Hawaii County Police Chief Ben Moszkowicz says officers target cockfights where the stakes are highest.

Hawaii County police found 14 chickens, including four dead ones, when they raided a cockfight last month. But the birds weren’t the main concern.

Big Island

Police also found three unregistered pistols and a .22-caliber rifle, all loaded, plus cocaine, marijuana and $8,000 during the March 4 raid in Kealakekua. They arrested four men on firearms and drug charges.

Big Island Police Chief Ben Moszkowicz says that was no coincidence.

“Almost every single major player on the chicken fighting scene here is also a major player in terms of illegal narcotic distribution here in this county,” he said Wednesday in a telephone interview.

Moszkowicz, who took over as chief three months ago after 22 years with the Honolulu Police Department, said that’s not necessarily the case on Oahu.

“For some reason, drugs have infiltrated our cockfighting community more than on the other neighbor islands,” he said.

Jacob Borge appears in court for an arraignment via video in Honolulu, Thursday, April 27, 2023. Borge pleaded not guilty to murder and other charges stemming from a shooting at a Hawaii cockfight. Borge was indicted on 11 felony charges including murder and attempted murder stemming from the April 15, 2023, shooting that left three other people wounded at the illegal cockfight. (AP Photo/Jennifer Sinco Kelleher)
Jacob Borge appeared in court for an arraignment in Honolulu. He faces murder and firearms charges in connection with a shooting that killed two people at a cockfight. (AP Photo/Jennifer Sinco Kelleher/2023)

‘Trying To Hold Back The Ocean’

A deadly shooting earlier this month at a cockfight in a rural area on Oahu has cast a spotlight on concerns about violence connected with the practice. It also raised questions about why the fights are able to continue even though they’re illegal in all 50 states.

Hawaii is one of several states that deem cockfighting — technically, second-degree animal cruelty — a misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in prison, as opposed to a felony.

According to federal law, attending an animal fight even as a spectator is a misdemeanor — punishable by up to a year in prison and a $100,000 fine. Bringing a child under the age of 16 to a cockfight is a felony with a maximum three-year prison sentence and a $250,000 fine.

But enforcement is challenging due to scarce resources and competing demands, officials say.

Hawaii island police have conducted 10 raids on cockfights since September 2018, when the current police records system started, Sgt. Nelson Acob said in an email.

By contrast, the Honolulu Police Department hasn’t conducted a raid or made any arrests for cockfighting in well over a year, spokeswoman Michelle Yu said. She declined to comment further.

“It’s become too large of a monster for us to be able to tackle and address every single individual violation.”

Hawaii County Police Chief Ben Moszkowicz

Honolulu Police Chief Joe Logan has vowed to crack down on illegal gambling but said it’s an uphill battle to tackle cockfighting since the groups involved are highly organized and conduct events on private property.

Moszkowicz agreed, saying that trying to eradicate chicken fights “would be like trying to hold back the ocean” and allocating more officers to the effort would leave other areas without police and other crimes to go unaddressed.

“It’s become too large of a monster for us to be able to tackle and address every single individual violation,” he said.

High Stakes

Instead, Big Island police target fights with higher stakes, including tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars being gambled. Gambling is also illegal in Hawaii.

“We want the cases where people are paying $10,000 a chicken to enter them into a derby and the first prize is $100,000 or $200,000,” Moszkowicz said.

At those sorts of events, police tend to find “pounds-worth” of drugs, and they have more potential for violence, he said.

“Those are the lower hanging fruit for us to devote our resources to to disrupt,” he said.

Moszkowicz said his department targets the fights because of the other illicit activities. Animal cruelty allegations allow the police to get a search warrant to bust an active cockfight for drugs and weapons.

“That’s kind of the angle that we are actually going for, but we’re using animal cruelty to get our foot in the door — to enforce the animal cruelty statutes as well, but then to also disrupt this violent activity,” Moszkowicz said.

However, he acknowledged police can’t go after every report, comparing smaller backyard cockfights to a March Madness pool among friends or office colleagues betting on the Super Bowl. “That’s all illegal gambling activity, but there’s no enforcement of it to begin with,” he said.

