Who’s Murdering Thousands of Chickens in South Carolina?

Somebody turned the fans off on 300,000 chickens to suffocate them—somebody who knows exactly how the industry works

Photographer: William Mebane for Bloomberg Businessweek

The chicken farm on Brewer Road, just south of the small town of Manning in South Carolina, is hidden away down a series of winding country highways, between a patch of forest and an empty farm field. On the morning of Feb. 17 the farm’s owner, a Vietnamese immigrant named Hoangson Nguyen, was awakened by a frantic phone call. Nguyen, who goes by “Sonny,” raises birds under contract for Pilgrim’s Pride, the nation’s second-largest poultry company. An employee who checks the chicken houses each morning was shouting over the phone. Something was terribly wrong. 

Nguyen sped to the farm. That morning, when the farmhand opened the door to the first building, a sophisticated warehouse designed to hold about 20,000 birds, a column of steam had billowed out. Nguyen went into the control room and saw that the temperature inside was 122F. He entered the cavernous building. It was like a sauna: The giant circular fans used to cool the chicken house had been switched off. A set of electronic alarms had also been disabled. There were thousands of dead chickens on the ground, pressed up against the walls as if they’d tried to escape. They’d been smothered to death overnight in the intense heat. Nguyen knew immediately that this wasn’t an accident. Someone had killed his flock.

Nguyen is a typical chicken farmer: He owes the bank about $2 million for his farm, and he doesn’t have enough money for health insurance. He lives paycheck-to-paycheck, or “flock-to-flock,” as they say in the business. The moment he saw the dead birds, Nguyen knew he wouldn’t make any money this year. Whoever had killed these birds might very well have killed his farm. “I fell down right in front of the door,” he says. “I almost passed out.”

Nguyen’s farm wasn’t the only one hit that night. Three others also had their control systems sabotaged, killing the birds inside. Over the next week about 320,000 chickens died in attacks on farms throughout Clarendon County, in what appears to be the largest crime against industrial poultry farms in U.S. history. All the birds were owned by Pilgrim’s, which pays Nguyen and other farmers to raise the animals.

The dead birds were worth about $1.7 million to Pilgrim’s, but it was the farmers who suffered the most financially from the attacks. Each lost about $10,000 for every house of chickens killed. For people living flock-to-flock, it was a potentially ruinous blow, and one that can be understood only within the peculiar and brutal economics of chicken farming. Companies such as Pilgrim’s force contract farmers to compete against one another for their pay. One farmer’s bonus is taken directly from his neighbor’s paycheck. 

To police, this detail suggested a possible motive. Based on the highly precise manner in which the farms had been targeted and their poultry slaughtered, investigators quickly concluded that whoever was behind the attacks was intimately familiar with chicken farming. Within days of the midnight massacre, it became clear Nguyen and the others had been victimized by one of their own—a fellow farmer who’d come to see his neighbors, and their flocks, as the enemy.

Chicken houses targeted in the February attacks typically held 20,000 to 30,000 birds.
Photographer: William Mebane for Bloomberg Businessweek
Chicken houses targeted in the February attacks typically held 20,000 to 30,000 birds.
Temperature systems that had been tampered with proved fatal.
Temperature systems that had been tampered with proved fatal.
Photographer: William Mebane for Bloomberg Businessweek

Sheriff Randy Garrett is the top lawman in Clarendon County. Garrett is more than 6 feet tall, with wide shoulders and piercing blue eyes. He uses a cane—he’s recovering from a recent car accident—but even with a pronounced limp he fills the room with his imposing presence when he walks in. In June he’s celebrating his 41st year on the force.

On Feb. 17, as Garrett’s deputies fielded calls from farmers who woke up to find their flocks had been killed, they learned that the attacker used different methods of slaughter. Full-grown birds like those on Nguyen’s farm were cooked to death. In farms that had baby chicks, which need high temperatures to simulate a brooding nest, the saboteur cut the heat. The chicks froze to death, piling up in a futile effort to stay warm and smothering those at the bottom of the heap. 

Then there were the alarms. Chicken houses are equipped with a variety of systems to alert farmers when machinery malfunctions; things can go wrong quickly when a house is crowded with 20,000 or 30,000 birds. Whoever disabled the alarms understood the farmers’ different systems, so no one was notified. 

