WINCHESTER — Thirteen months after police seized 161 fowl at the home of a suspected cockfighting breeder, the case is continuing.
On Friday in Frederick County Circuit Court, a lawyer representing suspect Steven Ritter failed to get the charges dropped after accusing police of misconduct in taking the hens and roosters and killing many of them. Robert Anderson said Frederick County Sheriff’s Office deputies pressured Ritter into giving them the birds rather than seizing them by telling him it would cost him $10 per bird per day to house them if they were seized. That works out to $1,600 per day.
Anderson also said deputies threatened to charge Ritter’s sons if they adopted the poultry. He said authorities destroyed many of the birds and had the rest adopted without holding a probable cause hearing within 10 days. Anderson contended police operated in bad faith and violated Ritter’s right to due process.
“There is no remedy because the evidence has been destroyed or it has been sent to parts unknown,” Anderson said. “They lied to him. They misled him. They threatened his family. That’s bad faith.”
Cockfighting involves strapping razor-sharp knives to the legs of roosters and forcing them to hack each other to death in a ring. Animal fighting for “amusement, sport or gain” is a misdemeanor in Virginia, but it’s a felony if it involves gambling or devices or substances used to enhance the animal’s ability to fight or inflict pain on another animal.
Police said the raid was prompted by a tip that cockfighting was occurring on Ritter’s property in the 3000 block of Front Royal Pike (U.S. 522). Besides the birds, police said they seized syringes, which are used on cockfighting fowl, as well as a cockfighting catalog, cockfighting videos, drop cages, and 13 guns and ammunition.
The 73-year-old Ritter is accused of 10 counts each of animal cruelty and possessing, selling or training animals for fighting. The latter charges are felonies.
The Virginia Attorney General’s Office Animal Law Unit is prosecuting the case rather than the Frederick County Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office. Ross Spicer, county prosecutor, said the office has more resources to prosecute the case and had requested to do so.
In arguing that the seizure was legal, Kelci Block, an assistant attorney general, said Ritter was given the option of turning over the birds or having them seized. She said body camera footage from the deputies makes it “very clear that there was no coercion, no threatening and no lies.”
Block said once the birds were filmed on the premises, they lost their evidentiary value. She compared it to a corpse no longer having evidentiary value after an autopsy is performed on it. Block said many of the birds were destroyed because the state couldn’t afford to feed and house all of them.
Judge Alexander R. Iden agreed that the seizure and killings were legal. He ruled that the birds were “voluntarily relinquished,” and because they were cataloged and photographed before being killed, they were not destroyed in bad faith.
Ritter is scheduled to stand trail for two days beginning on Feb. 27.