said.
‘Testosterone specifically used for roosters and regularly seen with cockfighting’
Oklahoma City police officer Damon Taylor said in his incident report that he encountered “a large number of roosters” when he arrived on the property.
Taylor was called to the scene on April 9 by McLoud police after one of their officers arrested Grino on a complaint of driving under the influence. McLoud police found in his vehicle fighting spurs along with wooden transport boxes for roosters, Taylor’s report states. McLoud police suspected Grino was using the items for chicken/rooster fights.
Grino told McLoud police that he had roosters used for fighting, and officers requested Oklahoma City police go to Grino’s house to see if there was cockfighting going on there, Taylor wrote in his report.
Oklahoma City police arrived at Grino’s house and contacted OKC’s animal welfare division “due to there being a large number of roosters in the back of the property tied to stakes,” Taylor said.
Yee was inside the house along with her three children when OKC officers arrived at the property, Taylor wrote.
Julie Summerfield, an investigator with the Oklahoma City Animal Welfare Division, said Yee refused to allow officers to search the grounds so OKC police officers remained on the scene throughout the night to make sure the game birds were not removed until a search warrant could be obtained the next day.
“While standing on Florence St., I could easily see individually tethered gamecock-type roosters, some with triangle shelters and some without,” Summerfield wrote in her affidavit. “I was unable to see the entire chicken area from the road but could easily see at least 20 roosters and no birds wandering around freely.”
The next day, April 10, OKC police obtained a search warrant and Summerfield said she another investigator entered the house and a shed and found “multiple items regularly found in association with cockfighting. The house had vitamins, supplements and testosterone specifically used for roosters and regularly seen with cockfighting.”
The shed contained transport boxes, hold boxes to store the birds between weighing and the fight, antibiotics, tubs full of gamecock magazines, handwritten notebooks on breeding, fighting and conditioning the roosters, five pairs of leather leg wraps that hold the knives/gaffs when fighting, Summerfield said. Therre was a large metal sign of two roosters fighting on the pen area of the chickens.
Inside the chicken pen area, there were additional vitamins, antibiotics and leg tethers, she wrote.
“The birds had three different setups,” Summerfield said. “All waters available to the birds contained murky water. Roosters that were tethered out either had a triangle hut (two walls and a partially closed off back side) or they had no shelter at all. There were eight roosters that were tethered out that no form of shelter and were unable to escape any form of weather.”
After the birds were loaded, attempts were made to talk with Yee, Summerfield said. But her son and son-in-law told her that Yee “would not sign any paperwork claiming ownership of the birds as the birds belonged to their father, Ellie Grino,” Summerfield wrote.
House advanced bill to decrease cockfighting penalties
The Oklahoma County cockfighting case comes during the final week of the 2023 legislative session, which has featured conversations about whether to eliminate the felony penalties related to cockfighting.
HB 2530, by Rep. J.J. Humphrey (R-Lane) and Sen. Lonnie Paxton (R-Tuttle), proposed allowing counties to vote on whether they wanted the crimes related to cockfighting to be reduced to misdemeanors. The bill initially fell one vote short of advancing out of the House, but a second vote successfully sent the bill to the Senate, where it did not receive a committee hearing.
Legislative rules say the bill remains property of the Senate and could be considered during the 2024 session.
Oklahoma received national attention owing to the bill’s controversial attempt to lessen penalties on a blood sport that 56.2 percent of state voters approved in a 2002 state question.
Supporters of the bill, largely from rural southern Oklahoma, handed out buttons at the Capitol that proclaimed, “My cock, my choice.” Six county sheriffs — in Atoka, Coal, Grady, LeFlore, McClain and Murray counties — signed a letter urging lawmakers to reduce the criminal penalties on cockfighting, arguing that the state is home to a cottage industry of people who breed roosters for fighting and sell them overseas where fighting roosters is legal.
“Currently, Oklahoma is home to 5,000 farms that are safely and responsibly breeding these roosters, contributing over $60 million to the state’s economy. These are the farmers we support and are advocating for in this letter,” the six sheriffs and two dozen other current and former law enforcement officials wrote. “For those caught in the act of cockfighting, Oklahoma is the only state to put a person in prison for up to 10 years upon first offense. This is more severe than second-degree manslaughter or rape, egregious offenses harming other humans. The existence of these 5,000 farms are not a threat to our communities, and our law enforcement officers’ limited resources should remain focused on preventing and deterring crimes that truly threaten the safety and wellbeing of people in our communities.”
The letter befuddled many lawmakers who voted against the bill, and animal rights activists alleged that law enforcement officials were explicitly protecting rooster ranchers and refusing to enforce the law against those raising the birds and fighting them in practice matches to judge which animal is the most vicious and most valuable.
A March poll released by Cole Hargrave Snodgrass & Associates found 87 percent of respondents believing that cockfighting should be illegal.
“If political leaders pay heed to the views of values of Oklahomans, the debate over cockfighting ends today,” Wayne Pacelle, president of Animal Wellness Action, said in a March 29 press release about the poll. “Cockfighting is the very definition of barbarism and backwardness and that’s how Oklahomans from every part of the state see it. The poll also reveals that voters will be harsh in their judgments of lawmakers who favor efforts to promote the crime of animal fighting and the other illicit conduct entangled with it.”