Pilgrim’s Pride is owned by the Brazilian meatpacking conglomerate JBS, one of the largest meat companies in the world. Pilgrim’s, which reported $8.6 billion in revenue last year, does business with more than 4,000 contract farmers in the U.S. and Mexico. The farmers in Clarendon County all raise birds for a Pilgrim’s processing plant in Sumter, S.C. “We knew from the start that it had to be somebody that was disgruntled, mad, upset with Pilgrim’s,” Garrett says. “This is not somebody just riding by [who] just randomly said: ‘You know, I’m going to create havoc a little bit and go kill me some birds.’ … You had to have inside knowledge.”

Garrett got a crash course on the confusing structure of modern poultry farming. Here’s how it works: A farmer such as Nguyen borrows money to build a farm. Then he signs a contract with a company like Pilgrim’s, which is called an “integrator” because it owns virtually every aspect of production, including hatcheries, feed mills, slaughterhouses, and trucking lines—everything but the chicken houses and the land they stand on. The integrators deliver the chickens, bring the feed, and even provide medicine for the birds if needed. The farmer’s job is to baby-sit the animals and make sure the heating and feeding systems are working. After about six weeks or so, the integrator picks the birds up for slaughter, sending the farmer a paycheck for his work.

In the eyes of the law, Pilgrim’s Pride was the primary victim of the chicken house attacks because it owned the birds. But Pilgrim’s wasn’t like any crime victim Garrett had dealt with before. He quickly found himself tangling with a corporate bureaucracy that stretched from South Carolina to Greeley, Colo., the U.S. headquarters for JBS. On Feb. 17, Garrett arranged a meeting with Darren Bolton, who oversees farming operations at the Pilgrim’s Sumter plant. They sat down in a conference room at the sheriff’s office, where Garrett laid out his theory of the case: Pilgrim’s was likely attacked by an angry employee. He asked Bolton if Pilgrim’s had recently fired anyone or performed layoffs. Could he think of anyone who might have a grudge? Garrett says Bolton told him he couldn’t think of anyone.

The chicken industry’s system for compensating farmers, however, is explicitly designed to punish those who under-perform their peers—a recipe for resentment and grievance. Other farmers get paid a certain price per pound or bushel for the commodity they raise; chicken farmers are paid in a system known as a tournament.

The tournament, like so much in the chicken business, is controlled by the integrators. When a group of farms delivers birds to a Pilgrim’s slaughterhouse, the company gathers them into a tournament pool. Then it tallies how fat each farmer’s birds got and how much feed the animals ate. Pilgrim’s crunches those numbers to arrive at a figure that measures “feed conversion,” or how much weight the birds were able to gain based on the feed rations Pilgrim’s provided. The company ranks each farm’s feed conversion against the others. Farmers who rank at the top get a bonus; farmers at the bottom get a pay cut. 

The farmers, however, don’t control the main factors that determine success in the tournament, which are the health of the baby chicks and the quality of feed the integrator delivers. For this reason, the tournament feels more like a lottery, with farmers praying for healthy birds. And it’s a zero-sum game: The bonus for the top farmer is taken from the paycheck of the bottom one. The feed conversion gap between top- and bottom-performing farms is often small, but the penalty can be large. A recent tournament sheet for a Pilgrim’s farmer in the Sumter area shows a difference in feed conversion between the top and bottom farm of just 3.6 percent, but the pay difference between them was 10.2 percent. Placing at the top or the bottom of the tournament can mean the difference between profit and bankruptcy.

By discouraging collaboration and partnership, the system has a chilling effect on farmers’ relationships. Nguyen says when Pilgrim’s farmers attend group meetings at the Sumter plant to get the latest news and updates from company officials, they tend to sit in stony silence. 

Among the regular participants in these meetings was a farmer named James Lowery, a skinny man with close-cropped brown hair and glasses that make him look like a bookish accountant. He kept to himself, never exchanging words with Nguyen. Farmers interviewed by Garrett’s investigators said Lowery was having problems with Pilgrim’s, and the company wasn’t going to renew his contract. Garrett called Bolton and a few of his co-workers back to the sheriff’s office and asked them if they’d cut ties with Lowery or any other farmer.

