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State attorney, animal rights group at odds over undercover investigation of alleged slaughter farms

Posted at 8:38 AM, May 23, 2018
and last updated 2018-05-23 08:57:40-04

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Documents obtained by 4 In Your Corner shed light onto under cover investigations by the Lee County Sheriff's Office into farms a non-profit group says are illegally slaughtering animals. 

The four farms are located in the area of Buckingham Road. The animal rights group Animal Recovery Mission, or ARM, shot several videos at the farm, which they claim show animal cruelty and illegal sale of horse meat. However, State Attorney's Office said the videos were illegally obtained.

In a scathing statement released jointly by the State Attorney's Office and the Lee County Sheriff's Office, the agencies said ARM is violating audio recording laws. The statement also said they offered ARM and it's founder, Richard Couto, opportunities to go undercover with detectives to gather evidence legally,  but they did not cooperate.

Tuesday, Couto said the statements made by the agencies were false. "By looking at this document, they obviously had a serious grudge with ARM with going public on this case, and creating so many citizens of Lee County to come forward to protest and voice their concerns of by far the worst animal abuse case in the United States," he said.

Couto said detectives aren't going enough to stop the torture of animals and illegal sale of horse meat at these farms, but the State Attorney's Office said they are taking action.

4 In Your Corner requested reports to find out how the Sheriff's Office is responding the the animal abuse claims. They provided hundreds of pages of documents detailing undercover investigations conducted over two years. 

The reports show detectives visited the four farms several times to build relationships with the people who work there. They bought hogs from one of the farms, and eventually asked them about horse meat. At first, farm workers denied having any, but after a fourth visit, a woman said they would sell the undercover detective horse meat at a later time. The report says the deal fell through, detectives believe because Couto interfered. Couto denies that claim.

After that incident, detectives decided to use Couto as an informant, so that he could go undercover with investigators. However, the documents say Couto refused to do so without his partner, who did not want to give her real name. Deputies said this violated Rachel's Law, regulations put in place to protect those who work with law enforcement. Detectives continued the investigation without them.

In another instance, detectives went back to one of the farms to purchase another hog. In the report, detectives say they witnessed workers cut off the hog's testicles while it was still alive, and stab the pig in the throat.

Although they witnessed the incident, the report says detectives could not make an arrest because their undercover video did not show the killing when it happened.

Couto maintains that ARM's investigative tactics are legal, and says other agencies have worked with them in the past, and accepted their cases. He said, Tuesday, arrests need to happen, or the farms will relocate, and continue operating as slaughter houses. "Felony charges need to be dropped, and serious arrests have to happen or the torture will be ongoing," he said.