Several SWAT teams, helicopters and dozens of state troopers participated in the raid Saturday on the sprawling Del Rio Cockfight Pit in Cocke County, Tennessee. They seized about $40,000 in cash and killed more than 300 roosters.
"Reputedly, this was the largest cockfight in the United States," said District Attorney Al Schmutzer Jr. "It was becoming open and notorious, and you just can't stand back and let something operate like that in the community."
"By and large, these people who are fighting chickens are law-abiding citizens, but they're violating the law when they fight roosters in Tennessee," he told The Knoxville News Sentinel.
The 144 were each charged with being a spectator to cockfighting, a misdemeanor in Tennessee. If convicted, they face up to 11 months and 29 days in jail and a $2,500 fine.
The crowd included many older people and several small children, witnesses said, and at least two of the older attendees required medical treatment after the agents burst in and held them at gunpoint. "It was kind of rough on some old hillside people who are just trying to survive," said Wayne Donahue of Luttrell, who was issued a citation at the compound.
"It probably should be illegal, but as far as terrorizing children and old women and people who've had heart attacks and operations, that's going a little bit too far."
John Goodwin of the Humane Society of the United States, who took part in the raid, said the operation served notice on those conducting such illegal operations.
"I'm not privy to all that much information. But I wouldn't want to be a cockfighter in East Tennessee right now," he said.
More than 100 state and federal law enforcement agents participated in the raid. Officials said they were executing a federal search warrant related to a continuing investigation into illegal gambling.
Goodwin said the officers acted with restraint during the raid. "These people can be a violent crowd. They're outlaws," he said. "A lot of the cockfighters were quite defiant and hurling a lot of verbal abuse at the agents."
David Webb, a gamecock owner from Rhea County, said he lost more than 20 chickens valued at $150 each during the raid.
"I've been around this stuff all my life. Everything I've ever known is a chicken fight," he said.
Authorities said the roosters were killed when no one would claim them.
Witnesses said the pit can hold up to 400.
Newport, adjacent to the Great Smoky Mountains, is 42 miles east of Knoxville.