▲ Couto with a horse at his farm in Florida.


From his secret compound, Richard Couto stages undercover buys to bring down unlicensed slaughterhouses. Police say they’d be happy to work with him, if only he’d follow the rules.

You don’t find the Dark Knight of Florida’s animal-slaughter underworld. You put out a signal, and he finds you.

Last March, I flew to West Palm Beach, drove a rental car inland, and settled into a room at a chain hotel that Richard Couto had chosen for me. Then he texted me an address. The drive to his secret compound took me past orange groves, belching tractors, and homemade Trump billboards. Down a dirt road flanked by tall Australian pines, I reached a series of remote-control gates guarded by closed-circuit TV cameras and screaming eagle busts. A final fence slid open to reveal a sprawling 100-acre sanctuary. Cows, horses, and pigs grazed, rescued by Couto and his team from slaughter. I pulled up to the command center, open-air on one side, with white leather couches, standing desks, and Spanish tile. It was the Bat Cave, with a Sunshine State twist.

Couto is 50 years old, bald and powerfully built, with a white goatee. He wore tactical gear and carried a concealed handgun. Decade-old YouTube videos suggest that his voice had dropped an octave to the Christian Bale-ish growl with which he barked orders from his swivel chair. A massive black Ford F-350, with tinted windows and a dash camera, sat in the driveway. An outbuilding held a cache of pistols, tactical shotguns, and a 50-caliber rifle. In an evidence freezer a few feet away were slabs of illicit equine flesh, purchased undercover during a recent operation in Couto’s longtime quest to take down America’s illegal horse meat market.

Horse meat is slightly sweeter than beef and rich in protein and omega-3 fatty acids. In many parts of the world, it’s celebrated as a delicacy. You can eat horse tartare in Montreal, horse salami in Italy, and horse sashimi in Japan. But in the U.S., its consumption has been essentially banned since 2007, when Congress stopped funding plant inspections. For the curious American, sampling equine flesh usually means a plane trip.

But there is one place, closer to home, where the adventurous can find equine steak. In South Florida (really, where else?), only 20 minutes from South Beach, festers a hotbed of open-air abattoirs. Butchers make good money: Horse meat can start at $7 a pound from a tired nag and increase to five times that from a racehorse, whose flesh some believe can cure impotence. They may source their meat from Craigslist, buying horses for a few hundred dollars or by falsely promising to give rescues a good home. When all else fails, the horse butchers become horse thieves.

“Who’s killing horses in Central Florida?” the Tampa Bay Times asked last February, as a yearslong wave of horse thefts reached the middle of the state. Most horse owners file police reports and wait in the futile hope that justice will be served. Those who long for a more muscular response might turn to Couto, whose zeal for supersecret undercover operations is matched only by his love of publicity. It’s a tension pointed out by several prosecutors who have tried to work with him only to be burned by what they cast as a cavalier attitude toward evidentiary rules and trespassing laws. It’s also made him a target for the butchers and thieves whose livelihoods he attacks. “The horse killers feel invincible,” said Couto, whose baseline facial expression is that of a road-raging I-95 driver reaching for his tire iron. “And it’s true.”

When I met Couto that first time, he and four investigators—animal lovers who included an ex-cop and an erstwhile fruit picker—had been conducting an undercover operation at a notorious illegal slaughterhouse for 18 months, recording video evidence and making controlled meat buys. They’d documented everything they could. Now he needed the police to listen.

▲ Couto suits up.

Over a decade ago, Couto was living in South Beach, earning good money flipping houses, utterly bored. He’d grown up in Newport, R.I., in a family of polo-and-khaki Republicans who saw “success as dollar signs, and that’s it.” Couto was different from a young age. He came home with frogs and mice in his pockets, and he graduated from a school for students with learning differences. He worked as a model in New York City, bombed out of several corporate jobs, and trained with an America’s Cup team in San Diego.

In 2004, he moved to Miami, where he surfed, sailed, and finally won his father’s approval. The housing market was booming, and Couto began flipping houses. He moved into a home on North Bay Road. Hulk Hogan and Shakira were his neighbors. Life was good, but Couto felt empty. A friend hit him up for a donation to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and he visited the charity’s ranch outside Miami. His childhood love of animals was rekindled. Soon he was mucking horse stalls on weekend mornings.

