Animal rights group, county officials spar over alleged cockfighting ring

Authorities say group's undercover tactics harmed any chance at prosecution

By Amy Viteri - Investigative Reporter

MIAMI-DADE COUNTY, Fla. - A well-known animal rights group has accused Miami-Dade County officials of doing nothing after the organization says it exposed a brutal animal fighting ring operating in southwest Miami-Dade.

The county has pushed back, accusing the organization of using tactics that harmed the potential investigation.

The Animal Recovery Mission, or ARM, said the evidence is all there on camera from a cockfighting ring operating at "Rancho El Triangulo" near Southwest 213th Avenue Road. Video from an undercover ARM investigator revealed horrific animal abuse, illegal liquor sales and gambling.

During the surveillance, the ARM representative witnessed birds outfitted with spikes, brutal fighting, often to the death. Birds badly injured were discarded in the trash, left to die and covered by trash.

"So for 25 minutes they're literally puncturing each other," said an undercover investigator for ARM who asked not to be identified. "And it's not a puncture where it can cause death, immediate death. It's slow."

But nearly five months after calling police and handing over evidence, no arrests have been made.

"Everyone in this industry feels so incredibly safe. It's almost like a legal industry in Miami," said ARM President Richard Couto.

Police did not make any arrests at Rancho El Triangulo after ARM alerted the department of the cockfighting ring.

Couto said ARM called Miami-Dade Police on June 23 to report a fighting event happening at the ranch.

At least six patrol cars arrived to the area. Officers remained in their cars and ran sirens for more than three minutes.

"It was basically warning everyone in there that law enforcement presence was at the front gate," Couto said.

He said he understands officers not rushing in, given the potentially dangerous situation however, he said he was shocked when police opened the gate to the property and let everyone leave.

Couto confronted Miami Dade Police saying, "This is an illegal cock fighting operation. It’s a felony just to be in here. Did you not know that?" The law enforcement officer replied, "I did not know that." He then walked away. No arrests were made.

Couto said officers took statements from several people involved. "They have some of the main and largest animal fighters in our country admitting, ‘Yes, we were here for cockfighting.’"

The videos show gambling and drinks being sold illegally at Rancho El Triangulo.

In June, Miami-Dade police told Local 10 News they found no cockfighting or dead animals.

"Observing as a spectator in this, it's a third-degree felony," said state Sen.-elect Jason Pizzo who used to prosecute animal cruelty cases for the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office. He has worked with ARM on cases before and was at the ranch in June.

Pizzo said the evidence gathered by ARM is legally obtained.

"There’s just a general either confusion or indifference as it relates to what the law is," Pizzo explained. "It's staring them in the face, and it doesn't take years and years of training and experience to realize what the situation is."

More key evidence of cockfighting was the roosters themselves. ARM veterinarians were able to treat and rehabilitate five birds they found abandoned near the property. Despite requests to the county to treat the remaining birds at the scene, Miami-Dade Animal Services seized 42 birds from the ranch. In an email exchange a representative from the agency told Pizzo the birds could not be rehabilitated and were all euthanized.

Miami-Dade Police officials said ARM should have involved them in the investigation prior to calling 911, which forced officers to respond with no information or time to prepare for the complex scene.

ARM President Richard Couto says cockfighting is "almost like a legal industry in Miami."

Couto voiced concerns after two previous cockfighting operations fell apart due to leaks he says happened immediately after meeting with police to coordinate.

"Our covers have been blown repeatedly from dealing with law enforcement too soon," he said.

Late Tuesday the state attorney’s office stated the case was still pending. After Local 10 News requested information the office sent out a detailed memo Wednesday saying they would not prosecute. The memo criticized ARM’s tactics as dangerous to civilians. 

Michael Filiteau, assistant state attorney overseeing the office's efforts to combat organized crime, wrote in part: 

"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 to engage in behavior that is both extremely unsafe and potentially illegal."

The memo did not question the legality of recordings obtained by ARM.

Miami-Dade police Director Juan Perez 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.”    

It’s not clear why the SAO voiced concerns regarding partnering with ARM now, an agency it has worked with for years on several prior cases.

After an illegal slaughterhouse bust in 2015, State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle wrote in a news release: "I applaud the partnership which allows my prosecutors, the Miami-Dade Police Department and the Animal Recovery Mission to effectively shut down such ghastly operations."

When asked if the SAO had expressed similar concerns in the past, Couto replied, "Never. Never."  He added, "It's disheartening that the relationship that we've built over the years with this office is crashing down before my eyes."

Meanwhile, ARM has continued to assist with cases in Broward County, including a case in August involving Sunrise Police that led to the arrest of a man on over a dozen animal cruelty charges.

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