FALL RIVER, Mass. (WPRI) — The first handful of dozens of defendants in what’s been called the largest farm animal abuse case in New England history appeared in court Tuesday.
A total of 27 people are scheduled to answer to charges in connection with squalid conditions discovered at a Westport farm last summer. The Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office said investigators found more than 1,400 animals living in filth on the 70-acre property off American Legion Highway.
Four of the farm’s tenants were arraigned on Tuesday on varying counts of animal cruelty charges. The farm’s owner, 83-year-old Richard Medeiros, is scheduled to be arraigned Wednesday on 21 counts of animal cruelty.
Joao and Eddy DeAguiar, a father and son ages 73 and 37, both pleaded not guilty to ten counts of animal cruelty Tuesday. The pair are accused of mistreating a turkey, pigeons, chickens, goats, rabbits, sheep, cattle, dogs and a Canadian goose. They were released on the condition that they not have any animals.
“Animals on this lot had inadequate water and feed,” a criminal complaint obtained by Eyewitness News said. It referred to the DeAguiars as co-tenants. “Conditions were unsanitary and dangerous, with animals living amongst an accumulation of feces and urine. Medical problems included anemia, dehydration, malnutrition, parasites, eye conditions, overgrown hooves, lameness, infected horns, severe matting and soiling of wool, respiratory disease, ringworm, and Salmonellosis.”
Both DeAguiars declined to comment outside court.
Luis Pacheco, 57, pleaded not guilty to three counts of animal cruelty and was also released on the condition he not possess animals. He is accused of mistreating cows, pigs and a dog. “There was no adequate shelter for any animal and they were surrounded by dangerous and hazardous garbage,” the criminal complaint said.
Pacheco’s defense attorney said the animals were frequently visited by family members and veterinarians.
“We deny that my client was ever abusive toward animals or didn’t care for them,” Attorney Ken Fredette said. “This isn’t like animals were thrown into the woods and just neglected.”
A fourth defendant, Octavio Botelho, also pleaded not guilty on Tuesday to six counts of animal cruelty and was released on the condition he not have any animals. His charges include alleged cruelty to cattle, chickens, goats, rabbits, pigs and dogs.
The investigation into the farm began last July, when authorities discovered mistreatment of animals after responding to a 911 call about two escaped Rottweilers attacking goats. Westport Police obtained search warrants several days later, and discovered hundreds of animals living in “disgusting” conditions. The farm had previously been investigated for similar problems back in 2010, but no charges were filed.
A grand jury indicted the 27 suspects back in March. A list of more than 100 grand jury exhibits obtained by Eyewitness News shows that dozens of animal hospitals have provided records for the case.
“My personal veterinarian was one of the first people on site,” said Kathy Feininger with Stop the Insanity Westport. “She said she’d never seen anything like this.”
Feininger’s group attended the arraignments on Tuesday.
“I cannot live in a community where systematic animal abuse on a scale this large is allowed to happen,” she said. She said she wants the town of Westport to form a registry of farm animals to help the inspectors keep track of them.
Another group, Protest Westport Tenant Farm, has gained support on Facebook and also showed up to witness the court arraignments.
“It doesn’t ever get easy to cope with what we’ve seen,” said Jodi Greenleaf. “The photographs and the details are so horrific.”
The rest of the farm’s tenants are slated to be arraigned at various times throughout the rest of the week.