In 2008, Couto was at the ranch when Laurie Waggoner, director of rescue operations for the South Florida SPCA, got a call from the police. They needed her help a few miles away, in the C-9 Basin, a rugged ecological buffer zone between the Everglades and the strip malls and condo developments of Miami-Dade County. (The C stands for “canal.”) “Wanna ride with me and see what we actually do?” she asked. When they arrived, they found an illegal slaughterhouse. One of the hundreds of live animals at the site, a brown horse with a big white stripe running up its face, was tied to a tree. He was emaciated, with a broken leg and a skin infection known as rain rot. Couto decided to adopt him. Not long after, he found an ID number tattooed on the animal’s upper lip, indicating it was a thoroughbred. He called the Jockey Club, a breed registry in Kentucky, and asked them to check the tattoo against its records. “It came back positive,” an employee told him. “But there’s gotta be a mistake.”

The bedraggled horse, it turned out, was Freedom’s Flight, descended from two famous grandpas: Secretariat and Seattle Slew. Three months earlier, Couto learned, Freedom’s Flight had broken his leg coming out of the gate at Gulfstream Park racetrack. He somehow still finished third, but his career was over. He was passed around to different owners, gave pony rides in downtown Miami, and was finally sold for $50 to the proprietor of the farm in the C-9 Basin. Couto had wandered into a fraught, and lucrative, underworld.

Since the beginning of recorded history, humans have been squabbling over whether horse meat is fit for consumption. Paintings dating back 30,000 years in France’s Chauvet Cave show men hunting horses. The Book of Leviticus later banned horse meat for Jews, and in 732, Pope Gregory followed suit for Christians, calling it an “impure and detestable” pagan meat.

During the French Revolution in the late 18th century, however, aristocrats’ horses were slaughtered to feed the starving masses, and a culinary trend began. Americans remained aloof for some time, exalting horses for their role in the nation’s early history, from Paul Revere to the Pony Express. As the financial value of horses declined and Europeans celebrated the meat, though, it entered the American food chain in fits and starts until, at the turn of the 20th century, horse was de rigueur. In 1905 the Harvard Faculty Club introduced horse steak to its menu. The Depression spread the popularity of horse meat, and it gained new fans when beef prices soared after World War II. In 1952 the Office of Price Stabilization introduced price controls on what had become a $100 million horse meat industry.

And then, just as suddenly, perceptions changed again. The postwar economy took off, and beef prices plummeted. The 1961 film The Misfits, about cowboys who sell wild horses for slaughter, stirred outrage, and horses regained their status as noble and beloved pets. Domestic consumption cratered.

Exports remained big business for decades, though. In 1990 more than 344,000 American horses were slaughtered for the international market, according to the Humane Society of the United States. But equestrians lobbied to end the practice, arguing that humane killing was impossible, and in 2007, Congress defunded U.S. Department of Agriculture inspections of slaughter facilities. Horses started being exported in increasing numbers to Canada and Mexico to be killed. Last year, Canada’s horse meat exports totaled C$42.8 million ($33.8 million), with roughly half going to Japan and most of the rest to Francophone Europe.

By the time Couto found Freedom’s Flight in 2008, horse meat had been almost impossible to procure in the U.S. for several years. The primary exception was the world he’d stumbled into. In Cuba, horse meat is a staple food, on par with chicken in the U.S., and many émigrés still long for horse soup and horse steaks. Some like the taste. Others say horse meat has medicinal purposes, including curing blood cancer and treating erectile dysfunction. Gina Milhet, a Cuban American equestrian, still mourns the killing of her horse Destiny by thieves in 2019, but even she subscribes to the theory. Several years ago, she insists, horse broth provided to her by a friend cleared up a staph infection. “The Cubans are the ones who believe!” she says, stressing the last word.

Distressed by what he’d seen at the farm in the C-9 Basin, Couto grabbed his dirt bike and took a handheld video camera into the area. Restaurants and plant nurseries sit at its fringes, but as you drive deeper, it becomes a riot of banana groves and shabby fences. Caged fighting roosters can be heard crowing behind tarps and corrugated metal. Couto began learning the area’s peculiarities, like the way turkey vultures would circle in wide arcs overhead when horse butchering was most intense, then swoop down to feed on discarded intestines. He skulked around, shooting tape of dogs feeding on horse carcasses and incidents of animal cruelty: pigs boiled alive and vicious cockfights with shouting, drunken bettors. He researched property records and learned that few of the slaughterhouses he’d found were zoned for butchering. Many dated to the 1980s, when Cuban immigrants, many of them ex-convicts who came over during the Mariel boatlift, settled in the area and began producing illegal horse meat, mutton, pork, and beef. A local newspaper called the area “perhaps the closest thing in America to a Wild West outpost.”

