Loxahatchee Animal Cruelty: Activist Infuriated That Prosecutor "Sabotaged" the Case

Couto after the October raid.
Couto after the October raid.
Courtesy of Animal Recovery Mission

When three Loxahatchee farms — Rancho Garcia, G.A. Paso Fino, and Medina Farm — were closed after a massive raid involving about 150 police officers on October 13, it was said to be the largest bust for animal cruelty in U.S. history. 

Animal-rights activists with the group Animal Recovery Mission worked undercover for five months to infiltrate the operations. As its leader, Richard "Kudo" Couto, explained to New Times, he befriended farm owners and operators and caught their actions on video. He says farm workers boiled pigs alive, dragged a cow behind a truck, and regularly slaughtered horses for meat. 

The resulting takedown was an unusual feat of cooperation between the private entity, which showed police its evidence, and the Palm Beach Sheriff's Office, which organized the raid to take place simultaneously at three farms. Some 750 animals were taken from the farms, and the Palm Beach County State Attorney's Office, led by Dave Aronberg, would ultimately bring charges against eight people. When those charges came, Couto was slightly disappointed that some of the men had been charged with or two felonies each when he felt seven would have been justified, and he also was dismayed that bail set for them was low — but still, he was glad they'd been taken down. He said Sheriff Ric Bradshaw was a "hero." 

So when Couto read the Palm Beach Post last Saturday and saw that three of the eight men who'd been arrested had already taken plea deals, he was baffled. Usually, when his organization works on a case, he becomes the main witness and is notified in plea deal talks. And pleas usually take closer to a year to work out. 

But Couto says he got no notification before Edgar Bica, 49, was sentenced to five months in the Palm Beach County Jail, with probation to follow, while Bica's father, Edegar Bica, 83, and Rodobaldo Diaz, 47, both received probation in return for admissions of animal cruelty. The men worked at Paso Fino farm. 

At the time of their arrests, authorities told the media that the Bicas had tortured and slaughtered chickens, pigs, and goats and thrown live armadillos into boiling water. Evidence of cock fighting and a puppy mill was also cited. The men were charged with causing cruel death to conservation animals and torment, deprivation, mutilation or killing of conservation animals. Rodobaldo Diaz was arrested because he had been seen on video helping kill a goat with a dull knife and hoist another on hooks to be skinned while it was still alive. 

In court last Friday, the men admitted killing cows and goats but explained that their methods of slaughtering animals were standard in their native countries. Florida law, however, requires that animals be killed humanely. 

After their hearing, prosecutor Judy Arco was quoted in the Post saying, “There’s absolutely not a single video, not any single piece of evidence, that horse slaughter occurred on any of these three farms,” she said. The Post also wrote that she said there was no evidence that pigs had been boiled alive or that any other animals had been abused. 

"I thought she was misquoted," Couto says. "She had an extremely solid case handed to her on a silver platter and turned it into a joke... They're selling out the main witnesses in an ongoing case. Why would you do that? Other than wanting to sabotage your own case? She has deliberately sabotaged the case by comments she has made in court and to the press."

A spokesperson for the State Attorney's Office says staff members are refraining from comment because related cases remain open. 

Couto says Arco is wrong. "On the day of the raid, there was pounds and pounds of horse meat found at Paso Fino — in freezers and refrigerators." He says he had meat samples tested by a lab.

He sent copies of documents related to Garcia Farms:

Loxahatchee Animal Cruelty: Activist Infuriated That Prosecutor "Sabotaged" the Case

The Post story suggested that Arco could not prove that seized horse meat had come from the farms, though. 

"Two arrests have been made [for that]," Couto says. "We have given her hours of conversation while these people are cutting up horses in front of us. Videos are in her possession. These farms are well-known in the community. On the day of the strike, they didn't find carcasses, but they get rid of that as soon as they slaughter the animals," Couto explains.

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Arco's words stung. Couto says. "She's basically discrediting ARM as an investigator in Palm Beach. She basically called us almost — not in so many words — but liars. I've never had a prosecutor in his or her own cases discredit an organization when we are the main witnesses." 

As a New Times cover story explained years ago, police in some instances have been leery of Couto and ARM because the group takes justice into its own hands. But Couto says that in Miami-Dade, where he's been involved in numerous busts, authorities have come to trust him and that they've developed a good working relationship. 

In Palm Beach, though, Couto says, "I'm sad for the animals that suffered  — they got no justice whatsoever." They were probably abused for decades and the perpetrators got "less than a slap on the wrist. It shows that the laws are being disregarded in that county."  

The lax prosecution "really was a slap in the face to ARM investigators," Couto says. "We were in there for five months. We left really no loopholes. Watch the video. Law enforcement took he right steps. These were solid cases on their end.  

"It sends a strong message to the people committing these crimes. They think, 'We're making so much money — if we get arrested, we're just going to face a slap on the wrist like our buddies do.' It's a shameful thing for the animals in that county and for animal lovers in that county." 

Couto says he's rallying the animal-rights community to contact the State Attorney's Office —"Dave Aronberg is supposedly an animal-rights guy," as evidenced in instances where he's brought strong charges against people who hurt dogs. Couto says the California-based Animal Legal Defense Fund will also bring pressure. He's also started a petition calling for maximum penalties to be brought. 

It says:

Violent offenders on these farms would harshly and inhumanly drag animals to the kill areas, shoot them in the head with small .22 caliber rifles, slowly sever their throats with extremely dull blades, insert meat hooks in their legs while still alive before hanging them upside down, skin them alive, and boil them alive. Cows, goats, sheep, chickens, ducks, geese, wildlife and even HORSES have all been victims to these criminals who have ruthlessly killed animals on these farms for decades. Not only are the ways in which these animals killed without a doubt inhumane, but ulitimtely primitive and sickening.

Florida statute states “no person shall kill an animal in any way except by an approved humane method.” It also mentions that “no person shall shackle or hoist with intent to kill any animal prior to rendering the animal insensitive to pain.” 

Maybe the farm workers can still be charged with additional felonies, Couto hopes, and maybe the defendants whose cases are still pending will face more severe punishment. 

Rafael Ramirez, 50, is charged with illegal possession of horse meat. Others face felony charges of animal cruelty and killing animals by nonhumane methods. 

"I am hoping this will show as an example to Arco," Couto says. "The public, and certainly ARM, will not stand for a light plea deal." 

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