They said, “ ‘Well, we didn’t fire this guy. We just didn’t renew his contract,’ ” Garrett recalls, with obvious exasperation. “I said: ‘OK, buddy, let’s rearrange this sentence. Do you see what I’m saying here? You didn’t renew the contract. It’s the same thing. You let him go. You’re not doing business with him anymore.’ ” Pilgrim’s spokesman Cameron Bruett says Bolton and the other company representatives weren’t trying to mislead Garrett. 

As it turns out, Lowery was familiar to Garrett and his deputies. In September 2014, the farmer had been charged in Sumter with disorderly conduct in a case that’s still pending. Garrett had a lead but not much more. Meanwhile, the killings continued.

Lowery
Lowery
Source: Clarendon County Detention Center

Lowery is from a locally well-known family. His father, Robert, founded Lowery Heating & Air, a residential HVAC company in Sumter. The company has about $2 million in annual sales, according to its website, which also says that James, his father, and his brother all work there. (Lowery didn’t return several messages seeking comment; his attorney also refused to comment for this story.) Lowery got into the poultry business around the year 2000, Bruett says, and tended to perform in “the middle third” of the tournament pools. Pilgrim’s had sent Lowery letters in the past asking him to address problems on his farm related to biosecurity and neighbor complaints, Bruett adds.

In mid-2013, First Citizens Bank & Trust filed foreclosure papers on property Lowery owned, though it’s unclear if that property included his poultry farm. In December 2014, after Pilgrim’s delivered a flock of birds to his farm, Lowery neglected the flock to such an alarming degree that Pilgrim’s determined he’d violated the company’s animal welfare policies, Bruett says. 

Pilgrim’s sent Lowery two certified letters, one in December and the second in January, telling him he needed to address several problems on his farm, but Lowery never addressed the complaints, Bruett says. In late January, Lowery was sent yet another certified letter, informing him he was violating Pilgrim’s animal welfare policies. On Feb. 16, Pilgrim’s began an internal review to determine if Lowery’s contract should be canceled. That night, the first attack on the chicken houses occurred.

Garrett says officers interviewed Lowery on the second day of the investigation. He cooperated and “played kind of cool,” Garrett says. The investigators had no evidence with which to charge him.

On the night of Feb. 20, two more farms were attacked. On one, the attacker tampered with controls at four chicken houses and killed all the birds inside, about $320,000 worth of poultry. The next night, another farm was attacked, this time with two houses sabotaged. A week after the first attacks, Garrett didn’t appear any closer to making an arrest, and farmers grew nervous. The sheriff posted armed deputies at Pilgrim’s farms at night. Farmers carried guns when they went through the houses. “If I caught somebody here on my farm, I would have shot first and asked questions later,” says Pilgrim’s Pride farmer Raymond Wells. He had trouble sleeping at night, knowing that his chicken houses were vulnerable. Wells always keeps a pistol in his glove compartment, but during the attacks he also stowed a Ruger Mini-14 semiautomatic rifle in his truck.

Nguyen began to carry a gun with him whenever he worked on the farm. He was consumed with anger and stress. The costs of the attack kept growing. He had to dispose of about 40,000 dead chickens, but he couldn’t bury them outside because his farm is surrounded by environmentally sensitive wetlands. Instead he dug a long trench in the earthen floor of two of his empty chicken houses and piled the birds into the grave-like pits, covering them with dirt and chicken litter. Pilgrim’s said it would deliver new birds once the chickens had decomposed completely. In the weeks after the attack, Nguyen developed a painful growth in one eye. He consulted various doctors, paying out-of-pocket for each visit. He was eventually given medication for the condition, which a doctor said was stress-related.

Nguyen’s problems got worse after Pilgrim’s collected his remaining birds, those not killed in the attack. The company mailed him a tournament settlement sheet showing how he ranked for that flock: dead last. When calculating his performance, Pilgrim’s had included the two houses of birds killed in the attack. This made his performance look terrible, as if 40,000 birds had died because of neglect, and it dragged down his pay rate for the living birds. The settlement sheet said Nguyen’s “performance pay” was a deduction of $12,961.61. He saw it as a second financial punishment for the attack.