Gathering evidence for a search warrant takes legwork: surveillance and site surveys, collecting source intelligence through anonymous tip lines, confidential informants and suspicious neighbors, and methods that Ed Buyten, a lieutenant in the Hawaii Police Department’s Kona vice division, didn’t want to divulge, lest cockfighters read Civil Beat.

“You have to bring some pretty compelling evidence in front of a judge” Buyten said.

Benjamin Moszkowicz answers questions during a police commission meeting held Monday at Hilo's County Building.Photo: Tim Wright
Hawaii County Police Chief Benjamin Moszkowicz says efforts to tackle cockfighting face many obstacles. (Tim Wright/Civil Beat/2022)

But relative to the number of cockfights that occur and the number of people who attend — each of whom commits a crime simply by showing up — arrests and convictions are few.

When 20 or 30 cops show up to a chicken fight derby packed with 1,000 people, they can’t arrest everyone, Moszkowicz said.

“There’s so much evidence in terms of drugs and narcotics and firearms and people with warrants and animal cruelty cases and gaffs, and all these other cases that after we’ve searched the first dozen cars, we’re done,” he said.

“We’re tapped out because we have no resources,” he added. “We’re making arrests, and then basically everybody else drives by and waves.”

An Uphill Battle

Over the past decade, new groups have gotten involved, bringing younger people with a “higher level of violent capability” and more money, Buyten said.

“The organizers understand numbers a little bit better,” Buyten said. They are “more educated,” “more mature” and “very organized,” he said.

For example, the cockfight in Kealakekua was tucked away miles up a hill on agricultural land, making it difficult to find, he said.

“They really do go out of their way to geographically make it as challenging as possible,” he said.

Hawaii County police know who owns the land that was raided in March, Moszkowicz said, but it remains uncertain whether the owner will face consequences.

Moszkowicz said the raid led him to consider other strategies to deter chicken fights, like filing nuisance abatements with property owners involved or seizing their property through civil asset forfeiture if they continue to allow the cockfighting.

In recent history, cockfight busts on the Big Island haven’t brought significant consequences for attendees or organizers.

In April 2022, police arrested a 57-year-old promoter at a chicken fight in Honokaa, with about 150 people attending, on 23 counts of animal cruelty and promotion of gambling, the Hawaii Tribune-Herald reported.

Hawaii County Prosecutor Kelden Waltjen did not charge him, court records show. Asked why in an email, Waltjen’s office didn’t say.

In April 2019, more than a year and a half before Waltjen took office and when Mayor Mitch Roth was the prosecuting attorney, Hawaii police arrested 30-year-old Lylle Martinez Salcedo of Mililani after they found two injured chickens in his rental vehicle, West Hawaii Today reported.

Salcedo was later charged with two counts of animal cruelty for his involvement in a Honokaa cockfight. One charge was dismissed, and the other, to which Salcedo pleaded no contest, left him with a $500 fine and a $55 fee, court records show.

Criminal charges hadn’t stopped the man before.

Salcedo had previously pleaded guilty to a charge of selling, making or possessing prohibited gaffs, the blades attached to fighting chickens, in 2006. He had to pay a $250 fine and a $30 fee, court records show. He also pleaded guilty to a related charge of animal cruelty for which he appears to have received no sentence. In 2004, he paid another $125, for a fee and a fine, after pleading guilty to another charge related to prohibited gaffs.

Before that, police busted a cockfight at a Pahala macadamia nut farm in 2011 and arrested five men, the Tribune-Herald reported. Three of the men received a year probation, and the remaining two never went to court.

Back On Oahu

The cockfight and shooting that left two people dead and three others wounded occurred on a dirt lot in Waianae “where illegal ‘chicken fight’ events are commonly held,” according to a court document that details an HPD investigation.

Gary Rabellizsa, 34, and Cathy Rabellizsa, 59, were both killed.

As the cockfight wound down around midnight, an argument broke out then turned physical. Rabellizsa was shot while trying to break up the fight, the document says.

Police later recovered seven 9 mm casings.

Two suspects turned themselves in a few days later.

Jacob Borge, 23, was charged with first- and second-degree murder, three counts of attempted murder and firearms charges. Petitions were filed against 16-year-old Shaedan Styles for the same charges.

Borge, who is being held without bail, pleaded not guilty Thursday during a brief arraignment. He is scheduled to go to trial in June, according to The Associated Press.

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