Friday, August 13, 2004
Crackdown reverberates across coon hunting circuit
Stuart Ray Blankenship, who appeared "out of nowhere" to win coon hunts, is scheduled to plead guilty to accepting bribes. (See and hear more)
Botetourt County coon hunter and breeder Bruce Huffman says he now knows how Stuart Ray Blankenship popped up on the coon hunting circuit and started "winning, winning, winning."
"I don't know this man, and suddenly he's a contender," Huffman said of Blankenship, a former chairman of the Buchanan County Board of Supervisors who is scheduled to plead guilty today to money laundering and racketeering as part of Operation Big Coon Dog, a federal crackdown on alleged public corruption.
Ever since charges against 16 people and six companies were unleashed in June, the news has reverberated around the coon hunting world, where Huffman said everybody knows everybody - and their dog.
"Every time you go to an event, that's the big talk," Huffman said of Blankenship. "Because he popped into the scene out of nowhere, and now this answers a lot of questions."
Like any other subculture born of people both passionate and competitive, the world of coon hunting has its high-power players, its attendant petty jealousies and the occasional crook who makes everybody else look bad. Though depending on whom you talk to, coon hunting may have more than its share of cheats.
Hunts are based on a complex point system that depends in large part on the honesty of the participants. That can get a little dicey, for example, because the people who act as judges are involved in the hunt themselves.
"Some people like to say they've seen a coon when it's really either a spider web or something else up there in the tree, so you gotta watch," said coon hunter Kevin Sawyer, 18, of Rocky Mount. (Some people have also raised questions over the years about whether some breeders are actually delivering pups with the bloodlines they promise. DNA profiling has been standard practice in the sport for about 15 years.)
It's a world where bragging rights go to the owners of the dogs who tree coons first, said Jeff Stump, 38, a Master of Hounds for the Little River Coon Hunters Club in Check.
"Some people, it's just the most important thing in life - they've got to win this thing," said Stump, who did not comment directly on the federal case. "And they will do whatever it takes, to come in here and win."
Blankenship, 52, confirmed in a brief phone conversation that he is scheduled to plead guilty today in federal court in Abingdon. He said he would comment on the case after it is resolved.
Blankenship faces up to 60 years in prison and a fine of up to $1 million on the charges.
Federal authorities charge that contractors in Buchanan County paid bribes worth about $545,000 to county officials to win about $7.6 million in state and federal contracts earmarked for cleanup efforts after the Hurley floods.
The floods killed two people and caused an estimated $30 million in damage to the area. Some defendants made more than $3 million in cash and other benefits off the deals, federal prosecutors say.
It was several years ago - around the time that the allegations in the indictment date to - that Huffman said Blankenship became a high-profile fixture on the coon dog circuit.
"From the dogs he had, to the events he was winning and the people he was paying to handle those dogs, he was paying a fortune," Huffman said. "Plus, he was advertising in the books and spending a good penny for those dogs."
All of a sudden, Blankenship's name surfaced regularly in magazines such as American Cooner, Coonhound Bloodlines, and Prohound, Huffman said.
The March 2004 issue of American Cooner features a full-page ad in which Blankenship offers his dog, Ole South Stylish Rebel, to breed for $300.
"Some of the best coon dog trainers on planet Earth live in these mountains," the ad says. "They've forgotten more about coon hunting than most people learn in a lifetime."
The ad also says Blankenship placed seventh and 20th in the 2003 United Kennel Club World Hunt with the same family of dogs as Ole South Stylish Rebel. The ad also claims that Blankenship turned down $30,000 for one of his other dogs and $14,000 for another dog.
Another ad from the August 2003 issue of American Cooner says: "Are You Tired of Losing? Would You Like to Start Winning Again?" Blankenship offers the sales of pups and coon dogs, and stud service in the ad.
Meanwhile, Blankenship was collecting Social Security benefits for being disabled, federal prosecutors say.
Another reason Blankenship gained notoriety on the coon dog circuit was his friendship with the Rev. Timothy Ball, a nationally known coon dog breeder from Oklahoma, who another well-known breeder and competitor, John Wick of Missouri, said "is like the Don King of coon dogs, and he's equally controversial."
Ball confirmed in a phone interview that he had known Blankenship for years. He would not comment directly on the charges against Blankenship, except to say that if federal money has been stolen, the people who are proved guilty should be brought to justice.
"I am reasonably sure that many of those individuals involved were raised by good parents who raised their children right and up to this point in time, lived good, respectable lives," Ball read from a prepared statement.
Ball is named in the indictment as the recipient of $3,000 from another defendant in the case, contractor Terry Gene Clevinger. Federal authorities say the money was actually another bribe for Blankenship. Ball was not charged in the case.
"There is still time for all to do right," Ball continued. "Money is not the root of all evil. It is the love of money that is the root of all evil. Let us all learn and learn well that doing wrong will take you farther than you want to go, cost you more than you want to pay, and keeps you longer than you want to stay."
Prosecutor Tom Bondurant said that federal authorities did not seize coon dogs Blankenship may still own as part of the investigation.
"There's a general rule in government," Bondurant said. "We don't seize anything that eats or talks. Nothing good can come of that."
That policy comes from asset forfeiture training that federal prosecutors have received since the early 1980s, Bondurant said. Lecturers always used the example of an incident when federal authorities seized partial ownership of a racehorse and tried to stud the racehorse to make some money off it, Bondurant said. But the horse wasn't interested in horses of the opposite gender, Bondurant said.
Meanwhile, Wick maintained that most of the coon hunting game is good, though he said he has seen quite a few crooks come and go.
And Stump maintains the notion of cheating is all relative.
"Unless the judge can prove that he [a coon dog] was running a deer when you turned him loose, he's going to go over the hill, get on a coon and get treed," said Stump, who lives in Bent Mountain. "You got to give the dog the benefit of the doubt. You know what he was doing, but you can't prove it. Innocent until proven guilty."