Plea Deals in Illegal Slaughterhouse Case Hit Too Close to Home for Wellington

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4873 Collecting Canal Rd. pictured on November 15th, 2015
14873 Collecting Canal Rd. pictured on November 15th, 2015

Get out a map and draw a circle measuring ten miles around the town of Wellington, Florida, with the Winter Equestrian Festival showgrounds at the center of the circle. So many notable things lie within ten miles of the most famous winter equestrian circuit in the world; multi-million dollar mansions, sun-soaked barns where Olympic horses train and compete. And horse slaughter. An intense, organized and illegal horse and animal slaughter operation.

Shocking? Absolutely. Horse slaughter and the inhumane killing of any animal is a felony in the state of Florida, yet on October 13th it was confirmed that such acts had been happening in the Wellington area for years, when three illegal slaughterhouses in neighboring Loxahatchee were raided and shut down by the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office in cooperation with Animal Recovery Mission (ARM).

It was the largest extreme animal cruelty bust in U.S. history, and ARM, which worked undercover for five months to infiltrate the slaughter operations and document grisly evidence of horse and other animal slaughter, felt confident that maximum sentences would be handed down.

Less than three weeks after their arrest, the three men pled guilty, were given plea deals by assistant state prosecutor Judy Arco, and released back into the community on probation.

Instead, the opposite has happened. Eight individuals were arrested on October 13th and charged with animal cruelty felonies, including three men who worked at Paso Fino Farm, a confirmed slaughter location at 14873 Collecting Canal Road in Loxahatchee. Less than three weeks after their arrest, the three men pled guilty, were given plea deals by assistant state prosecutor Judy Arco, and released back into the community on probation.

ARM founder Richard Cuoto is infuriated. His organization has been active for years in Miami Dade County, working to shut down illegal slaughter operations and battling horse thieves who slaughter horses for their meat. The recent bust was the first he’d worked on in Palm Beach County, and while he commends the Sheriff’s Department for working with his organization, he puts the blame squarely on the State Attorney’s office for failing to properly prosecute the case.

“ARM did their job, law enforcement did their job, the only group that didn’t do their job was the State Attorney and prosecutor Judy Arco,” Couto says. “She and State Attorney Dave Aronberg are known for not taking cases or for pleading them out ASAP. I was warned of this prior to taking on this case.”

Not only did Arco, the assistant prosecutor on the case, take a plea deal from one of the worst animal cruelty cases in the USA in 2015, she was also quoted in the press that there was no evidence of horse slaughter on site at Paso Fino, a claim that Cuoto emphatically refutes.

“The day of the raid, law enforcement made two arrests of individuals for possession of horse meat,” Couto says. “I have video of these guys telling me that they will go get a horse, kill it and give me half the horse. We found meat in the freezers at these locations. It’s really undeniable evidence.”

Couto has since made much of the evidence public, including analysis from confiscated meat that tested positive as horse, and video documenting the sale of horse meat. The butchers were known to find horses on Craigslist or at auctions, and Couto maintains that show horses were among those being butchered (the shocking butchering of Debbie Stephens’ grand prix show horse on October 25th near Tampa, Florida is currently under investigation and has not been connected to the Loxahatchtee cases.)

Assistant prosecutor Arco noted that the men, who are immigrants, had killed animals in their native countries for decades, and hadn’t realized that their acts were illegal in Florida. This was put forth as justification for their actions, and subsequent plea deals.

“Palm Beach County has just released some of the most violent horse killers in the country back into the Wellington community.”

“Palm Beach County has just released some of the most violent horse killers in the country back into the Wellington community,” Couto adds. “Every person in the community should be very concerned. I’ve closed 135 of these farms, all of which were killing horses, and I know these people. When they get a slap on the wrist, they open back up very, very quickly. Think of a store in a small town. When one store shuts down, another one starts up. These people are guaranteed already back in business.”

On November 15th, a passersby noticed a nervous horse being led into a barn at 14873 Collecting Canal Road and snapped the photo at the top of this article. That location, one of the three illegal slaughterhouses “shut down” one month ago, is closest to the town of Wellington, less than five miles from the Winter Equestrian Festival, and the workplace of the three individuals who were released on plea deals.

Draw your own conclusions. And look at that circle on the map again. If you’re one of the thousands of equestrians who plan to spend the winter in Wellington with your valuable horses, ask yourself where your barn lies. If it’s within that circle, the individuals guilty of illegal horse slaughter are your neighbors.

Palm Beach elected official State Attorney Dave Aronberg is responsible for the conviction and prosecution of these cases, and can be contacted by emailing or DEBORAH@DAVEARONBERG.COM; writing The 15th Judicial Circuit and SA Dave Aronberg, PO Box 485, West Palm Beach, Fl 33402; and calling (561) 577 5740. To do even more, sign this petition calling for the enforcement of maximum penalties  for the killers associated with the Palm Beach kill farms.

ARM is currently investigating the presence of a horse at a known location of an illegal slaughterhouse.