OKEECHOBEE (CBSMiami) — The first arrest has been made in an animal abuse case at a prominent dairy farm in Okeechobee County.
The Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Office announced Friday that Helias Cruz, 50, a former worker at Larson Dairy Barn, has been arrested for kicking an animal.
The sheriff’s office said in a statement that three other workers are being sought.
The Animal Recovery Mission, or ARM, released surreptitiously recorded video earlier this month from inside the dairy. The video is sickening. It shows workers at the dairy repeatedly beating, kicking and hurting cows and in some cases using a piece of steel to do so.
The farm’s owner, Jacob Larsen, spoke to police and helped identify the employees seen on the videos. Two were suspended and two were fired.
Warrants have been obtained for three other workers, two of whom have similar names. Omar Jimenes Mendosa, 36, and Omar Guadalupe Mendosa, 29, as well as a 17-year-old, each “fled to whereabouts unknown due to the lack of prompt reporting to law enforcement,” police said.
The case grabbed attention statewide, not only for the allegations but because Larson Dairy is the largest milk producer in the state and a supplier to Publix, which has since stopped buying milk from the dairy.
In its statement released Friday announcing the arrest of Cruz, Okeechobee Sheriff Noel Stephen also took a swipe at Richard Couto, the founder of Animal Recovery Mission that exposed the abuse.
“At this time, ARM founder Richard Couto and his employee, who had recorded the submitted video, have been requested to submit interviews at the Sheriff’s Office, but have failed to do so at the time of this release. The delay in reporting and lack of cooperation is significantly hindering this investigation and has already allowed responsible individuals to avoid prosecution. It is my hope that this will change moving forward.”
Couto had a succinct response: “That is complete nonsense.”
Couto took issue with the statement, saying the reason the undercover operative has not sat for an interview with the Okeechobee Sheriff’s Office is because they fear retaliation against him.
“We have fear issues of bringing in our investigator into the Sheriff’s Department of Okeechobee County,” Couto said. “We have little to no faith in the sheriff that he is going to handle this case ethically and properly. Why? Because he has already stated that he is good friends with the people and the person that we investigated.”
Instead, Couto said the undercover operative will sit for an interview with prosecutors and sheriff’s office investigators will be welcome to sit in on that interview.
News reports indicate that the sheriff has said he’s known the Larson family for a long time and Couto is concerned he appeared to be sticking up for them. Not true, said Michele Bell, the sheriff’s office spokesperson.
She told CBS4 News that if abuse happened, they will investigate it fully and fairly and they simply want to speak with all witnesses. She said there’s no bias or retaliation.
But the sheriff also complained that Couto took too long in reporting the allegations. Couto said these cases take time.
“We have to go in and not get one sign of abuse, one person kicking a cow in the head and then stopping the investigation and handing it to law enforcement, who are good friends with the people we’re investigating,” Couto said. “How far do you think that case would have gone?”
Couto said he’s working closely with prosecutors and had a lengthy conference call on the allegations on Friday. He also said he turned over all the raw footage of the abuse and a number of files to sheriff’s office investigators. Bottom line, Couto said the sheriff’s comments undercut the investigation.
“Why in the world would a sheriff put out a negative press release on his main witnesses?” Couto said.
Earlier this week, ARM released alleged video from Burnham Dairy farm, another Okeechobee farm, which showed similar mistreatment of the animals.