Members of an undercover investigations group known as the Animal Recovery Mission, dressed in black uniforms and some wearing masks, surrounded a property in Southwest Miami-Dade earlier this year. Their target: a suspected illegal cockfighting ring they’d spent months investigating.
The group’s outspoken founder, Richard Couto, called 911. With TV news cameras rolling, Miami-Dade police officers arrived as cars and people fled the scene. Couto, on camera, angrily cursed at the cops for allowing patrons of “one of the worst animal fighting operations in the United States” to scatter — at one point, he blocked a woman from driving away, leading to a brief but tense showdown with officers.
“Our demands are this: for the people on this property to be arrested on felony charges, to have every single animal on this property be seized, rescued and be brought to ARM sanctuary,” said Couto, wearing military-style camouflage. “We are not asking for this. We are demanding it now!”
Five months later, prosecutors have decided against filing any charges in the case. In a sharp rebuke of the animal-rescue group, Miami-Dade Assistant State Attorney Michael Filteau cited “serious ethical concerns” about ARM’s tactics, which include Couto refusing to work with cops, potentially tampering with evidence and even dragging cockfight attendees out of bushes by force.
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“I believe that filing such charges would tend to encourage ARM ... to conduct future undercover investigations without appropriate supervision and support from law enforcement agencies and thus engage in behavior that is both extremely unsafe and potentially illegal,” Filteau wrote in a final memo on the case released on Wednesday.
The case has exposed simmering tensions between the much-publicized animal-rights group and law-enforcement agencies across the state that accuse Couto of skirting the law and putting publicity before making viable cases. For his part, Couto insists that ARM investigators — he says most of them ex-cops or military members — are “trained better than law enforcement” and can put together “stronger cases” for prosecution.
“We don’t need to work with law enforcement,” Couto said Friday in an interview with the Miami Herald. “There is very little difference between ARM investigators and, let’s say, an undercover narcotics unit with the Miami-Dade police department.”
On Wednesday, he called the Miami-Dade state attorney’s decision “alarming” and said prosecutors and cops “do not want the workload” of following up on ARM’s probes.
“Now, these animals have no one. The only group that investigates these crimes is Animal Recovery,” said Couto, adding: “I’m doubling investigations in Miami-Dade County.”
Couto, a former board member and investigator with South Florida’s Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, started ARM in 2010 and has conducted a slew of undercover operations over the years, including infiltrating at least 25 illegal cockfighting rings over the years.
He made a splash immediately, targeting a rural region of Northwest Miami-Dade known as the C-9 Basin. Couto’s investigations and media barrage revealed rampant animal abuses in the area northwest of Hialeah, forcing the county to start a task force to crack down on inhumane slaughterhouses, cockfighting arenas and hundreds of illegally built structures.
Cuoto has proven a master at garnering media attention for his operations.
In August, an ARM investigation led police to raid a farm in Sunrise, where dozens of sick and emaciated dogs, goats, cows, horses and birds were found. At least 17 animals died or were euthanized because of awful conditions. Several men are awaiting trial in Broward on felony animal abuse charges.
In recent months, ARM undercover videos spurred authorities to arrest a slew of dairy workers in Okeechobee County on animal abuses charges. The videos showed workers with Larson Dairy and McArthur Dairy kicking cows and hitting them with metal rods. The public outrage spurred Florida supermarkets to suspend deliveries of raw milk from some dairies. The criminal trials are still pending.
Miami-Dade prosecutors in 2015 secured a conviction — and 18 months in prison — against Raul “Freaky” Fernandez, a convicted drug dealer who ran a rural illegal slaughterhouse. ARM also runs a large rural sanctuary in South Florida for animals rescued in its operations.
But the group’s relationship with law enforcement in some counties has turned increasingly tense.
In Southwest Florida, Couto and his group held protests and a press conference to blast law enforcement for failing to arrest people associated with a series of suspected illegal slaughterhouses. But Lee County State Attorney Steve Russell and then-Sheriff Mike Scott wrote a memo to elected officials saying Couto’s group was refusing to work undercover under the safety and supervision of detectives, and raising doubts about the legality of its videos.
They called out Couto for bragging about being able to skirt laws against entrapment.
“Apparently, they feel they can pick and choose what laws to follow — ‘the ends justifies the means,’ contrary to the basic principles of justice in America,” Russell and Scott wrote. “NO ethical law enforcement office or prosecutor would condone that attitude or conduct.”
