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Roosters' squawks bring raid by police

Cpl. Ken Vetzel expected to find trained fighting dogs at the home on Columbus Drive.

Instead of barks, the Hillsborough County Animal Services officer heard rooster squawks.

Property owner Jorge Morales, 39, ran an illegal cockfighting ring, complete with wager sheets, training tools and 60 roosters housed in individual wooden pens, authorities say.

"They're bred and trained to fight," Vetzel said. "They're not your typical barnyard rooster."

Morales and two other men, Alexis Cuervo, 63, and Rafael Martinez, 28, were arrested, accused of operating a facility for baiting animals, records show.

An anonymous caller tipped off investigators Tuesday morning, but the caller said the men ran a dog-fighting ring. When Vetzel went to investigate, he stumbled upon a cockfight in progress, he said.

"I heard people and chickens and cheering in Spanish," he said.

Vetzel wasn't armed, so he called Tampa police for backup. As he waited, two cars left the property, he said. When police arrived, only Morales, Cuervo and Martinez remained. The three were arrested and taken to the Orient Road jail, records show.

Morales has no criminal history, state records show. Cuervo was twice arrested by Tampa police on charges of aggravated battery and resisting an officer.

Martinez has been arrested 22 times since 1998 on charges including domestic violence, cocaine possession and grand theft, records show.

Animal Services workers hauled off the 60 roosters and a duck. It was not clear what would be done with them, but such trained fighting animals are typically killed, Vetzel said.

Investigators found no dead roosters, and they did not notice any major injuries on their bodies. It's hard to tell if a rooster is injured, though, because of all the feathers, he said.

Cockfighting trains roosters to be vicious, he said.

"It's one of the most horrific, brutal things you can do to an animal," he said.

Morales told investigators he owned the roosters for a year, said Tampa police Cpl. Danny Hernandez.

Neighbor Dion Nunez, 46, thinks police have it all wrong.

Nunez, who manages Universal Cars & Trucks of Tampa, the used car and auto shop next to Morales' property, said he never saw his neighbor fight birds and never heard any pained rooster cries.

"They work and play together," he said. "If there are charges, that's wrong."

Nunez says he's grown fond of the frequent barnyard cockadoodledos.

"I kind of like it, honestly," he said, pausing to listen to the crowing. "I'm going to miss it."

Researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Abbie VanSickle can be reached at (813) 226-3373 or vansickle@sptimes.com.

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