Another man has been arrested and police are searching for two more in the case of animal abuse at a Hoke County turkey farm.
The Hoke County Sheriff's office announced Thursday it had arrested Ronnie Dlue Jacobs of Raeford and charged him with misdemeanor cruelty to animals.
Warrants were also issued for Brian Gerrard Douglas, for felonious cruelty to animals, and to Billy Thomas McBryde, for misdemeanor cruelty to animals.
The Mercy for Animals organization selected Butterball’s Farm 11 randomly and one of its investigators went undercover for four weeks starting in November.
Workers fired, suspended and arrested
On Wednesday, Ruben Mendoza, Jose Garcia and Terry Johnson were brought into the Hoke County Jail and charged in connection with the case.
Mendoza was charged with Felonious obtaining of Property by False Pretenses, Felonious Identity Theft, and Misdemeanor Cruelty to Animals. Garcia faces felony charges for Identity Theft and Obtaining Property by False Pretenses. And Johnson is charged with Misdemeanor Cruelty to Animals.
"The charges are cruelty to animals, so that's basically the nature of the charge, they were doing things that they shouldn't have been doing," Hoke County Sheriff Hubert Peterkin said.
The investigation implicates workers, and not managers, at the Butterball Farm in Shannon and Tar Heel Hatchery in Raeford. The sheriff says these arrests are just the beginning.
"It's probably going to be more, from what we're looking at," said Sheriff Peterkin.
Butterball issued a statement saying four employees have been fired and two others suspendend.
“As the result of Butterball’s own internal investigation into this matter, Butterball terminated four employees last month due to their failure to comply with the company’s animal care and well-being standards,” the statement said.
“Butterball understands that three of these former associates have been charged with animal cruelty today. In addition, Butterball understands that two current Butterball associates have been charged with animal cruelty. Butterball has immediately suspended these two current associates pending final disciplinary action.”
State worker charged
The arrests come after a high-level state agriculture department employee was charged and suspended in connection with the incident.
Dr. Sarah Mason was notified of a two week unpaid suspension on Feb. 2. That was the result of the Dept. of Agriculture’s own investigation into the case.
Mason pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice and resist, delay, obstruct a public officer after she admitted to tipping off a veterinarian at the facility that undercover video had been recorded.
She appeared before Judge John Horne, Jr. on Wednesday and was sentenced to 45 days in the Hoke Co. Jail. Her jail sentence was suspended in exchange for 12 months unsupervised probation.
Mason will also be required to attend two ethics training courses and attend monthly meetings with her supervisor to review industry contacts for one year.
Authorities say she initially lied about the leak.
NBC-17 was unable to reach Mason for comment Wednesday, but last month she said in a statement, "Nobody at the department was aware of the actions I took."
The investigation revealed that Mason acted alone and without the knowledge and consent of her superiors at the Department of Agriculture.
In her statement, Mason said, “My rationale for contacting Dr. Eric Gonder was to immediately curtail avian absue.”
In a Jan. 19 interview, Commissioner Steve Troxler said he is standing by Mason.
"I had an employee who made an error," Troxler said in the interview.
In a statement from the Dept. of Agriculture officials said Mason's action was out of character for her and has a reputation for honesty and integrity. Officials add that the information Mason shared with the Butterball employee was "received fourth-hand through Department employees."
"The only information that she received, and shared with the Butterball employee, was that Mercy For Animals had an undercover video showing abuse of turkeys at a Butterball facility, and that it had been turned over to an Assistant District Attorney in Hoke County. She did not tell anyone that Hoke County authorities were conducting a criminal investigation as a result of the video, nor was she aware or did she tell anyone that there was going to be a search warrant served at any of their facilities."
Mercy For Animals, the group that initially recorded the alleged abuse at the Hoke Co. Butterball farm, provided the following statement which in part read: "We hope that all parties responsible for the horrific animal abuse and neglect document at Butterball, as well as those who sought to interfere with law enforcement's investigation by obstructing justice, be held criminally accountable."
Reaction to Dept. of Ag punishment and arrests
Nathan Runkle, executive director of Mercy for Animals, spoke exclusively with NBC 17 Wednesday night shortly before boarding a plane from Los Angeles to Raleigh.
He said Mason’s punishment is not enough.
“This suspension is a mere slap on the wrist. Employees that foster animal abuse and allow it to continue and who defend these companies should be fired, quite frankly,” he said.
Brian Long, spokesman for the Department of Agriculture, said Mason is staying with the Department because "she realizes what she did was just a very bad error in judgment."
“Given her overall record with the department over the past five and a half years or so ... it is out of character with the way she has conducted herself as an employee with the department, I think that he feels like the punishment was appropriate,” Long said.
Runkle said he is pleased with the charges authorities have made in the case.
“We hope that these arrests send a strong message that animal abuse will not be tolerated and that factory farmers simply cannot kick and throw and neglect animals however they wish, and that state anti-cruelty laws and undercover investigations will hold you criminally accountable for mistreating these animals,” he said.
Runkle plans a news conference in Raleigh Thursday morning to talk more about the case.
The Hoke County District Attorney Kristy Newton issued a statement Thursday morning saying Mason's conduct is not and should not be attributable to other officials within the Agricultural department.
"It is vital that law enforcement be able to rely on other government agencies and their employees to safeguard confidential information shared during a criminal investigation. It is unfortunate that Dr. Mason chose to breach that level of trust..." said Newton in her statement.
Changes at Butterball
In addition to the firings and suspensions, Butterball announced further reaction to the abuse case.
The company released this statement:
“We are closely re-evaluating our animal care and well-being policies and practices and have already established several new initiatives – including reviewing scientific literature and enhancing the company program, re-training associates on animal care and well-being, elevating animal care and well-being to a position that reports directly to me, and conducting extensive third-party audits by national experts – that reinforce this commitment.”
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