When Richard Couto went undercover into Loxahatchee's Rancho Garcia farm, he found pigs slaughtered and goats skinned alive. Couto, founder of Animal Recovery Mission (ARM), a nonprofit animal-abuse investigation firm, made covert videos and brought them to police.
"Basically anything and everything they could do to make a dollar off those animals, they were doing," Couto tells New Times. "They were beating them, starving them. They had no regard at all for the animals they were making a living on. There were cockfighting rings, dogfighting rings. They were selling animals for black magic. There was even a small puppy mill."
Now, farm owner Jorge Garcia will pay retribution for what he did to some of those animals. Yesterday, a Palm Beach jury found Garcia guilty of two counts of animal cruelty and two charges of "killing animals by non-humane methods." He could face more than two years in prison when he's sentenced in April.
Much of the evidence used to convict Garcia came from Couto, who has been the subject of a share of New Times stories in the past. After realizing that virtually no one in South Florida was policing animal slaughterhouses and shutting them down, Couto formed ARM to do just that. On October 13 of last year, Couto brought his video evidence to the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office, which executed a raid at three farms at the same time. At the time, it was the largest animal-abuse raid in U.S. history.
"No one other than ARM does undercover work at this level in the state of Florida," Couto says. "That’s why it went on as long as it did."
Couto says the farm had been selling both live animals and meat to whoever showed up at its gates. When he arrived, he said, he saw piles of horse meat in some of the freezers.
Defense attorneys for some of the farmers have said that the people running the farm were immigrants who didn't realize that tactics commonly used in their native Cuba were illegal here. But "the slaughterhouse was close to a residential neighborhood," Couto says. "Children would hear gunfire and the animals screaming."
Though Couto says prosecutors have dropped the ball in some of the other cases he's worked on, he's ecstatic that Garcia was ultimately found guilty yesterday.
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"I'm disappointed he wasn’t charged with the pig deaths, the bird deaths, the other goat deaths, the ram, the sheep, that sort of thing," he says. "But a conviction like this is going to strengthen all our cases from now on. It shows our future evidence will uphold in a court of law."
He says there are at least 30 other cases that could rely on his evidence. "This case is going to be handed to those prosecutors," he says. " To get a conviction like that, with a jury that are clearly meat eaters, for them to say 'guilty' says a lot."
Here's the (incredibly graphic) video evidence Couto gathered on Rancho Garcia: