Crime

Who shot the cockfight ref? Secret arena outside Miami was packed but nobody's talking

Murder at Miami cockfight remains a mystery

Miami-Dade police detectives are searching for the killers of Jose Garcia, a referee for cockfighting, an illegal sport that continues to draw crowds of gamblers to secret events.
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Miami-Dade police detectives are searching for the killers of Jose Garcia, a referee for cockfighting, an illegal sport that continues to draw crowds of gamblers to secret events.

In an arena hidden among ramshackle farms and nurseries west of Hialeah, spilling blood was a regular occurrence.

Usually, the dead were ferocious roosters, the losers in cockfights put on for rowdy gamblers. This time, the blood staining the fighting ring came from the man refereeing the brutal matches — shot dead at close range in the middle of the crowded arena.

Detectives found Jose Raudel Garcia, 46, known as "El Ruso" or "The Russian," slumped over inside the ring, a bag of refereeing equipment still hanging around his neck, his body riddled with bullets.

Two months later, the murder of the cockfighting ref remains unsolved. There are some reasons why. The blood sport, billed as family entertainment in Florida a half century ago, has been pushed deep underground, pursued only in secret unlicensed arenas like the one where the patrons quickly flew the coop after the brazen killing.

Garcia was well-known in cockfighting circles but nobody at the shooting ever called the cops. Instead, his family did after getting the word. When police finally got there at least an hour later, they found dozens of warrior roosters, some dead and thrown in trashcans, others awaiting combat in rows of cages.

What they did not find were witnesses.

"It's a very tight-knit community and no one wants to snitch," said Miami-Dade homicide Detective Michael Brajdic. "I have not had a single tip on this — and there were upward of 50 people there."

Illegal here; popular elsewhere

An ancient sport, cockfighting is still legal and popular in many parts of the world, including in Latin America. Only last month, the Philippines hosted it annual Slasher Cup, the world's largest cockfighting competition. A bird named Greengold Uno emerged as the "solo champ" after six days of fighting.

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Crime scene images from an illegal cockfighting ring discovered in Northwest Miami-Dade. Cockfight referee Jose Raudel Garcia was shot and killed there on April 20, 2018. Miami-Dade Police

But the sport is mostly illegal in the United States, reviled by animal-rights activists as cruel and inhumane, although it remains government-sanctioned and popular in Puerto Rico, generating an estimated $100 million annually in bets, food and drink and entrance fees tickets.

Florida officially outlawed cockfighting in 1985. But for decades before that, cockfighting was open and popular throughout the state, with tournaments in cities such as Orlando and St. Augustine drawing gamblers and spectators from across the country.

Miami has its own rich cockfighting history. For many of the region's immigrants, whose home countries in Latin America proudly accept the sport, la pelea de gallos is as beloved as dominoes and cold beer.

Throughout the '60s and '70s, cockfighting was openly staged throughout most of Dade County, although the gambling associated with it was considered outlawed. Private groups with names such as Club Campestre Nuevo Rincon Criollo and Native Country staged raucous competitions at large arenas in Southwest and Northwest Dade.

High stakes can mean high passions that sometimes wound up as violence outside the fighting ring.

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Crime scene images from an illegal cockfighting ring discovered in Northwest Miami-Dade. Cockfight referee Jose Raudel Garcia was shot and killed there on April 20, 2018. Miami-Dade Police

In 1975, one of the owners of Rincon Criollo was charged with murdering a promoter who had started a rival cockfighting club. Five years ago, two men were shot and killed at a shabbily organized cockfighting operation at a rural property near Homestead. The gunfire erupted when one gallo owner accused his competitor of lacing his cock's spurs with poison.

The match's referee, an innocent bystander, was shot and killed. The suspected instigator, Agustin Figueredo, 67, was mortally wounded in the fracas and no one was ever charged.

That illegal operation was nowhere near as elaborate as the one where El Ruso was shot and killed on April 20.

The Lawless C9 Basin

The property lays in the rural C9 Basin, just 12 miles northwest of Hialeah but a sometimes lawless world away from Miami-Dade's suburbs and cities. The region north of Okeechobee Road is a wild collection of farmland, nurseries and quarries — and the setting for unregulated slaughterhouses, ramshackle and unpermitted buildings, illegal dumping and underground cockfighting.

