Episode 1: The Case of the Phantom Cockfight
Recorded: Dec. 19, 2020
By: Jesse Sidlauskas
Transcripts of BLOODLINE episodes are provided and intended only as supplemental to the episodes as a
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TOMMY CARRANO: “I grew up on a farm, called Macedonia Meadows…”
JESSE SIDLAUSKAS: Tommy Carrano first discovered his passion for game fowl as a child on his family’s farm in Brooklyn, New York. It was a typical childhood on a farm in most ways. Days were spent outside, working or playing alongside his siblings, but it was far from a rural life. The farm’s acreage was smack in the middle of the second-most densely populated county in the United States, housing 2.6 million people on about 70 square miles of land.
Residential housing surrounded the acreage before Tommy was born in the mid-70s. First, came the city residents. Some complained about the animals, especially the crowing, anytime Tommy got a few roosters. The city folk made suggestions, at first, then rules, regulations, laws and oversight relating to the family’s hogs and other animals. Eventually, the rules became too much to manage, pushing the family off the farm.
Years later, in 2009, Tommy and his wife Gina would buy a farm of their own in northern New York. It would be a rural area, agriculturally zoned, and it’d be theirs and Tommy would finally have a place to raise the game fowl he’d coveted since childhood.
For the next eight years, Tommy built coops and pens and a barn. He woke each morning to the sound of his prized gamecocks crowing, and for the first time in his life, he didn’t have to worry about the sound upsetting any city-minded neighbors, or some suit stopping by to tell him how to run his farm. He had about 100 chickens, 30 roosters and 70 hens, and when Tommy wasn’t working his day-job, he was usually in the chicken yard, tending the birds day and night.
He registered with the New York State Ag board, permitting an official to come periodically to inspect the flock, and he ran a tight ship. The grounds were well-kept, the barn and pens were painted and inspected regularly for signs of wear. He got along well with his neighbors, and competed in poultry shows.
Life was good. But after nearly a decade on the farm living his dream, people from big-city would again come knocking.
AUDIO: IT WAS 6 AM
Investigators, along with about 40 ASPCA employees combed through the property, confiscating anything of interest in their case, including cell phones, computers, most of Tommy’s game fowl library, magazines, books, videos, art and heirloom collectibles. The chickens would be gone, too, taken to an undisclosed location. The officers told Gina she could leave for work. They left Tommy on the empty farm with few answers.
A day passed. Then a week. No indictment, so they waited. June came and went. Then most of July ticked away, and the couple allowed themselves to hope the whole nightmare would blow over until, on July 20, the indictment and arrest warrant were issued by a federal judge in New York City, 320 miles removed from the Carrano’s farm. He was charged with conspiracy.
TOMMY QUOTE: THEY WERE SAYING I WAS
Your listening to Bloodline. Episode 1, The Phantom Cockfight.
Many of you have heard or read about Tommy and his case. Today, we begin our series about game fowl and the law by taking a closer look at this test case, which advanced the judicial reach over farmers in the country into the realm of conspiracy to violate animal welfare laws.
I’m not a lawyer, so none of this is legal advice or counsel—just a layman’s look at this situation. The information discussed is for historical and educational purposes only.
In 2017, Tommy Carrano was charged, and later found guilty by jury trial held in Manhattan, New York federal court to one count of conspiracy to violate the Animal Welfare Act’s animal fighting prohibition statutes—which to summarize, make it a crime to knowingly sell, buy or transport a rooster, or any fighting implements for the purposes of fighting.
Animal welfare laws are in place, supposedly, for the welfare of animals, to protect animals, but the details of this case, the theory-in-practice, sends a mixed-message about the government’s concern for animal welfare.
Before we look at the government’s care of Tommy’s property, his animals, during the criminal proceedings meant to protect their welfare, let’s look at this case.
The question we should be asking ourselves as we read about this case is not: “Is it possible Tommy’s guilty” but “Is it possible he’s not guilty?”
Is it possible for a U.S. game farmer to raise game birds for hobby or show or to preserve bloodlines within the confines of the law without fear of prosecution?