Bruett says Nguyen’s settlement sheet, while ranking him at the bottom, is misleading. His pay was subsidized by a special minimum payment rate, called an “act of God” provision, which helped compensate Nguyen for the attacks. Bruett says the fee didn’t cover all the costs. “I look at that, unfortunately, as the [sabotage] demerit,’ ” he says. “That’s what the sabotage cost you.”

A message to intruders at Raymond Wells’s chicken farm.
A message to intruders at Raymond Wells’s chicken farm.
Photographer: William Mebane for Bloomberg Businessweek

On Feb. 24 the saboteur struck again. It was the most devastating attack yet. Someone tampered with the controls of eight chicken houses owned by a farmer named W.L. “Mutt” Coker. All the chickens died, a financial loss totaling about $640,000. Coker says he spent an additional $100,000 to clean up the mess, burying thousands of dead birds in crop fields he owns.

By the end of February, Garrett’s investigation seemed to be stalled. He says Pilgrim’s continued to evade his questions throughout February and March and was slow in providing information he requested. During a news conference about the attacks, Garrett mentioned that Pilgrim’s had recently laid off dozens of workers. Bruett contradicted Garrett in the press, telling the Meatingplace trade magazine that the company hadn’t cut any jobs. Bruett later said that the statement was a mistake and that he made it because he wasn’t aware of layoffs that occurred in December. 

Then Garrett got a break. Earlier in the investigation, he’d sought a court order to obtain Lowery’s cell phone records. In early April they arrived. According to Garrett, they placed Lowery at the site of every farm that was hit at the time of every attack. The farms were all in remote locations, some of them miles from the nearest main road. This location data seemed beyond coincidental and was bolstered further, Garrett says, by text messages and phone calls Lowery had made. The communications traffic would make it difficult for Lowery to argue that someone had taken his phone and then committed the attacks without his knowledge.

Chris DuRant, the local state prosecutor, agreed the location evidence was convincing. “The properties were hit during the middle of the night, which I think makes [the evidence] stronger,” DuRant says. “It’s not like he was just driving by the properties in broad daylight.”

Garrett’s deputies went to Lowery’s house on April 7. The sheriff says they found him sitting in a vehicle and arrested him without incident. Lowery was charged with eight counts of burglary and three counts of malicious injury to animals or property.

At Lowery’s first bond hearing in April, his defense lawyer, Chip McMillan, said the case against his client was “based entirely on suspicion.” A Clarendon County judge threw out the charges against Lowery at a preliminary hearing on May 12, ruling that prosecutors hadn’t presented sufficient evidence to take the case to trial. While the phone records put Lowery’s phone at the scene of each attack, the investigators hadn’t presented fingerprints, tire tracks, or other forensic evidence. 

County prosecutors are still pushing the case. Solicitor Ernest Finney told the Manning Times that he’ll put it before a local grand jury, which would determine whether the evidence against Lowery is strong enough to support an indictment. Garrett says Lowery’s legal troubles might be just beginning. Federal investigators are looking into the case and could charge him with tampering with the food supply, according to Garrett, a felony that carries 20 years per count. In all, law enforcement officials suspect Lowery of attacking the eight farms in Clarendon County and one in adjacent Sumter County.

Regardless of the outcome of these investigations, the case raises questions about the tournament system, which may be fueling desperation among farmers. The Obama administration tried to ban the system in 2010 as part of a broader antitrust effort against meat companies. The U.S. Department of Agriculture proposed a rule that would give farmers a base pay level that couldn’t be undercut by the tournament rankings. The companies would be able to offer bonuses but couldn’t dock a farmer’s pay for poor performance. Meat industry lobbyists kicked into high gear and ultimately persuaded Congress to defund the measure. 

Garrett says the tournament system might well have led Lowery to blame his neighbors, not Pilgrim’s Pride, for his problems. “They all know, ‘The better I perform, the more money I make, the less the other guy [makes]. They didn’t care about me when they were out outperforming me. So why should I care about them?’ ”

In April, after Lowery’s arrest, Nguyen was hoping that Pilgrim’s would soon deliver birds so he could start earning money to cover his massive shortfalls. He was negotiating payment on a heating bill for his farm and taking medicine to control his eye condition. He says the anger that consumed him in February has dissipated. “I feel sorry for James Lowery. I don’t hate him at all.”