More than 70 people have been arrested in a cockfighting ring that secretly gathered in central North Carolina to watch a $40,000 tournament so gruesome that one of the roosters splattered blood on the investigators' search warrant, authorities said.

Deputies didn't expect to find so many people crammed into three chicken houses that had been cleaned out to provide hidden parking spaces and a cockfighting pit, Randolph County Sheriff Maynard Reid Jr. said in an interview Monday. Authorities arrested 73 people, ranging in age from 16 to 79, and charged them all with cockfighting and cruelty to animals, both felonies.

Reid said several others escaped after fleeing a back door during the raid Saturday afternoon at the site about 15 miles southeast of Asheboro in the center of North Carolina.

"I had no idea it would be this large," Reid said. "I've raided these things before and (if) you get 20 or 25 people, you've got a big crowd. I thought that this was unreal."

He described a grisly scene: About 20 birds were already dead, eliminated early from a deadly tournament. A fight was ongoing when deputies arrived, and one of the combatant roosters jumped up onto the betting table and spattered blood onto a search warrant that investigators were serving, Reid said.

Photos provided by the sheriff's office show a building strewn with feathers and debris, including several dead birds and a pile of empty beer cans dumped together in a corner. Makeshift benches surround a plywood ring, where the body another rooster is lying.

The tournament's grand champion, Reid said, was slated to win $40,000. He named the ringleader as 33-year-old Barry Ritter. Reid said Ritter was charging $25 to watch the event at a facility he owned with his father, who was not among those arrested.

"I think it was used at one time to raise chickens," Reid said. "Now it is being used for cockfighting. They had a rural area. They thought nobody would catch them there. But I think we've sent a message that we will not tolerate this in our county."

The sheriff's office said investigators also seized 73 vehicles, two firearms and cash. They also found cocaine and marijuana at the scene. Much of the crowd was Hispanic, and Reid said authorities were still checking the immigration status of those arrested.

The county's animal control officers took possession of 130 live roosters.

John Goodwin, manager of animal fighting issues for The Humane Society of the United States, said North Carolina still appears to have a large number of cockfighting rings even though the state passed law in 2005 making it a felony. Goodwin visited the state last year to help educate law enforcement personnel about cockfighting rings, and he said similar efforts around the country have increased attention on the rings.

He said the Humane Society is focused on passing felony laws in a number of other states that haven't yet done so.

"If you can win a $40,000 prize, what kind of deterrent is a $200 misdemeanor penalty going to be?" Goodwin said.