There are, generally, two parts to a conspiracy charge: First, there must be an agreement between two or more people to commit an act prohibited by law. Then, one of the people in the agreement must do something to further the agreed-upon crime, also called “an overt act”. It’s important to note that only one person in the group has to commit the overt act. After that, everyone in the agreement is liable for a conspiracy.
Conspiracy charges are often used to go after ring-leaders, crime bosses and those who oversee criminal activity from some distance.
TOMMY QUOTE: They were saying I was an international leader
Through a search of Tommy’s property, at least two facebook accounts and a search of another man’s property in Tennesse, the investigators formed their case. Some of the items include:
· The Carranos home computer along with two cell phones were sent off for forensic nerds to analyze.
· A box of heirloom collectible gaffs that Tommy had inherited from his late-mentor Joe Z, who’s name was on the box.
· a ladder, presumably used to exercise the birds
· medicine from his cockhouse
· a pair of scissors or shears
· wooden portable stalls.
· The contents of his personal library and art related to game fowl, including game fowl magazines, newsletters and videos
· A forensics expert with the ASPCA was flown up from Florida and found traces of what a laboratory later identified as chicken blood in the Joe Z box as well as in a carry stall.
In court, these items were combined with Facebook messages from two accounts Tommy allegedly operated: a personal account in Tommy’s name and a group account under the NYUGBA name. The scope of the case included all posts and messages from these two accounts over a 5-year period, amounting to “tens of thousands of pages” full of messages, conversations and comments. Tens of thousands of pages of messages dating back 5 years. When asked, the investigator said he spent two work weeks just reading through the trove of messages.
I’ll note that it seems impossible to know for sure if Tommy sent the messages used in the case against him. All we know is that it’s the Tommy Carrano facebook account and the NYGBA facebook accounts. There’s no attempt to match the user’s IP address at the time of the message to the address at Tommy’s home. The investigator said it wasn’t possible in his testimony.
Think about your own inbox, messages, texts, emails for the past 5 years, but keep in mind that conspiracy investigations aren’t limited to five years. The statute of limitations does not begin to roll until the last overt act of conspiracy is committed.
Sometimes, these messages can seem innocuous. Consider one facebook conversation from the case:
Someone messaged one of the Facebook accounts Tommy allegedly operated, asking where he could “get a set of short heels” adding “I broke one last week in the drag.” In reply, Tommy’s account referred the person to Dwight Orr, specifically for “collectibles”, but in court, the prosecution construed this conversation as one example of an “agreement” to a criminal conspiracy.
There are other conversations, references, etc. and I won’t go over all of them because we don’t have the time.
I simply wanted to illustrate the breadth of a conspiracy, and emphasize the fact that this case had no cockfight -- No fight bust. In the search of the property and within the troves of data, images, phone records, facebook records and other items seized, there was nothing found placing Tommy at a cockfight. His birds were in excellent health. Tommy wasn’t accused of mistreating these animals, and throughout the case Tommy was the only one asking questions as to the welfare of the animals.
Before the trial began, the prosecution was successful in convincing the judge to preclude, or not allow, certain facts to be presented in the trial. Somehow, they convinced the judge that information about the history and culture of cockfighting in the country would be irrelevant in Tommy’s conspiracy trial and distract from the facts-at-hand. This significantly limited the amount of context the defense could provide to the jury about the operations of a game farm.
Keep in mind, this was a downtown Manhattan jury—city folk. The trial is 350 miles from Tommy’s rural farm upstate, but the two places are worlds apart.
Of the 50 people in the initial juror pool, 17 had either owned a rescue dog or donated to ASPCA, HSUS or another animal welfare group. Only two admitted that’d impede their ability to be a juror. One worked for the New York Times. There were legal assistants, accountants, corporate officers, etc. Its likely that most of them wouldn’t know how many toes are on a chicken’s foot. They may have never stepped foot on a farm, and may not know anyone who has. They were blank slates when it came to chickens, and the prosecution was quick to fill them in on the details.
The trial’s first witness was a government cockfighting expert, a sherrif from Kentucky who’d taken some classes on animal investigations and who’d been undercover on a cockfighting case for a couple years.