As Couto’s horror increased, he grew more brazen. He stole a pig from a slaughterhouse and named it Oreo, eventually giving it to a close friend as a pet. Rescued goats destroyed furniture in his South Beach apartment. Waggoner started getting calls from police asking who this guy was and what he was up to. “Couto was pissing a lot of people off and making me uncomfortable,” she says. He was telling people he was with the SPCA and lining up sources to snoop around slaughterhouses. When one of these spies was savagely beaten in the Florida Keys, Waggoner confronted Couto. “I kinda thought it put me at risk,” she says. “I was out at my barn, by myself, in a very rural area at 10 or 11 o’clock at night.” Undaunted, Couto resigned from the SPCA’s board and started his own nonprofit, Animal Recovery Mission (ARM), funding it with his profits from house flipping.

In December 2009 he approached the Miami-Dade district attorney about his discoveries, which included dozens of butchered horse corpses. They agreed to take a look, and the tip ballooned into an investigation. On Jan. 12 the hammer dropped: Couto awoke to a 5 a.m. phone call from a local TV reporter who was in the C-9 Basin. “Get up and get out here,” he told Couto. When Couto arrived, he saw officials from more than a dozen agencies pouring into the area. They issued 100-plus violations for illegal dumping and illegal slaughterhouses, broke up 17 cockfighting rings, and condemned more than 400 structures.

Four months later he and his allies scored another win: Governor Charlie Crist signed a law that made it a felony to mutilate or kill any horse or purchase horse meat for human consumption. The Miami New Times, a local alt-weekly, named Couto “best citizen,” depicting him on their cover as a gun-wielding vigilante dressed in black leather.

Outside Milhet’s horse stable, adjacent to where the horse carcass was found.
▲ Outside Milhet’s horse stable, adjacent to where the horse carcass was found.

Outside Milhet’s horse stable, adjacent to where the horse carcass was found.

At Milhet’s horse stable, the location where her horse was “kidnapped.”

Sound is off

Emboldened, Couto and ARM opened costly animal-cruelty investigations in other parts of Florida. But by late 2010 he was running out of money. He’d stopped visiting work sites, meeting architects, and picking out flooring. He ultimately closed his real estate company, a decision he now regrets. If he’d spent a bit more time flipping homes, he says, “I could have self-funded forever.” Instead he started writing grants. “I thought it’d be easy,” he adds. It wasn’t. He estimates that he spent roughly $1.5 million of his own money on ARM.

Couto’s investigations had also expanded to include Miami-area Santería churches that performed animal sacrifice rituals, prompting fresh blowback. “He has no authority to do what he’s doing,” said Oba Ernesto Pichardo, a prominent Santería priest, in a 2011 interview with the Miami New Times. “He’s an extremist wearing guns, impersonating a law enforcement officer, raiding people’s homes”—accusations Couto denies, save for legally arming himself for protection. Pichardo noted, correctly, that animal sacrifice was his constitutional right. His congregation, the Church of the Lukumi-Babalu Aye, had won a landmark 1993 U.S. Supreme Court ruling protecting the practice. Pichardo soon formed the nonprofit C-9 Family Farm Alliance and hired a lawyer.

The optics weren’t great for Couto, a preppy bandit disrupting working-class immigrants’ businesses. The ethnic boundaries of his fight to end illegal horse slaughter didn’t break down neatly, though. He had support from a number of Cuban American equestrians, and his biggest media allies were Univision Communications Inc. and Telemundo Group Inc., which gave the horse killings more airtime and outrage than English-language networks. But some white businessmen were eager to see the horse meat trade resume and had little patience for bleeding-heart fanatics such as Couto. (“Somebody’s gonna do it,” says a longtime broker who once shipped thousands of horses a year to Texas for slaughter.)

As Couto made enemies, he became paranoid. At one point Pichardo exhorted his followers over the radio to appeal to the deities—one of whom, he pointed out, was known for hurling thunder stones. Couto says he came home several times afterward to find odd trucks parked out front. He decided to get a concealed-carry permit. A follower of Pichardo later doxxed Couto and his sister, posting their addresses online. While buzzing around the C-9 Basin on investigations, Couto says, he fled gunfire more than 20 times.

