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Counselors accused of staging camp fights

Sheriff's officers are investigating allegations that counselors at a 4-H summer camp arranged fistfights between children ages 9 to 13, charged admission to the brawls and allowed betting.

Franklin County Sheriff Quint Overton said Tuesday the youngsters were told to lie to parents about the fights after several campers suffered black eyes and one broke his hand.

No charges have been filed, but Overton said he had six officers investigating the five-day camp that began June 30 at the Smith Mountain Lake 4-H Educational Conference Center.

"It's hard to believe anyone would do this," Overton said. He said he heard campers were charged $1 for admission and counselors and children could bet up to $4 per fight.

The sheriff said investigators have talked to several parents since the first complaint came Monday from Richard Rawls, who said his 10-year-old son came home with a black eye. Rawls said his son claimed he had been hit by a basketball.

"They pitted these kids against each other like a damn cockfight," Rawls said.

Rawls said his son was forced to defend himself five times during the week. He won the first four fights, but was knocked out the fifth time.

"He's okay now, I guess. He's been crying, and he told me today he wants to go to the doctor," Rawls said.

Boys who did not want to participate were confined to their cabins, Overton said.

About 300 children attended the camp last week at Smith Mountain Lake. It was organized by the Bedford County chapter of the Virginia Cooperative Extension.

The camp was supervised by teen counselors, 14 to 18 years old, and adult counselors, 19 and older. Four teens and two adults were in charge of the lodge where the fights allegedly occurred, said Charlie Stott of Virginia Cooperative Extension.

If the accusations prove true, Stott said, "it's certainly an isolated incident."

Calls to the national 4-H headquarters were referred to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the 4-H. A USDA spokeswoman did not return a phone call.

Smith Mountain Lake is one of six 4-H camps in Virginia with activities ranging from rifle marksmanship and archery to computer science, journalism and the performing arts. They serve more than 26,000 campers every year.

Camp counselors generally come from local 4-H chapters and are mostly volunteers who must have 24 hours of training on working with young people and emergency procedures, Stott said. The camps also have at least one full-time paid staff member.