Okeechobee County dairy cow abuse allegations timeline

• August/September: According to the Animal Recovery Mission (ARM) videos and press releases, they sent undercover agents to seek employment at dairies in Okeechobee County. They reportedly filmed for about three weeks in August and September at Larson Dairy #5 and Burnham Dairy.

• Aug. 16: The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS) conducted an inspection of Larson Dairy #5 on Aug. 16, 2017. According to the report, the inspection was done during the morning milking time. The dairy was given a 96 percent rating, with deductions of only four points. Two points were deducted for unlabeled chemical containers. Two points were deducted for a milk room door “that needs to be self-closing and close tightly.” The dairy owner was instructed to fix these two issues. Neither was a repeat violation. The inspectors found no other problems at the dairy.

• Sept. 10 & 11: Hurricane Irma hit Florida, causing widespread damage. Okeechobee County was among the areas included in a disaster declaration. The entire area received record rainfall.

• Oct. 25: FDACS inspectors visited Burnham Dairy for a routine inspection. The dairy scored 91 out of 100 possible points. No animal abuse or neglect was found.

• Nov. 3: FDEP received a complaint from ARM about environmental issues as Burnham Dairy, due to flooded areas and animal carcasses left in the open. FDEP contacted the dairy owners who responded that Hurricane Irma resulted in some bovine deaths, and it caused some cows to give birth prematurely, resulting in weak calves. In addition, due to the flood waters left by the hurricane, they could not bury the dead cows and the rendering company they normally use to pick up dead animals was unable to operate due to hurricane damage.

• Nov. 6: The State Attorney’s Office received allegations about abuse at Larson Dairy.

• Nov. 7: FDACS inspectors visited Burnham Dairy, following up on the Nov. 3 ARM complaint. The dairy received a score of 93. No animal abuse or neglect was found.

• Nov. 9: ARM posted the video of Larson Dairy online.

• Nov. 9: Sheriff Noel Stephen received a Fed-X package with photos and a video depicting animal abuse. There were reportedly more than 350 hours of video footage.

• Nov. 9: Larson Dairy owners saw the ARM video online. One worker was fired. Two others were placed on suspension pending investigation.

• Nov. 9: Publix announced the chain was suspending receiving milk from Larson Dairy.

• Nov. 10: FDACS received abuse/neglect complaint about Larson Dairy from ARM. Since there was already a criminal investigation underway, they did not pursue the case.

According to Aaron Keller with FDACS, “The allegations of animal abuse were investigated by the Okeechobee Sheriff’s Office, as they are the appropriate entity to investigate such criminal allegations.”

• Nov. 10: Publix suspended receiving raw milk from Burnham Dairy, after being notified by ARM that a video “showing deplorable conditions” at Burnham Dairy would be released online.

• Nov. 13: FDEP inspectors visited Burnham Dairy and found no environmental problems there. Dairy owners explained that once the flood waters receded and the area dried out, they were able to bury the dead cows in the area designated for such disposal. FDEP closed the case.

• Nov. 14: With the help of Jacob Larson, OSCO detectives identified four individuals who were on the ARM videos kicking and/or hitting the cows.

• Nov. 16: ARM released videos of Burnham Dairy online, alleging the conditions at the dairy were unsafe for the cows and the workers.

• Nov. 16: The Miami Foundation hosted their annual Miami Day of Giving charity drive, raising more than $10 million in 24 hours. ARM was one of the nonprofit organizations seeking funds as part of that promotion.

• Nov. 16: Warrants were issued for four dairy workers on charges of animal cruelty. Helias Cruz, 49, was charged with one misdemeanor count of animal cruelty. Omar Jimenes Mendosa, 36, faces two felony counts of cruelty to animals. Omar Guadalupe Mendosa, 29, faces eight felony counts of cruelty to animals. Roberto Relies, 17, faces four felony counts of cruelty to animals.

• Nov. 17: Former Larson Dairy worker Helias Cruz, 49, was arrested and charged with one misdemeanor count of cruelty to animals. He was released on a $2,500 bond. An OCSO press release stated that the other three men accused of animal abuse are believed to have left Okeechobee County. Sheriff Noel Stephen said delay in reporting the alleged abuse had hampered the criminal case. Since the videos were released online before the alleged crime was reported to OCSO, the suspects were able to leave the area before the warrants were issued. He also noted that ARM founder Richard Couto and his employee, who recorded and submitted the video, had been requested to submit to interviews at the sheriff’s office but had failed to do so.

• Nov. 20: Okeechobee County Sheriff Noel Stephen called a press conference to update the case. He said he believed the Omar J. Mendosa, Omar G. Mendosa and the juvenile accused of animal abuse may have left the country. He said because the ARM founder and the undercover agent did not voluntarily come in for interviews, subpoenas have been obtained and the OCSO detectives expect to interview them on Friday.

Publisher/Editor Katrina Elsken can be reached at kelsken@newszap.com

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