Couto’s allies have since filed a nuisance lawsuit against the farms targeted as illegal slaughterhouses, and he has lashed out at law enforcement. “Time after time, they’ve held press conferences and lied,” Couto said.
Even before Wednesday’s decision in the cockfighting case, prosecutions based on ARM cases in Miami-Dade have not gone smoothly.
In the 2011 case of Rudesino “Rudy” Acosta, who faced up to 85 years in prison after being convicted of animal cruelty for running an illegal slaughterhouse, his defense team attacked Couto’s tactics and credibility, as well as the conduct of prosecutors in the case. The state ultimately agreed to allow Acosta to accept no prison time but complete 10 years of probation. The conviction will not show on his record.
“They sensationalize and self-promote,” said Acosta’s defense attorney, Jude Faccidomo. “From the acronym (ARM) right down to the superfluous tactical gear, everything is designed to be a spectacle. The shame is that these antics are counterproductive to the efforts of law enforcement and ultimately to the otherwise noble pursuit of protecting animals.”
In the case of Yonisley Garcia, he and two others were arrested in March 2014 after ARM investigators used jarring undercover videos to chronicle a slaughterhouse where pigs were dragged, hook-mouthed through the jaw, while still alive. Two years later, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Dennis Murphy ruled that ARM investigators broke a Florida law that requires permission before recording someone in a private setting — in this case, a ranch near the Everglades that was selling meat during the holiday season.
The judge also found that ARM was not acting as private citizens but “rather as a de facto arm of the state.”
Prosecutors appealed. The Third District Court of Appeals seemed inclined to uphold Murphy’s ruling, saying “his grounds were sufficient” had evidence been properly presented in court. But the appeals court overturned the ruling because Murphy did not take witness testimony.
But prosecutors chose not to risk holding a full-blown hearing. Instead, the State Attorney’s Office agreed to allow Garcia to enter a “pre-trial intervention” program for first-time offenders. The charges will be dropped if he completes the program.
The Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office has “finally come to the realization, as has other SAOs around the state, that law enforcement is better left to those professionally trained to do so and not to rag-tag vigilante groups with their fondness for dramatic, but oftentimes wildly misleading, allegations,” said Garcia’s defense lawyer, George Pallas.
Couto stands by the recordings done in the operation, saying “we are experts in the audio laws.”
“I was surprised and disheartened,” Couto said of the decision to allow Garcia into the program. “It was a very well put-together case.”
The latest case was called Operation Rancho Triangulo, and centered around a group running cockfights at a property on the 21300 block of Southwest 213th Avenue Road.
An undercover ARM investigator attended cockfights on at least three occasions, secretly recording the illegal competitions that have long been held in underground arenas across South Florida. ARM did not include Miami-Dade police in its investigation, but ultimately called 911 on June 23 this year.
Police arrived to the chaotic scene but made no arrests, despite Couto’s demands.
He said he had no choice but to keep Miami-Dade police out of the loop because on two previous investigations, he believed cops tipped off members of the ring. He repeated the claims to Miami-Dade prosecutors during a private meeting on Friday, but did not provide proof.
In a statement to the Miami Herald soon after the incident, Miami-Dade Lt. Grisleem Casas, of the economic crimes unit, denied the allegations. “Tipping off any subjects of any case is illegal, unethical, unwarranted and it did not occur,” she wrote.
In deciding against charging anyone at Rancho Triangulo, prosecutors pointed out that ARM members, with their military-style outfits, blur the line between civilians and police — which could lead to a deadly confrontation between criminals and the rescue group. The state also criticized ARM for failing to report that it removed more than a dozen roosters that had been ditched just outside the crime scene. “The fact that ARM personnel potentially tampered with physical evidence in this very case would be used to attack the veracity of any other evidence that they gathered during their investigation, including the undercover videos,” the close-out memo said.
The state also took Couto to task for standing in front of the woman who was trying to drive away from the property, refusing to allow her to leave. “I am concerned that if ARM continues to engage in unsupervised investigations such as they did in this case, one of their personnel is going to be hurt or killed in the process,” prosecutor Filteau wrote.
Miami-Dade Police Director Juan Perez, in a statement, said the department remains “committed to investigating criminal cases of animal abuse, neglect, and baiting.”
“In this case, we share many of the concerns of the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office and encourage any persons or groups with information concerning criminal activity to bring the information to the attention of law enforcement personnel ... so an investigation can be initiated by proper authorities and under the rule of law,” Perez said.