WINCHESTER — Steve George Ritter Sr.’s attorney said his client hasn’t been involved with cockfighting since it became a felony in Virginia in 2006, but investigators who raided Ritter’s home on Nov. 28, 2018, said they had overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

The testimony came Tuesday on the first day of Ritter’s two-day bench trial in Frederick Circuit Court. Cockfighting involves strapping razor-sharp blades to the legs of roosters and forcing them to hack each other to death or badly wound one another in a pit while gamblers bet on who wins. Fights typically take from several minutes to over 30 minutes, with thousands of dollars often bet, according to the Humane Society of the United States. Virginia is one of 42 states where cockfighting is a felony.

Investigators testified their conclusions were primarily based on many of Ritter’s roosters being altered and tethered or housed in separate cages at his home in the 3000 block of Front Royal Pike (U.S. 522). They said there also was a high ratio of roosters and stags (young male chickens) to hens, which is typically found among those breeding gamecocks.

Of the 168 birds seized, 22 were roosters and 68 were stags while 67 were hens. The other 11 birds were chicks that were too young to determine their sex. Of those whose sex could be determined, 57% were male. Amy Katherine Taylor, an investigator with the Attorney General’s Animal Law Unit — the unit is prosecuting the case on behalf of the Frederick County Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office — said on a poultry farm, the ratio of roosters to hens is far less.

Taylor said roosters were found tethered to barrels or in separate cages including Filipino fly pens, which are cages designed to allow a rooster to jump up and down, strengthening its legs and wings to improve its fighting ability.

“You’re going to segregate them to from each other so there is more excitement when they do see each other in the pit,” Taylor testified. “People like to breed a specific line to breed what they perceive is the ultimate fighting bird.”

Investigators said the altering of roosters at Ritter’s property involved ear lobes, spurs and waddles being cut off or trimmed. Spur trimming allows knives or gaffs — razor-sharp steel blades that resemble curved ice picks — to be attached to the roosters legs. Authorities said a pair of gaffs was found in a van on Ritter’s property. Other evidence of cockfighting included medicine and supplements, syringes, a cockfighting magazine, VHS tapes about cockfighting and a notebook with a page labeled cockfighting that had names and phone numbers.

Taylor said the names included David Cubbage. On June 16, Cubbage pleaded guilty to two counts of animal cruelty in Page County Circuit Court in a case related to cockfighting. Taylor said the totality of the evidence showed Ritter was running a cockfighting operation.

“It was very large,” she told defense attorney Robert D. Anderson. “It was very well organized and very well set up.”

Michelle Kitts, a former Frederick County Sheriff’s Office deputy and animal control officer who was the primary investigator on the Ritter case, testified the investigation began Oct. 24, 2018, based on a tip from a resident. Using binoculars from a nearby property, Kitts said she observed a large number of altered, penned and tethered roosters, which was probable cause to obtain a search warrant.

Jodi Collins, a veterinarian who was working for the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services at the time of the raid, examined the birds. While Anderson contended the birds may have been altered to prevent them from freezing in cold weather, Collins, who now lives in Iowa, disagreed.

“Winters are much colder here and it is not an industry standard and there is no medical reason for it,” said Collins, who testified by video from Iowa. “I’ve only seen it in cockfighting operations.”

Nonetheless, Anderson insisted the 75-year-old Ritter, charged with 10 counts each of cruelty to animals and promotion of animal fighting, is innocent. He said the gaff, magazine and VHS tapes were from before cockfighting became a felony and that the altering of the birds was just good animal husbandry.

“He has been raising poultry since he was a child,” Anderson told Judge Alexander R. Iden during opening remarks. “Mr. Ritter absolutely denies any involvement in promoting animal fighting.”

— Contact Evan Goodenow at egoodenow@winchesterstar.com

(2) comments

Blondie

Throw the book at the scumbag.

SJFRAME

We have often wondered just what people get out of this. It is cruel and ugly. Hope it can be stopped. We need to be protectors of all animals abused.

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