Family of Cockfighters Nabbed in Federal Sting

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The Huerta family does not sound like a particularly wholesome bunch. According to federal prosecutors, father Hector and his sons Octavio and Jason hosted cockfights at a rural property in Auburn, dealt illegal firearms -- including an AK-47 and grenades -- and sold large quantities of meth, cocaine, and pot. The trio has been arrested and charged with conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine, but they will likely never face charges for animal cruelty or animal fighting.

The Huerta family first attracted the attention of federal law-enforcement agents in April, when an unnamed confidential informant told members of the ATF's violent gang task force that a man known as "El Michoacono" offered to sell him an AK-47, according to a criminal complaint filed October 14 in Western Washington federal court. The informant had recently been busted for burglary and and car theft, and agreed to wear a wire while buying guns and dope in exchange for leniency with his case.

On April 5, the snitch arranged a meeting with El Michoacono, identified in the court documents as Hector Huerta. Huerta lives with his two sons in an apartment on Henderson Street, a few blocks from Highway 99 in Seattle's South Park neighborhood, but also rents a parcel of farmland near 59th Avenue South in Auburn that court documents say is "a significant distance from paved roads and has only one access route."
When the informant arrived at the Auburn property planning to purchase an SKS-type rifle and a half-ounce of meth, investigators noted the "sound of roosters in the background" as they listened from afar on their wire to the men talking in Spanish. Hector Huerta said he hosts "chicken fights" at the farm, and he offered to sell the informant a rooster for $250. He also pushed 12 pounds of marijuana "locally grown in the mountains," for $1,200 per pound, as well as cocaine and meth imported from "a nephew in Mexico." They settled instead on the original deal -- meth and the rifle -- for $1,000, with promises to do more business in the future.

On May 2, the ATF's man was back at the farm in Auburn planning to buy three more guns, but the conversation again turned to cockfights. This time Hector showed off some of his birds, as well as "some bags containing dead chickens that were killed in fights the previous day." Hector bragged about his roosters, and showed off one bird that had been cut during a match the day before. It is standard practice for cockfighters to attach razor-sharp blades to their birds' talons, and the steel spurs ensure the matches are generally brief.

According to the Humane Society, "thousands of dollars can exchange hands as spectators and animal owners wager large sums on their favorite birds." The price of admission was allegedly $20 at a Huerta family cockfight, and another $50 to put a bird in the ring. The informant reported back to the ATF that the Huertas house "several hundred" chickens on their rental property.

The family's primary business, however, is allegedly selling arms and drugs. On subsequent visits, the informant used ATF money to buy stolen pistols and shotguns, and was even offered a deal on some grenades. The Huertas allegedly sold cocaine by the kilo (at a cool $26,000 apiece) and sizable quantities of meth. On October 7, the last documented visit to the Huerta property, the informant ended up staring down the barrels of two loaded shotguns when Jason and Hector didn't recognize the car he was driving as he arrived to buy three ounces of crank. He left with the drugs -- and also the shotguns that had just been pointed at him.

The Huertas were arrested October 18, as part of "Operation Center of Attention," a broad sweep of the White Center area by local and federal law-enforcement agencies that included the arrests of 50 other individuals in unrelated cases. Hector, Jason, and Octavio have each been charged with conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine.

Emily Langlie, spokeswoman for the Western Washington U.S. Atorney, says that the men will appear before a grand jury and could still conceivably face charges related to their cockfighting hobby. But that scenario is unlikely, Langlie says, because the meth charges carry a stiffer sentence, specifically a mandatory minimum of five years with room for upward departure based on factors like the quantity of drugs involved and whether a weapon was present during the deals.

"I don't know that having a cockfighting operation that there would be anything in the code that would enhance a drug sentence," Langlie says, noting that it's not unusual for detectives to stumble upon animal fighting during gang investigations. "We know this [drug] charge is reflective of what they're doing and has mandatory minimum. It's in the best interest of prosecutorial resources to focus on that."

Cockfighting and dogfighting were made felonies under the same federal law in 2007. The bloodsports are punishable by up to three years in prison, but the law only applies if the animals are transported across state lines. Cockfighting is also illegal under state law, where it is a class C felony that comes with a maximum five-year sentence and $10,000 fine. Being a spectator at a cockfight carries the same penalty as owning and fighting the birds.

According to court documents, the next cockfight at the Huerta farm was scheduled to take place on November 24 at their property in Auburn. But with Hector Huerta in federal custody with no chance of bail, that pelea de gallos is probably canceled. As for the "hundreds" of roosters reportedly housed on the Huerta farm, Langlie says that the birds were likely turned over to the owner of the rental property. She added that one of the Huerta brothers -- Jason, according to court records -- was released on bail and may still be tending the birds.

Huerta Conspiracy Complaint

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