The Santa Cruz County building and courthouse on Ocean Street
The Santa Cruz County building and courthouse on Ocean Street.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Latest News

Santa Cruz County cockfighting suspect represents himself in peculiar courtroom drama

In about eight hours of proceedings in a Santa Cruz courtroom spread out over two days this week, cockfighting accused Brett Kenneth Miller, 58, repeatedly debated witnesses about evidence and raised objections that were quickly shot down by Superior Court Judge Syda Cogliati, even as prosecutors offered a mountain of evidence against the South County resident.

A court case involving a career criminal facing a slew of animal cruelty and firearms charges related to a cockfighting ring took a peculiar turn this week as the defendant, Brett Kenneth Miller, chose to represent himself in court.

In about eight hours of proceedings in a Santa Cruz courtroom spread out over two days, Miller, 58, repeatedly questioned witnesses as they offered a mountain of evidence against the South County resident.

Santa Cruz County authorities busted a cockfighting ring in Watsonville on Feb. 16. Animal control officers removed about 200 chickens and several emaciated dogs and authorities also found a number of firearms at the Ranport Road property.

Miller and 21-year-old Angie Gonzalez both face several charges, including animal cruelty, felony possession of firearms and ammunition and tampering with the identification number of a firearm.

Gonzalez is represented by attorney Annrae Angel, but Miller — whose rap sheet extends back to the early 1970s and includes convictions for robbery, battery and extortion — opted in May to represent himself at this week’s preliminary hearing.

In one exchange with Deputy Sheriff Jeff Eisner, a cockfighting expert, Miller asked the law enforcement officer if he knew that George Washington and Abraham Lincoln had participated in cockfighting events, or whether Washington had refereed them.

Brett Kenneth Miller, accused of operating a cockfighting ring in Watsonville, has a long criminal record that spans...

“Yes, my understanding is that it was pretty popular in the early years of the United States,” said Eisner, who added he did not know whether the country’s first president had refereed cockfighting matches. “It is an interesting historical fact, though.”

Part-time Santa Cruz County Animal Shelter Veterinarian Dana Gleason, who examined some of the dogs taken from the property, testified that four of the dogs had damage to their teeth and skin because of what she said were infections and untreated allergies.

Cross-examining Gleason, Miller asked if bone-chewing and a dry food-heavy diet can cause teeth to wear down, suggesting that the damage could simply be chalked up to natural wear and tear. Gleason said that she has not seen dry food cause this type of damage in her experience.

“Bones could contribute to some wear, yes,” she said. “But they generally bite on bones with their back teeth, so we’d see wear or breaks there more than the incisors.”

Miller told Gleason that he had attempted to treat the dogs’ skin condition with the anti-parasitic medicine Ivermectin under the assumption that the animals were suffering from “mange.”

Gleason replied that using Ivermectin may not work, considering mange has many causes that may not respond to the anti-parasitic drug.

Gleason also testified that one of the dogs had a musty smell.

“If she got a little bit wet from moisture or whatever — not soaking, just wet, “would that cause a musty smell?” Miller shot back.

“This was not a wet dog smell,” Gleason replied. “It was an infected skin fungal smell.”

Miller went on to suggest that the photos of the dogs that Gleason was referencing were misleading, causing the dogs to look skinnier and less-healthy than they really were. He approached the stand and showed Gleason a different picture, asking if the dog looked healthier. Gleason said that she could not accurately determine that from the photo.

Miller also began to tell Gleason the ages of the dogs, preparing to attribute their poor health largely to their advanced age. However, Cogliati objected because he was referring to information that had not been entered in evidence with the court.

“You can’t testify, Mr. Miller. You’re introducing facts that weren’t in evidence,” she said.

District Attorney and prosecutor Nicole Jones called six witnesses from the Sheriff’s Office and the county animal shelter, who offered a large slate of evidence against Miller and Gonzalez.

Genevieve Reilmann, a criminalist with the sheriff’s office who searched Miller and Gonzalez’s phones for evidence, testified that she discovered text messages between Miller and someone else about holding a “derby” — a term often used to describe cockfights — as well as short videos of roosters fighting.

Animal Law Enforcement Officer Nicole Harding showed videos taken on the day of the Watsonville bust depicting roosters in inadequate shelters, poorly constructed dog houses with little to no water, a ring constructed to hold fights, and a pile of dead roosters with shallow graves for the corpses. She also added that the areas housing the animals were unclean, with feces scattered around the area.

In his cross-examination of Harding, Miller asked why she thought the shelters were inadequate. She said it was because the cages only had roofs, which would not sufficiently protect the birds from the elements should storms hit the region, and that some of them were too small.

He also asserted that the video evidence did not show an accumulation of feces in the shelters.

Harding replied that she saw the conditions first-hand. Miller replied that his “routine” was to give the dogs water at night, which would explain the empty bowls in the morning, but Harding said this is an issue in itself.

“They should always have enough water provided to them,” she said. “You were leaving when we showed up there, so they were all being left without food or water when we arrived.”

Deputy Sheriffs Nicholas Solano and Eisner both testified that five firearms — a mix of handguns, rifles, and assault rifles — were found in large trailers on the property, along with Miller’s offender identification card, a toolbox with Miller’s name on it, and mail addressed to Miller.

Eisner, the cockfighting investigation expert, testified that there is no question that the property was hosting cockfights upon reviewing videos and photos of the Ranport Road property.

As the hearing wrapped up Wednesday afternoon, Cogliati ruled that there was probable cause to hold Miller and Gonzalez to answer to all of the charges, except those related to tampering with the identification number of the firearms. Gonzalez’s lawyer, Angel, argued that there was no way to tell when the number was removed, or who did it.

The two are due back in court on July 12 for arraignment.