TAMPA — Down a dirt road marked La Familia Lane, roosters wandered from back yard to back yard pecking at trash and the remnants of blood-stained pens.
Empty beer bottles signaled where spectators had wagered on the birds' lives. Now seven men sit behind bars facing cockfighting charges as investigators worked to clean up the mess.
About 350 birds were discovered when Animal Services teamed with deputies to end what was called an ongoing animal fighting ring involving seven households Wednesday in the 6600 block of 32nd Avenue.
Animals were baited in the open, investigators said.
"We've been here before and warnings didn't work," Animal Services spokeswoman Marti Ryan said at the scene. "They weren't hiding this activity. In their view, it may be their way of life, but the fact is it is against the law."
Officials said the cockfighting ring was one of the biggest they can remember locally.
Several families, including children, were living in the homes, some of which had fighting arenas set up inside. Amid piles of rotted furniture and animal carcasses, deputies found thousands of dollars in cash, illegal substances and fighting equipment. Code enforcement officials condemned the residences, though each had a flat-screen television.
Goats, turkeys and pigs also roamed the properties. Dogs were found dehydrated and chained to the ground. A Jack Russell terrier caught in a shallow wire animal trap with a dead chicken was rescued.
While the dogs may go on to adoptive homes, all of the birds were euthanized. Animal Services workers administered sodium pentobarbital by injection. Many of the birds were covered in gashes or tainted by steroid injections. Some were fitted with blades and spurs designed to make cockfights more graphic.
Those that weren't injured were too aggressive to be pets, Ryan said.
Deputies said cockfighting is big business. Two of the men charged had previous cockfighting arrests.
"We were here four years ago, we tore it down and they just rebuilt it," Deputy Susan Bradford said. "They have to be making some money here."
Neighbor Elizabeth Martinez said she noticed luxury cars parking up and down the street at night, especially on weekends. She didn't know exactly what was taking place but is glad authorities got involved.
"I hope they keep on top of it," she said. "I have three children and I want this neighborhood to stay safe."
Another neighbor had doubts, predicting the cockfighting would return in just weeks.
Ryan said this time, it's different. Those involved could face prison time.
Jesus Diaz, 47, was arrested Wednesday and charged with 32 counts related to animal fighting and marijuana possession. Bail was set at $66,000. In 1998, he was arrested for attending an animal fight.
Hayan Riveron, 42, was also charged with 32 counts related to animal fighting. Bail was set at $64,000.
Carlos Gonzalez, 50, was charged with 14 counts related to animal fighting, possession of cocaine and possession of a firearm. Bail was set at $45,500.
Danilo Sanchez, 53, was charged with 18 counts related to animal fighting. Bail was set at $36,000.
Three more people were expected to be charged.
"We hope to send a clear message, not just to these people but to everyone else in the area too," Ryan said. "We have laws about how to treat and care for animals. We hope we won't have to come back here."
Sarah Whitman can be reached at (813) 661-2439 or firstname.lastname@example.org.