He decided that to persuade police and prosecutors to pursue criminal cases he needed to recruit more operatives. At the beach he would paddle his surfboard out to Spanish-speaking surfers and offer them $500 to make controlled undercover horse meat buys that he could present to police. He even recruited girlfriends. One of them, Claudia, who asked to be identified only by her first name for safety reasons, says she met him through friends. She knew straightaway that he was an animal lover. He would often pull over to pick up stray dogs and take them to shelters, and he was sweet and relaxed with his own rescue dog, a German shepherd named Reef. When Couto and Claudia, who was born in Colombia, started dating in 2010, he asked her to drive him into the C-9 Basin and wait there while he traipsed around the brush filming. She was happy to help.

They soon began making buys together, with him wearing a wig and her wired with a hidden camera and handling the Spanish. Couto jokes that she’d hit him up for Jimmy Choo shoes after their missions, but Claudia remembers it differently. “It was emotionally draining,” she says. On Claudia’s last foray, Couto sent her and a Venezuelan girlfriend in alone. As night fell, Claudia looked down and realized the battery light on her hidden camera was glowing through her shirt. The butchers hadn’t noticed, but that was it for her. “He’s a very sweet person, but for him it’s 24/7,” she says of Couto. Their relationship lasted only a year.

Officials were unhappy, too. Some sheriffs and prosecutors maintained that Couto was better at fanning outrage and generating local news coverage than at gathering usable evidence. On the other hand, those tactics were helping him build a profile and open up wallets. He even got some free surveillance and combat training, when someone from a private military contractor called him after he appeared on a TV special. Donations grew. In 2013, Animal Recovery Mission brought in $286,000. Within three years it would be cracking seven figures annually.

Milhet at her farm with one of her horses
▲ Milhet at her farm with one of her horses.

Milhet at her farm with one of her horses.


Sound is off

Couto’s early investigations coincided with a recession-era increase in the number of abandoned horses, some of which were rescued only to have butchers either adopt them under false pretenses or steal them. As the economy rebounded, thieves also began targeting expensive show horses. In October 2015 famed equestrian Debbie Stephens arrived at her barn in Palmetto, Fla., to find that Phedras de Blondel, a prized show jumper worth roughly $200,000, had been slaughtered, his flesh expertly sliced off and taken away. Sometimes an owner would find a filleted carcass nearby. Other times pets simply vanished into banana groves or the back of a horse trailer.

In at least four separate cases from 2011 to 2018, Couto worked with local law enforcement on undercover investigations that ended badly, with frustrated sheriffs, judges, and prosecutors accusing him of sensationalizing evidence, claiming police work as his own, or breaking surveillance laws. In 2016, for example, a Florida 11th Circuit judge threw out evidence collected by Couto, finding that his methods were unlawful. And in 2018 a Lee County sheriff made the same determination in another case. Couto denies breaking any laws and attributes the accusations against him to bruised egos in law enforcement.

Judy Arco, an assistant state attorney in Palm Beach County, says that in 2015, after she pleaded out three of eight defendants in a case Couto had worked on, his supporters bombarded her office with emails for weeks. “It was not a good experience,” she recalls. Prosecuting illegal slaughterhouse and animal-cruelty cases can be tough under the best of circumstances. “I was surprised during jury selection how many people did not believe animal cruelty belonged in the criminal court system,” Arco says.

Even Couto’s staunchest allies in law enforcement sometimes tried to rein him in. “He’s super intense,” says Jason Pizzo, a state senator who worked on more than a half-dozen cases with Couto and ARM when he was an assistant state attorney in Miami-Dade. “I’ve gotta tell him to calm down a lot.”

The South Florida slaughterhouses were back in force by January 2018, when a woman feeding stray dogs in the C-9 Basin spotted a Chihuahua gnawing on a severed horse leg. She called police, who eventually found body parts from at least 20 dead horses. Couto had by then been fighting the trade for a decade, but his marquee prosecutions and legislative wins were years past: He craved another takedown.

Couto with horse meat recovered as evidence
Couto with horse meat recovered as evidence
▲ Couto with horse meat recovered as evidence.

Toward the end of the year, at the tail end of the busy Christmas season for C-9 Basin butchers, an opportunity presented itself. A.J. Garcia, ARM’s director of investigations, and another undercover operative turned down a long driveway packed with cars and beer-drinking revelers. Garcia went in and purchased a live hog, the first move in what became Operation Genesis. He, Couto, and others visited the facility undercover again the next week to buy pork and cockfighting roosters. They recorded video of the proprietor, a middle-aged man, stabbing pigs, snorting cocaine, and selling guns.

What to do with this information was a problem, however. Couto’s operation was flush; he’d collected $2.6 million in donations in 2018, up from $2.1 million the year before. But his tumultuous relationship with law enforcement in Florida had hit bottom, and his opponents were still targeting him. Months earlier someone had broken into ARM’s remote compound and poured bleach into some vehicles’ gas tanks, causing $100,000 in damage.

