Tom Farrow, a former FBI agent, is driving through the hollows, hillocks, and cow ponds of Cocke County, on the Appalachian side of Tennessee. Cell phone service blinks in and out between the hills. It’s a beautiful place, an interplay of mountains and farmland, but several years ago it teemed with corruption. Back in 2005, Farrow led an undercover team that busted a large cockfighting operation in the aptly named county.

Several cockfighting pits in Cocke County hosted hundreds of gambling spectators. The owners of what Farrow calls the “white collar pit” told the FBI they paid off law enforcement—after all, Farrow explains, a pit that big can’t exist for 60 years without law enforcement knowing about it. A few miles away, at what Farrow calls “the blue collar pit,” the owners stacked bleachers to the ceiling of a large metal shed for the fights. Farrow remembers, “The [body odor] would be so thick you could cut it with a knife.”

We pass a small cemetery outside a church where Farrow would meet informants at night—because “there’s not, like, a 7/11,” he explained. Farrow said the FBI found that local law enforcement was involved in prostitution, illegal liquor stores, stolen cars, and drugs. The FBI and the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation eventually charged more than 200 people connected to the corruption case, including some members of the law enforcement.

“The animal fighting side of it—it starts at such a low level,” said Farrow, adding that people think to themselves, “It’s illegal, but it’s not really illegal.” That thinking, he said, “is like rust—a slow, insidious eating away of ethics and law enforcement.”

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