Crime & Courts

Chicken killers leave at least 300,000 dead, millions in damage to SC farms

A farm worker stands in a chicken house that would normally be filled with hundreds of chickens.
A farm worker stands in a chicken house that would normally be filled with hundreds of chickens. mwalsh@thestate.com

Attacks the past two weeks on at least 16 farms across several rural South Carolina counties killed an estimated 300,000 chickens and cost the owners roughly $1.7 million.

Clarendon County Sheriff Randy Garrett said someone familiar with alarm systems used in chicken houses is responsible. Those alarms also control the heat, air conditioning and ventilation units and notify farmers by cellphone when buildings get too hot or cold. Chickens can die in about an hour if the ventilation and heating systems are turned off.

“The chicks, you have to maintain the temperature at 95 to 100 degrees, and when they get older it’s 65 to 70 degrees,” Garrett said. “(The suspect) knows what to do with the temperature setting needed to maintain 70 degrees and he is turning it up and killing them.”

Federal officials, SLED agents and officers from Clarendon, Sumter and Florence counties are among those involved in the investigation.

All of the victimized farms raise chickens for Colorado-based Pilgrim’s Pride, the nation’s largest poultry producer, law enforcement officials said. Officials did not say Monday why they think Pilgrim’s Pride and its contract farms are being targeted. Other details, including how many suspects might be involved, were not known Monday.

W.L. Coker, 81, is among roughly a dozen farmers hit in Clarendon County. He lost about $65,000 and 200,000 chickens in the attack on his farm.

Coker said Monday he has never experienced a loss like this in all his years of farming.

“It’s a lot of hard work,” said Coker, who did not want to give his farm’s location in fear of risking another attack. “They roasted them. If they get too hot they die. I hate for them to be destroyed like that.”

Only an estimated 500 birds survived the attack, and they will be shipped out in coming days, Coker said.

One of Coker’s employees discovered the dead chickens a week ago Tuesday. He said he noticed a large amount of steam coming from the sides and the roofs of the chicken houses when he arrived at work around 7 a.m. He immediately knew something was wrong.

When he walked into one of the chicken houses, he said it was like a sheet of white – almost like snow – that wasn’t moving. The ventilation was shut off and the temperature inside the house was turned up to 115 degrees.

“The heat could have knocked you down,” said the employee, who has worked for Coker for seven years and asked that his name not be used because of concern for the farm. “If I would have found (the suspects), they would have had a problem. It takes dirty people to do something like that.”

When Coker found out about the attack on his farm, he called a fellow farmer and told him to be on the lookout. Coker said his friend, whose farm has not been attacked, stayed with his chickens all night, gun in hand.

When neighbors learned about Coker’s loss, they came out with heavy farm equipment and trailers to help move the dead birds. Mounds of dirt a few hundred feet from the chicken houses are a grim marker where Coker and his neighbors buried the hundreds of thousands of chickens.

It will take about four weeks to clean up and prepare for the next shipment of chickens, Coker said, and an additional nine weeks after that to raise them to be ready for shipment.

The eight chicken houses that were attacked are now being cleaned out, Coker said Monday. The pungent smell of ammonia pierced the air, a sign that the process of disinfecting the chicken house was underway, while another farm employee used a tractor to lay down new dirt and shavings to prepare for the next shipment.

Pilgrim’s Pride officials said in a statement that the attacks showed a “blatant disregard for the welfare of the chickens and the livelihood of the family farmers involved.” They declined further comment, citing the ongoing investigation.

Coker’s employee said Monday the losses are hard.

“When you come out here seven days a week and work hard, it hurts,” he said. “You know he (Coker) is feeling the loss. They are messing with my family too, because this is all I do.”

The Associated Press contributed.

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