The officer described to the jury and judge—no doubt for the first time—what happens at a cockfight. He described what gaffs and knives were and explained there usage. He described everything from handlers to referees to keeps, and he told the jury that trimming and dubbing was done solely for fighting, apparently unaware that it’s done for health and safety reasons and required by the gamefowl show standards.
The officer, thus, provided the jury with its first education of game fowl, leaving the defense to pick away at his account. The most obvious way to do this would be to have a defense expert widen their education, provide some context, but since the prosecution blocked historical and cultural discussion, the scope was controlled more or less to what the officer had explained in his testimony—a tough obstacle to surmount.
The whole ordeal, from the property search to the end of the trial, took a year-and-a-half, and Tommy began his one-year, two-month sentence in late 2018.
Throughout the proceedings, the property confiscated from Tommy, specifically his chickens, were held at two ASPCA facilities, pending the outcome of the case. Concerned for his property, and well-aware of the time, effort and facilities required to tend the birds, Tommy requested to visit the facilities and inspect the confiscated animal property.
After six months, Tommy and poultry expert Anthony Saville were granted access to the two facilities for a visual-only inspection. What they saw inside was beyond what either had imagined.
TOMMY CARRANO: “IT MADE MY STOMACH TURN…”
The pale-faced, stagnant birds cowered in the shadows of brick cells with cement floors with no natural light. Some were gone.
Anthony Saville founded and authored the American Gamefowl Society’s show standards and is a certified show judge with the Oxford Old English Game Club as well as the South African Poultry Association. Saville accompanied Tommy on the walkthroughs.
In his report to the court, Saville pointed out numerous injuries such as scalped roosters, knobby, injured feet, missing toes, gimp legs and missing spurs, all tell-tale signs of roosters that had fought through wire partitions. Because of the detailed records made by the investigators, he explained in a brief to the judge, it’d be easy to verify these injuries occurred after being taken into government custody.
The judge, however, granted the prosecution’s request to prohibit any testimony about the care the birds had received since being confiscated by the government on the grounds that it had no relevance in Carrano’s conspiracy case, and risked creating a trial-within-a-trial. It was a separate issue, they said.
And, maybe that argument makes sense on paper, but the whole thing stinks of hypocrisy. There’s some verifiable evidence presented that the state could have, either through neglect or direct activity, caused birds to fight, that the facilities were inadequate and the flock was unhealthy, decimated since entering the state’s care, while their owner stands trial merely for conspiring to violate welfare law. Where’s the justice in that?
Saville: It was a complete miscarriage of justice.
I’ve seen some photos from the facilities, and I agree with Saville’s expert opinion. They look like they’re struggling in the concrete facility, pale-faced and huddled together. In one, a full-grown rooster with a towering straight comb stands next to his feed container, which is made for baby chicks and dispenses feed beneath one-inch circular holes in the plastic, not near large enough for the cock’s head, with the tall comb to reach in and eat.
I’ll post some photos or video, along with Saville’s precluded testimony to the court, on the website at bloodlinepodcast.com and I encourage you all to see for yourselves.
TOMMY: We got a quarter.
As I’ve already mentioned, Tommy would eventually be found guilty of one count at the trial, and has since served a year in prison, and is now on probation that prohibits him from tending his chickens, but he’s eager to get back.
TOMMY: THANK GOD
He won’t, however be returning to the role of a quiet farmer. Taking inspiration from the gamecock, he’s been spurred on by the ordeal.
TOMMY CARRANO: “Don’t feel bad for me …”
Tommy has been working to organize and educate farmers across the country about the current state of animal law. He’s started a website, gamefowlpreservationsociety.com. He’s appeared twice on the popular radio and podcast segment, LoosTales with Trent Loos, and has been very active in lobbying for changes alongside the gamefowl as well as the larger agricultural community. To see Tommy’s latest projects or get involved, visit his website at gamefowlpreservationsociety.com.
I’ll post a link to Tommy’s site, as well as his interviews with Loos and supplemental documents and media for this episode, visit us at bloodlinepodcast.com.
If you’d like to join me on the show to talk about any of the above topics or any other topic of cultural, historical or personal relevance to the gamefowl community, let me know. Find my contact information on the website at Bloodlinepodcast.com.
Thanks for listening. Ya’ll keep’em crowing, and Merry Christmas.