Farm owners admit to slaughtering animals without a license, but deny allegations of animal abuse
Protests over a perceived lack of action by the Lee County Sheriff’s Office and State Attorney Stephen Russel’s office have erupted since the release of secret video shot on four Buckingham area properties.
The videos were taken by the Animal Recovery Mission, known as ARM, a Miami-based nonprofit animal rights organization.
ARM first released video of alleged horrific abuse in April after the State Attorney declined to charge anyone shown on the videos with crimes.
The videos show pigs being stabbed and bled out as well as goats having their necks slit.
For six weeks, protesters have lined the street in front of the properties on the videos calling for arrests and a surrender of the animals.
Claims in dispute
In a Facebook live video, Richard Couto, ARM’s founder, alleged that ponies on the property of Miladys Cabrera would be destined for slaughter.
Cabrera said that claim is untrue. She said the ponies have names: Romeo, Juliet and Rapunzel. She provided photos and videos showing them being ridden by her 5-year- old granddaughter.
“I don’t know why he would be saying all these lies,” Cabrera said.
Another video on ARM’s website shows dogs in a cage on Cabrera’s property and the voice of Richard Couto stating the dogs would be sold to be sacrificed in Santeria ceremonies.
Cabrera, who is a veteran of the United States Army, said she is a Christian and doesn’t practice Santeria. She said the dogs are her pets. She said they all have their shots and they aren’t for sale.
“These are not allegations, it’s all on video,” said Couto, when asked how he knew that farms were selling animals for sacrifice.
However, ARM did not provide any video evidence of the claims about Cabrera’s dogs and ponies. Couto said in an email this was known “through conversations had and conversations overheard to other customers.”
Unlicensed Activity and Inhumane Slaughter
The main allegations by ARM are that animals are being slaughtered in inhumane ways and that the properties are not licensed.
Private farmers are permitted to slaughter animals for their own personal use without licensing. Florida law requires animals be rendered insensitive to pain unless there is a religious exemption.
USDA requires licensing if meat is to be sold within the community.
Both Cabrera and her neighbor Roman Hernandez, who owns two properties shown in ARM undercover videos, do not dispute that they’ve sold slaughtered animals without a USDA license.
Cabrera claimed it was only on a handful of occasions, and mostly to Hispanic families who were planning pig roasts.
Hernandez said he has sold slaughtered meat for a few decades, even though WINK News could not locate any USDA license. He claimed he was applying for all necessary licenses.
His properties have also been cited by code enforcement various times.
Hernandez said he normally shoots animals prior to slaughter, but sometimes customers who want to eat the head of the animal will ask that it just be killed with a knife.
ARM video depicts goats having their throats slit on his property.
A video shot on Cabrera’s property shows a pig being stabbed to bleed out. She said what the video does not show is the person insisting that the animal be killed that way.
“It was wrong, because we know the law there,” she said, but claimed the animal would not have been killed in that manner had the ARM investigator not requested it.
Couto said in an email “”ARM never forced nor directed the killers to kill in any particular way.”
But State Attorney Stephen Russell claimed these legal entrapment issues were raised by prosecutors.
“Entrapment laws, which Mr. Couto thinks he can skirt or ignore are designed to keep otherwise innocent people from being coerced or entrapped from committing crimes that they otherwise would not commit,” wrote Russell in a letter to Lee County Commissioner Cecil Pendergrass.
To view, click here.
Pendergrass had asked the State Attorney’s Office and the Lee County Sheriff’s Office to thoroughly investigate the animal abuse claims.
No Charges against farm owners
The USDA is in charge of enforcement for unlicensed slaughter operations. A spokesperson confirmed the agency was looking into all four properties being scrutinized by ARM.
The ultimate reason that prosecutors declined prosecution on potential violation of Florida criminal laws had to do with the way ARM obtained it’s video.
Emails and memos from prosecutor Larry Justham indicate that he felt ARM had broken the law by secretly recording oral communications on the Lee County properties.
To view the emails, click here.
Records also show that ARM had been bringing undercover video to the sheriff’s office for several years. Prosecutors first reviewed undercover video shot at one of Hernandez’ properties in 2016.
That case was declined by the State Attorney’s Office after an expert at the University of Florida viewed video and told prosecutors that no animal abuse had occurred.
WINK News showed recent videos shot undercover by ARM in Lee County to that same expert who said it was apparent there were some violations of the humane slaughter act.
The Lee County Sheriff’s Office conducted its own investigation into the properties. Case notes indicated that an undercover officer witnessed what appeared to be cruelty at one of the properties but undercover video equipment was not functioning correctly. The Agriculture unit was then not given access to another undercover detective to complete the investigation.
The Sheriff’s Office then asked for a warrant related to video evidence provided by ARM, but the State Attorney’s Office declined due to the issues with the way video was obtained.
Horse Slaughter Claims
One of the more serious claims made by ARM is that horse meat is being sold by some of the farms in Lee County.
The sale of horse meat is a felony in Florida. Slaughter of horses is outlawed in the entire nation.
ARM showed WINK News thawed hunks of meat that it identified as horse meat that it claims to have purchased on Hernandez property. ARM also provided what appeared to be positive confirmation from a testing lab that the meat was in fact horse.
The lab would not confirm doing any testing for Animal Recovery Mission.
Hernandez said he has never sold or slaughtered horse meat.
The Lee County Sheriff’s office also investigated this claim in 2017. Records show a narcotics detective established a relationship with someone on Hernandez’s property by purchasing a roasted pig.
Eventually she was told she could purchase horse meat, but a few days later, someone at the farm called her to tell her there wasn’t any for sale.
The sheriff’s office believes that the undercover detective’s cover was blown by ARM, who had called in a complaint to the health department about the farm.
“Maybe we weren’t working fast enough for a group that had an interest involved. That hindered our investigation,” said Sgt. Randy Hodges, the supervisor for the Lee County Agriculture unit.
The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s office also investigated claims by ARM in 2012 that horse meat was being widely sold in their county.
A press release from the agency said that more than a dozen highly trained officers could not successfully purchase horse meat from various farms that had been accused by ARM.
To view, click here.
One man was caught selling horse meat and arrested.