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When it came to investigating animal abuse, a South Florida non-profit had a powerful ally in Miami-Dade County – the State Attorney’s Office.
But now that partnership is broken after prosecutors say the organization Animal Rescue Mission, or ARM, went too far.
For eight years, the group has gathered undercover video of cockfights, slaughterhouses, dairy farms and other places where it says animal abuse occurs, and their materials have repeatedly been relied on in Miami-Dade County to prosecute suspects.
In 2015, after helping lead Miami-Dade to an illegal slaughterhouse, ARM’s founder, Richard “Cudo” Couto, issued a warning through the assembled media to anyone abusing animals for profit: “You better shut down now because if you don’t, ARM is coming after you and right behind us is the Miami-Dade Police Department and the State Attorney’s Office.”
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But those days are over, the state attorney has decided.
The split came after Couto and his operatives conducted a months-long investigation into cockfighting in South Dade without first alerting and working with law enforcement.
Instead, during a June 23 gathering of cockfighters, gamblers and spectators at the Rancho El Triangulo, ARM called 911 to report the activity.
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“We expected arrests would be made, the operation shut down,” Couto told the NBC 6 Investigators. It is a felony to conduct or attend cockfights in Florida.
Instead the police did “absolutely nothing,” he said. “No arrests. Law enforcement were actually letting all of the offenders of the cockfighting operation flee.”
At one point, Couto stood in front of one car leaving Rancho El Triangulo, demanding the driver be arrested.
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“Run me over,” he said on video recorded by ARM and provided to NBC 6. “We will not let anyone leave this property.”
Eventually, though, they did leave.
“I was furious,” Couto recalled. “Imagine taking five months of your life and going undercover somewhere and having uniformed officers disperse the entire operation.”
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Miami-Dade Police patrol units answering the surprise 911 call could not quickly assess the situation and conduct a thorough, orderly, safe investigation that was likely to result in a successful prosecution, according to a Miami-Dade prosecutor who reviewed the case.
Responding “to a large and chaotic scene involving dozens of possible suspects” increases the likelihood of force being used and of physical evidence not being documented and collected by uniformed officers, wrote Assistant State Attorney Michael Filteau.
“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,” Filteau concluded.
He found it “conceivable” that the property’s owner and the cockfighting referee could have been successfully prosecuted, based in part on ARM’s videos, but declined the case, concerned that “filing such charges would tend to encourage ARM (and other civilian organizations) to conduct future undercover investigations without appropriate supervision,” which could be extremely unsafe and potentially illegal.
“I believe that ARM’s intentions are good, and that they sincerely want to help protect animals from truly atrocious treatment,” Filteau wrote. “Animal cruelty and animal fighting cases should be investigated and prosecuted. If ARM personnel refrain from conducting unsupervised investigations and work with law enforcement officers in a properly supervised fashion from the outset of any future investigations, I have little doubt that they could be a useful resource in combatting such criminal activities.”
But Couto refuses to work with Miami-Dade law enforcement.
“We’ve done that with our past two cockfighting operations we’ve investigated. Both operations, our cover was blown,” he said, speculating without proof that someone from Miami-Dade Police or others alerted to another ARM investigation tipped off its targets.
Prosecutors asked Couto to name anyone he believed may have leaked information to suspects, but he told them he could not identify a specific person who he thinks may have been responsible.
Miami-Dade Police told us no one from the agency tipped off subjects.
“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 or contact Miami-Dade Crime Stoppers at 305-471-TIPS, so an investigation can be initiated by proper authorities and under the rule of law,” the agency said in a statement.
Couto remains independent – and defiant.
“Bringing law enforcement in early? That’s not going to happen,” he said. “Will we stop investigating animal cruelty crimes and turn our back on the animals in our own community? That will never happen – ever. We will go out, and we’ll investigate crime the very same way…Then, we’ll call 911, after our investigation, at the foot of the farm. We’ll expose it to the public.”