In November 2019, Garcia drove out to the C-9 Basin slaughterhouse to make another controlled buy for Operation Genesis. This time he found it partially burned. The butcher was gone. When Garcia called the man, he said he’d left the C-9 Basin. It was getting too hot with activists and police. He invited Garcia to visit his new farm in Homestead, a 45-minute drive southwest from Miami.

ARM investigators wanted to learn if the butcher was selling horse meat, too, but asking for it outright might have tipped him off. Instead, one of the investigators lied and said he had a son with anemia. The butcher suggested he feed the boy horse meat. Soon the man was boasting about stealing them for slaughter, claiming he killed 20 horses a week. By last spring, ARM was ready to take the evidence to the district attorney.

During my March visit to Couto’s compound, he showed me shaky undercover footage of the butcher snorting cocaine off his wrist in between brutal killings of pigs and goats. Couto also produced bags of horse meat he said had been purchased from the man. Samples had been sent off for tests to establish their equine provenance. (I didn’t check to see if lunch—meatless chicken sandwiches—was stored in the same fridge.)

Two days later we met in a Home Depot parking lot and headed out in Couto’s massive pickup for the C-9 Basin. The butcher had been gone for months, but evidence of slaughter in the area wasn’t hard to find. Couto pulled over on a back road, and attempted a demonstration he’d performed for other reporters in the past. He got out and charged into the brush, emerging with a sack heavy with … something. He sliced it open and out tumbled garbage. He went back in and found another. This time, desiccated horse vertebrae and ribs clattered out.

Then the pandemic descended on South Florida, and Operation Genesis went dark. Informants reported to Couto that the markets were still thriving and that the coronavirus was spreading through illegal slaughterhouses much as it was through legal ones. Couto enlisted an old ally, Pizzo, to lobby the state attorney for Miami-Dade for help prosecuting the butcher. Her office declined. A similar request to the commissioner of Florida’s agriculture department went unanswered. Couto decided he had one last-ditch option left: make a final undercover buy, then call 911 and hope the responding officers make arrests.

By late November, Garcia had resigned. So Couto enlisted someone else to drive to Homestead and buy meat as his team hid behind a power station a 15-minute drive away. I was there, too, along with a crew from Local 10 News. At 4:15 p.m., the ARM operative returned in an unmarked SUV with two baby goats peering out the window; he’d told the butcher he needed some to sacrifice for a black-magic ceremony. He unloaded two trash bags containing the freshly skinned and gutted carcasses of a sheep and a pig. The goats bleated and chomped on hay, happily undecapitated, as they got a lice check. All over the grounds, the operative said, were horses awaiting slaughter.

He and Couto called 911 on speakerphone to report animal cruelty at the property. Then we formed a convoy and drove into a warren of unpaved roads, farms, and slaughterhouses. When police arrived, they were exasperated to find Couto on the scene. They refused to storm the lot, then threatened Couto himself, accusing him of illegal tactics. He pushed back against the claim, and before leaving the officers promised to review ARM’s Operation Genesis report.

“This is such a clusterf---,” Couto said once they’d departed. He was embarrassed and frustrated. The operation had cost roughly $150,000 in salaries, hazard pay, veterinary care, undercover buys, and more. He’d been wrong to believe that the police would go in, he said. “Nothing ever seems to come of it.”

A few days later, detectives would return to the property to find the slaughterhouse shut down, the animals and their butcher gone. Police representatives later told me they’d like to work with Couto in the future, if he’ll follow wiretapping laws and other evidentiary rules. “There has to be structure,” a spokesman says. “It’s got to be done right.”

That November evening, Couto headed home from the raid. He stopped for gas, his mind swirling with doubts about the future. But as he pumped fuel under fluorescent lights, he spotted a Hispanic man approaching. The stranger had something in his hand.

“Have you ever seen this name before?” the man asked Couto, passing him a shred of paper. “I know who you are and what you do. You’re gonna want to look him up.”

“Is he a horse killer?” Couto asked.


The tipster drove off, and Couto climbed into his truck and headed north to ARM headquarters. The pig and sheep remains would go into an evidence freezer. The baby goats would get names and graze in the sanctuary alongside Freedom’s Flight. The doubts were, for the moment, erased. The Bruce Wayne of South Beach had a new lead.

▲ Couto at his farm in Florida.

(Corrects several details about ARM investigations between 2018 and 2020.)

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