In 2010, Miami-Dade authorities, responding to complaints from animal-rights activists, started a task force to crack down on slaughterhouses and illegal structures in the basin. In all, 20 cockfighting arenas were discovered, and 175 properties were cited for having illegal structures, including the land where Garcia would be shot and killed.

"This is nothing new in the C9. This is historically where it happens," said Rick Roig, the assistant director of the county's code compliance office.

The structures on the 1.2-acre property, at 17998 NW 129th Ave, were razed by 2011. It was sold to Antonio Guzman, of Hialeah, in 2016. He could not be reached for comment.

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Crime scene images from an illegal cockfighting ring discovered in Northwest Miami-Dade. Cockfight referee Jose Raudel Garcia was shot and killed there on April 20, 2018. Miami-Dade Police

Guzman got no permits to build any structures, according to county records, but the parcel nonetheless now features a full-blown entertainment complex. There is a padded cockfighting arena, its floor covered in sawdust , complete with stadium-style seating. There is a full-service bar and eatery and even a large whiteboard to track the winning roosters. Above the ring: pens with clear windows to theatrically lower the competing roosters into the arena.

"It was a very elaborate set up," Detective Brajdic said. "I've never seen anything like this before."

That day, as usual, customers paid a cover charge to get in, a bit extra to sit at ringside seats. The cockfights started around noon and stretched on for hours, birds ripping at each other with sharp metal spurs glued to their feet.

Between 50 and 70 people attended, drinking Corona, Presidente and Heineken beers, gobbling down empanadasand other Latin delicacies for sale. It was just before 9 p.m. that a series of gunshots rang out.

Guzman, who police said was present that night, claimed he never saw the shooter or shooters and was near his car on another part of the property when the bullets flew. Spectators stampeded out. No one called 911.

Instead, someone called Garcia's brother in Hialeah. "They shot your brother!" the unknown caller shouted, according to a search warrant filed in Miami-Dade circuit court.

His relatives knew Garcia was there that night and rushed to the property, zooming up Okeechobee into the desolate outback. It was not until they arrived that Garcia's sister-in-law called 911. By the time police officers arrived, the witnesses were gone.

'He ran with a tough crowd'

What sparked the murder is anyone's guess — Garcia was pumped full of bullets, execution style, and it was unclear if a match was underway or he was on a break.

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Jose Raudel Garcia was shot and killed at a cockfighting arena in Northwest Miami-Dade in April 2018. HO

Garcia, a handyman and father of seven, was well-known in the cockfighting world. He was known as El Ruso because of his light complexion. A black belt in Judo, Garcia came to Miami more than 15 years ago from Cuba. He was a friend of Guzman's, and had refereed matches for years.

"Even in Cuba, he always loved the gallos," said his sister-in-law, Daymi Rivera. "From the time they were born, to the time they died."

That love of cockfighting had gotten him in trouble with the law before.

His first arrest for gambling at a cockfight came in 2004, at a property next door to where he was ultimately murdered. Cops found him with a silver revolver in his waistband; the charge was dropped after he entered a program for first-time offenders. He got cuffed again in 2008, and yet again in 2014 in a high-profile bust that saw Miami-Dade police officers arrest a staggering 158 people for attending an illegal cockfight.

But Garcia had been arrested — and beat charges — in much more serious cases.

In 2011, records show, he was arrested on an attempted murder charge in a case that was dropped. Two years ago, police accused him of robbing a man at gunpoint during a deal that was supposed to be to "complete an investment transaction over a property in Southwest Miami-Dade," according to an arrest report.

Garcia beat that charge too.

"He ran with a tough crowd and was no stranger to trouble," said his former attorney, David Fernandez. "That said, he was a good father and husband that didn't deserve to die. I hope somebody has the courage to come forward and tell us who murdered El Ruso."

Anyone with information can call Miami-Dade CrimeStoppers at 305-471-TIPS (8477) or Miami-Dade's homicide bureau at 305-471-2400.

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