The call came early in the afternoon of Jan. 17. Check out a property in Mulberry, the tipster said, alerting deputies of a major cockfighting operation.
By 11 p.m., authorities had a search warrant and a team of 16 law enforcement officers. Outside a garage, they could hear the roaring cheers. They barged in, finding about 50 people watching a fight.
"As soon as we made entry, they didn't even pay us any attention," said Paul Wright, a Polk County sheriff's deputy. "We were yelling, 'Police!' and it was like they were so involved in what they were doing that they didn't hear us."
Most of the crowd eventually tried running, but 39 people were caught and arrested. The property owner, Andres Saura, 44, faces 24 felony charges related to animal fighting.
It was the largest raid that Wright can recall, and the beginning of a string of cockfighting arrests this year in Hillsborough and Polk counties.
The most recent arrest came Tuesday, when Polk deputies nabbed Cody L. Gibbs, 39, of Winter Haven. He's charged with fighting and baiting animals and possession of fighting equipment.
In addition to 61 roosters, deputies found numerous cockfighting magazines and videos. Gibbs admitted owning the paraphernalia, but denied holding fights.
Polk deputies also arrested two Lakeland men Feb. 27 after discovering a cockfighting ring in the back yard of a residence, records show. On Feb. 13, a man and woman landed in jail after Hillsborough deputies found more than 100 roosters believed to have been raised for fighting on their property near West Tampa.
On Jan. 24, a Plant City cockfight ended with five arrests and 20 people running from the scene.
Hillsborough and Polk have far more animal fighting arrests than the region's other counties, and cockfighting is gaining prevalence in Polk, Wright said.
"I think as more Hispanics come from Mexico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic — places where their heritage teaches cockfighting as a national pastime — it's growing," he said.
There are many cockfights in Hillsborough that authorities don't catch because they occur in rural areas and are run by tight-knit groups, said Sgt. Pam Perry with Hillsborough County Animal Services.
"It's going on two or three times a week, guaranteed," she said.
Some cockfight raids in recent years have turned up more than 100 roosters, and many have been prepped to fight: The skin above and below their heads was clipped and the leg spurs were removed to make room for knives and gaffs.
Most fights are over within a few minutes, but some drag on if neither rooster suffers a strike to a vital organ. They almost always end with at least one dead bird, said John Goodwin, a spokesman for the Humane Society of the Unites States.
"Carnage is the best word to describe it," he said.
The Animal Fighting Act, which passed in 2003 and makes it a felony to attend fights, possess paraphernalia or breed animals for combat, has discouraged growth in Florida, Goodwin said.
Locally, though, arrests have increased since the four years leading up to the law's strengthening, when the bay area had 13 arrests, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. From 2004 to 2008, there were 177 animal-fighting arrests in the region, with all but six of them in Hillsborough or Polk counties.
• • •
Roger Villanueva moved to the United States from Mexico when he was a teenager. Now 54, the Plant City resident grew up helping his father raise and sell roosters for fighting in his native country, one of several Latin American nations where it's legal. "Sometimes, friends get together on the weekends and do this," he said. "It's normal."
There's heavy Hispanic involvement in Hillsborough's cases, enough so that Perry considers it a cultural activity. Officials in Polk also said the majority of their cases involve Hispanics.
Attending cockfights during his childhood was a typical family activity, Villanueva said.
"You get excited, and in every corner of the ring there's a color," he said. "We used to have our own money, and I'd say 'I'm going to go for the red color or for the white color.' "
Although it's a part of his Mexican heritage, Villanueva said he has had no involvement while in the United States. "I'm not the kind of person who looks for these fights because I know it's illegal here," he said.
There's also a criminal culture to the local fights, Perry said, that includes gambling, guns and drugs.
At the Mulberry ring, deputies seized $30,000 and two guns, along with 109 roosters that were euthanized. "It's an event, not unlike going to a hockey game: You're going to buy a beer, maybe buy some drugs before the game," Perry said. "This is a business to these people.
"The only care for the animal is that they fight and win."
• • •
Felipe Cordero has an 11-page arrest record in Florida, including two animal-fighting arrests. Cordero, 32, was heavily involved in a cockfighting ring that was broken up last year in Tampa, officials said.
He initially faced 20 felony charges, but was convicted of only three misdemeanor counts of animal cruelty, according to court records. Cordero was fined $554 and sentenced to two years of house arrest, which he has violated at least twice.
Cordero's charges were reduced because he cooperated with authorities and led them to at least two ongoing investigations, said Cpl. Ken Vetzel of Hillsborough County Animal Services.
"He was actually a wealth of information to us," he said.
It's often difficult to convict suspects on all charges because most cases involve many people who aren't willing to implicate others or admit their involvement, Vetzel said.
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Kevin Smetana can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2439.