LINCOLNTON — Georgia officials are looking for more than 200 suspects after a "chaotic" bust of a giant cockfighting tournament over the weekend.
More than 30 people have been arrested following the Saturday bust at a property northwest of Augusta, Lincoln County sheriff's Maj. Jim Wallen told local news outlets.
Charges include felony aggravated cruelty to animals and felony commercial gambling, Wallen said.
Sheriff's deputies and officers from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources got a tip about the tournament at Lanier Hightower's farm outside Lincolnton. When they arrived, Waller said officers found ongoing cockfights in two pens, with 46 entrants in the tournament.
Participants and spectators fled, many abandoning their chickens and vehicles. Wallen described the scene as "chaotic" saying the six officers who responded couldn't arrest everyone there.
"We hauled cars from about 4 p.m. Saturday to about 4 a.m. Sunday morning," Lincolton tow truck driver Peyton Norman said.
Each entrant paid $600 to put five chickens into the tournament, and the winner would have taken away $27,600. Investigators believe the person holding the prize money is still on the run.
"I knew it was more of a money thing," Wallen said. "I did not have any idea that it would be to the magnitude that it is."
Wallen says officers found animal steroids and evidence that people were selling chickens and equipment.
"They had a concession stand," Wallen said. "You know, they had everything. It was like going to the ballpark. Everything was there."
Hightower was arrested and charged with operating a gambling establishment and aggravated cruelty to animals. Wallen said about 17 dead chickens were counted at the property. Hightower has since been released and deputies say he's supposed to be taking care of the abandoned birds.
"He didn't deny anything when I interviewed him," Wallen said of Hightower. "We know that this has been going on out there for a pretty good while, but we were just never able to get a good tip when it was actually in progress," he said. "They knew we had caught him. Nobody denied what they were doing."
Investigators are using the 50 impounded vehicles as leverage to encourage others to turn themselves in, saying the sheriff's office will then release the vehicles. If not, the sheriff's office intends to seize the vehicles.
"I'm giving them about 10 days to come in. If they don't do that, I'll start with asset forfeiture," Wallen said.