OKEECHOBEE — On April 2, 23 horses were impounded by the Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Office after they were found in distress on property out on the Prairie.
Several other animals were found as well, said Sheriff Noel E. Stephen. On April 1, Deputy James Hartsfield was told by a concerned citizen that there were horses being slaughtered off 101 Ranch Road. The citizen did not witness the slaughter, but said she drove down the road and saw a horse in distress and unable to get up off the ground. When she returned later, the horse was still down. She also described bones everywhere and a dead cow with buzzards circling her calf.
When Deputy Hartsfield arrived, it was dusk, and he was not able to properly see the condition of the animals. He spoke to a man, whose son translated, and he said he was the caretaker. He claimed the animals belong to an individual who is in Miami, Manuel Coto-Martinez. Deputy Hartsfield spoke to Coto-Martinez on the phone, and was told the man was sick but would come back to check on the animals. At that time, Deputy Hartsfield saw no evidence of horse slaughter and said he would return the following morning.
The following morning, Cpl. Howard Pickering, Deputy Bryan Holden and Animal Control Officer Amy Fisher returned to the property and found 24 horses in poor condition. Fourteen of the horses scored between two and three in body score condition. A young colt was on the ground and unable to get up. His body score condition was a two or less. After a video chat with Dr. Paul Bryant, it was determined the suffering animal should be euthanized immediately to end the suffering.
Deputy Holden spoke to Coto-Martinez, who had returned during the night. Deputy Holden asked him if he checked on the colt, and he reportedly said it was dead. He had not checked on the animal but assumed it was dead. Coto-Martinez then claimed that Leon Restrepo owned the animals and that he was only allowing Restrepo to leave his animals there temporarily.
He told them he has a caretaker who lives on the property and cares for the animals daily. The caretaker, who has not been identified, said he just lives in the house and has nothing to do with the animals. Coto-Martinez reportedly said Restrepo was in Columbia and could not come back, because the country is on lock down. He said he could not reach him by phone either.
The pasture where the horses were kept had no grass and consisted of sand and oak trees. There was a partial round of Hemarthria hay – which is for cows, not the quality of hay fed to horses – in the pasture. All of the horses were malnourished, needed their feet trimmed and showed signs of parasites.
Coto-Martinez agreed to turn the other horses over to animal control. Animals in good condition were left at the scene but will be monitored by animal control and all north end deputies.
On April 7, Deputy Holden returned to the residence to check on the 60+ head of cattle and found them eating old corn stalks, and they had no hay. Deputy Holden called Coto-Martinez and was told he feeds the cattle corn stalks every other day and picks up dry, left over food from the prison three times a week. Deputy Holden explained this was not a proper diet and told him to go to a feed store and they would tell him what he needs. He said he would be checking on the cattle daily.
The sheriff’s office has been trying to locate the alleged owner.
The horses have been moved to a new location, and the sheriff’s office has been tending to them and the horses are doing better. To date, Sheriff Stephen estimates they have spent about $6,000 - $7,000 on the care of the animals. As of yet, no charges have been filed, but the investigation is ongoing.
Their goal now is to get the horses into the hands of a someone who can properly care for them without the cost burden falling on the taxpayers.
According to the statutes, they must first advertise and attempt to find the owner, If they are unable to locate an owner, they can move forward with advertising and holding an auction for the horses. The horses were advertised as impounded on April 23. If not redeemed by April 26, they will be offered for sale at public auction.
According to the notice posted by OCSO, impounded livestock include:
#1) Arabian mare, aged, sorrel;
#2) Arabian mare, 7 years old, bay;
#3) Arabian mare, 6 years old gray;
#4) Grade colt, 6 months old, bay;
#5) Arabian mare, 10 years old, dunn;
#6) Paso Fino Mare 14 years old, dunn;
#7) Paso Fino mare, 10 years old, dunn;
#8) Grade colt, 6 months old, sorrel;
#9) Grade mare 1 year old, sorrel;
#10) Grade mare, 1 years old, dunn;
#11) Grade mare, 2 years old, dunn;
#12) Grade mare, 2 years old, sorrel;
#13) Grade mare, 3 years old, bay;
#14) Grade mare 2 years old, dunn;
#15) Grade filly, 1 year old, sorrell;
#16) Grade colt, 6 months old, dunn;
#17) Grade mare, 8 years old, bay;
#18) Grade mare, 8 years old, sorrel;
#19) Grade mare, 7 years old, Grulla;
#20) Grade mare, 7 years old, dunn;
#21) Grade mare, 7 years old, sorrel;
#22) Grade mare, 4 years old, sorrel;
#23) Grade mare, 2 years old, dunn.
Coto-Martinez was arrested in Miami in November of 2016 and charged with the unlawful sale of horsemeat and confining an animal without food, water or exercise. He entered a plea of no contest in July of 2017 and was sentenced to one day in the Dade County Jail followed by probation. In October of 2017, a motion was made requesting probation be terminated, and it was granted.
The arrest was made based on an investigation by the Florida State Attorney's office and the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture. After two undercover buys at his ranch in Miami in September and October, Coto-Martinez personally sold one of the investigators 20 pounds of horse meat for $7 a pound and was taken into custody.
In December of 2018, a video, made by the Animal Recovery Mission (ARM) emerged, allegedly showing animal cruelty at a slaughter house owned by Coto-Martinez, but no charges were filed.