Two Elko County men convicted of cockfighting charges

ELKO, Nev. (AP) — Two Elko County men were convicted Friday of numerous crimes related to an illegal cockfighting operation discovered during a drug raid in rural northeast Nevada in 2019.

One man, Hector Hugo Ramirez-De La Torre, also was found guilty of drug trafficking charges and possessing a firearm by a prohibited person, the Elko Daily Free Press reported.

The jury failed to reach a verdict in Elko County District Court on drug charges for the other man, Jorge Landeros Ruiz. But prosecutors said Friday they intend to retry him on two felony counts of drug trafficking and one felony count of maintaining a place for unlawful use of a controlled substance.

Defense attorneys argued the men were only taking orders from higher-ups in an unspecified Mexican cartel that was running the operation and feared for their safety if they disobeyed.

A third man, Eduardo Ruiz, pleaded guilty earlier to two drug charges and five charges of unlawful killing or maiming of an animal. He was sentenced to six to 18 years in prison.

All three were arrested in a drug raid in Osino about 15 miles (24 kilometers) northeast of Elko in March 2019 when law officers set up an undercover operation and controlled the purchase of drugs.

Law officers discovered the cockfighting operation during the raid. They found more than 500 chickens and four horses and ended up euthanizing 248 roosters along with a horse in poor physical condition. They also confiscated 8.8 pounds (4 kilograms) of methamphetamine, $13,000 in cash and eight firearms.

The animal welfare group, Animal Wellness Action, heralded the convictions as further evidence federal prosecutors need to step up enforcement of animal protection laws nationally after 300 gamecocks were seized in Las Vegas last week and 70 in Los Angeles County on Wednesday. There also were eight cockfighting-related arrests in Georgia on Tuesday.

“We applaud the Elko County District Attorney’s office for their successful conviction of Jorge Ruiz on cockfighting-related charges and for cracking down and fighting against this horrific blood-sport that continues to plague the state of Nevada,” executive director Marty Irby said in a statement Friday.

“Local officials have done their job, and it’s time for the U.S. Department of Justice to take further action and enforce the federal anti-cruelty laws that were clearly violated in this case,” he said.

Jorge Ruiz was found guilty Friday of 10 counts of unlawful killing or maiming of an animal kept for companionship or pleasure, and 10 additional counts of possession of an animal with the intent to have it fight with another animal.

In addition to the drug and weapon charges, Ramirez-De La Torre was found guilty of 10 charges related to cockfighting.

Jorge Ruiz’s defense attorney, Karena Dunn, said drugs were found in and around outbuildings and trailer residences on his property, but not inside his home.

Ramirez-De La Torre’s lawyer, Gary Woodbury, said he worked as a caretaker on the property, but there was no evidence he was involved in a cock-fighting operation. He said Ramirez-De La Torre feared for his life if he disobeyed leaders of the cartel.

“The fact is that he is a minor bit player in this, and if law enforcement would have pushed this a little bit, the world would have been a whole lot better because they could have got a level up on these cartels instead of trying to get a 34-year-old minor league player in prison for a very, very long time,” Woodbury said.

Deputy District Attorney Mark Mills pointed to law enforcement testimony that denied there was cartel involvement in Elko County.

“It’s just speculation,” he said.

Mills said it was “implausible” that Jorge Ruiz “didn’t know what was going on.” All three men arrested had their names on boxes in the chicken receiving area, and instructions on cockfighting were found inside Jorge Ruiz’s primary residence, he said.

“It doesn’t take a wild leap to see all three of them were involved in this stuff,” Mills said. “The evidence shows unequivocally all three of these guys were in this together.”