3 men charged in western Wisconsin cockfighting ring

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Prosecutors in western Wisconsin have charged three men in connection with a cockfighting ring that police broke up earlier this week.

Ernesto B. Benitez, 48, of Amery; Idelio J. Benitez, 57, of Amery; and Agustin A. Benitez, 56, of Turtle Lake were each charged Wednesday in Polk County Circuit Court with 10 felony counts of instigating fights between animals as a trainer and 10 misdemeanor counts of violating bail conditions, according to the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

The men were arrested after officials raided four properties in Polk and St. Croix counties on Tuesday and seized 1,200 birds suspected of being raised for fighting.

Members of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals went along on the raids to assess the condition of the birds, according to a news release from the group.

Police found cockfighting paraphernalia at the properties, which included a fighting pit and “gaffs” – spur-like equipment attached to the birds' legs which is designed to maximize damage during fights.

The ASPCA said the raids uncovered roosters, hens and chicks “living in cages or makeshift enclosures, some without access to proper food or water.”

Some birds appeared to have suffered recent injuries commonly associated with cockfighting. Some had been surgically altered, with their combs and wattles removed – something commonly done to fighting birds.

A witness told authorities that besides running local cockfights, the men raised birds that were sold and shipped to Mexico for fighting there, according to the Pioneer Press.

The three men had also been arrested in January during a raid on a cockfighting enterprise in the St. Croix County community of Glenwood City. They pleaded not guilty to misdemeanor charges of being spectators at a cockfight, and those cases are pending.

According to KARE 11, authorities acted on a tip they received after that raid and began investigating the properties they raided on Tuesday.

Conducting a cockfight and possessing birds for fighting are felonies in Wisconsin, with a maximum penalty of 3 1/2 years in prison and a fine of $10,000. Being a spectator is a misdemeanor offense.

Veterinarians are using a mobile hospital to evaluate the conditions of the birds, according to the Star Tribune. They're also determining whether the birds are at risk for avian flu.

The three men were in custody in the Polk County jail as of Wednesday afternoon, and they'll be in court June 9, the Star Tribune says.

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