The giant African land snail is down but not out in South Florida.
The giant African land snail is down but not out in South Florida.
Photo by Alexander R. Jenner, used under a Creative Commons license

Five of the Most Insane Animal Crimes in Miami History

If there are two things Floridians are fantastic at, it's wrestling alligators and racketeering. This week, New Times chronicled one group of particularly enterprising Sunshine State residents who combined the two: an alligator-thieving ring that took the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission two years of undercover tracking to nab.

But that case is just the tip of the Burmese python when it comes to whacked-out Florida animal crimes: Given Miami's penchant for frauds, smugglers, drug abusers, and ne'er-do-wells, you can sure bet some assholes have gotten themselves involved in some truly terrifying animal-abuse cases in recent years. Here are the most surreal examples:

1. A leader from an obscure African religion called "El Africano" was investigated for importing invasive African land snails and making his followers sick by forcing them to drink snail mucus:

Charles L. Stewart of Hialeah is under investigation for making his followers do exactly that. He's a practitioner of an African faith known as El Africano, a blend of Yoruba and Catholic practices, but apparently drinking wine with a side of wafers wasn't enough. He believes in drinking the juice of giant African snails.

As the name implies, giant African snails aren't native to South Florida, and Stewart illegally smuggled them in. They can grow up to ten inches long and be destructive to the local ecosystem.

Stewart used the snails for healing by holding the creatures over his followers' heads, cutting the snails, and letting their fluids pour into the believers' mouths.

Of course, this made them only more sick. Authorities were tipped off when some began complaining of violent illnesses, lumps in their stomachs, and loss of weight.

2. An Art Basel artist was arrested for importing rare animal carcasses and turning them into bizarre sculptures:

According to the Feds, [Enrique Gomez] De Molina illegally imported "the parts, skins, and remains of species, including among others, whole cobras, pangolins, hornbills, and the skulls of babirusa and orangutans" from Bali, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, Canada, and China.

He is charged with possessing the skins of a Java kingfisher, collared kingfisher, bird of paradise, and juvenile hawk-eagle as well as the carcasses of a slow loris and a lesser mouse deer, all from Indonesia.

None of them were legally imported into the United States, according to a press release from the United States Attorney's Office for the Southern District of Florida:

"After receipt, De Molina would incorporate various parts and segments of the wildlife into taxidermy pieces at a studio in downtown Miami. He offered these pieces through galleries and on the internet for prices ranging up to $80,000. In December 2010, pieces constructed by De Molina were exhibited at Art Basel Miami, resulting in at least one significant sale and the subsequent illegal export of the piece to the Canada."

3. Two women in 2014 were arrested for allegedly performing "crush porn," where they were filmed killing small animals onscreen before having sex. (The charges were dropped.)

For the second time this month, a woman has been arrested in Miami for participating in "crush porn."

Stephanie Hird, 29, was busted yesterday while trying to board a flight at Miami International Airport. Her arrest comes two weeks after another woman, Sara Zamora, was also arrested for animal cruelty. Police say the women appear in locally made fetish videos killing small animals and then committing sex acts on camera.

According to her entry on Model Mayhem, Hird is "a reputable model, agent, and producer" with more than ten years of experience.

But Instagram and Facebook accounts make it clear that she routinely made money from stranger shoots, including foot fetish films and wrestling videos in which she would choke other women until they passed out.

There is little hint of Hird's profession as a crush porn actress, however, except for a black-and-white photo of her posing with the now-infamous Zamora.

4. An illegal slaughterhouse was busted in 2013 after performing ritual animal sacrifices:

Earlier this week, Richard "Kudo" Couto's Animal Rescue Mission busted its latest illegal slaughterhouse. Four men connected to VIP Animal Sales have been arrested and charged with selling horse meat and abusing dozens of animals.

But Couto says there's more to the story. His investigations into the Homestead farm also found evidence of animal sacrifices, possibly connected to Palo Mayombe, an Afro-Caribbean religion that Couto has controversially raged against.

Thanks in part to Couto's undercover work at VIP, its owners were busted for illegally slaughtering horses and other animals. Couto says he was looking into a side business there to sell animals for religious sacrifices when he came across a room filled with burning candles, dolls and blood-covered statues. Pots were filled with animal heads and money. Swords and knives were everywhere.

5. And, in 2015, the feds busted the largest illegal slaughterhouse in U.S. history in Doral:

While the name sounds almost charming, Doral’s Coco Farm was anything but. The 70-acre property was a house of horrors for chickens, goats, pigs, cows, and dogs. Animals were bought and slaughtered in the presence of customers; stabbed with rusty blades and sometimes boiled or skinned while still alive.

Thankfully, the “farm” is no more. Last week, Animal Recovery Mission (ARM) and Miami-Dade law enforcement raided the location, arresting the owners and saving more than 9,500 badly abused animals. The operation was the largest rescue of its kind in the United States, ever, says Richard “Kudo” Couto, ARM founder.

The evidence against the farm was gathered by ARM’s undercover investigators during multiple visits. The videos are reportedly bone-chilling, and even some of the officials involved are having trouble watching, says Couto. Four men have felony charges levied against them for involvement with Coco Farm, including the owner. Two are in custody, while police continue to search for the other two.

“I guestimated that the owner was onsite for 20 years. He actually corrected me; he’s been doing this for 45 years. That’s torturing and killing a minimum of 300 animals a day for 45 years,” Couto says.

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