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Coto de Caza Man Arrested for 106 Animal Cruelty Crimes

Mitchell Behm and a Rialto man are charged after largest seizure of rodents in U.S. history.

Mitchell Steven Behm (left) and David Delgado. Photo/Riverside County Sheriff's Department
Mitchell Steven Behm (left) and David Delgado. Photo/Riverside County Sheriff's Department
By Toni McAllister

Two men accused of causing severe abuse and neglect of nearly 20,000 animals in Lake Elsinore were arrested and charges filed against them, an official with the Riverside County District Attorney's Office is reporting.

Approximately 600 reptiles and 18,400 rodents once owned by Lake Elsinore-based Global Captive Breeders located on 3rd Street were euthanized in December via lethal injection last year by licensed veterinarians. Business owner Mitchell Steven Behm, 54, was arrested Friday, about 7:30 p.m., at his home in Coto de Caza, DA's office spokesman John Hall reported.

At one time, Global Captive Breeders had its office on Oso Parkway in Las Flores.

Behm was booked at the Southwest Detention Center in French Valley and posted bail; he was released on Saturday, Hall reported.

A manager at Global Captive Breeders, 29-year-old David Delgado (also known as Jose Magana), was arrested Friday, about 10 p.m., at his Rialto home. He was booked at the Robert Presley Detention Center in Riverside where he was being held Monday morning in lieu of $50,000 bail. If Delgado remains in custody, he is scheduled to be arraigned Wednesday, Hall stated.

Behm has been charged with 106 felony counts of animal cruelty, and Delgado has been charged with the same 106 counts plus an additional 11 counts of alleged direct torture or killing of rodents, Hall reported.

Behm surrendered custody of the reptiles and rodents to Wildomar-based Animal Friends of the Valleys on Dec. 15, authorizing the organization to end the animals’ suffering, confirmed then-City of Lake Elsinore spokesman Justin Carlson.

The grim task of assessing, cataloguing and euthanizing the animals was carried out over the course of eight days.

“The animals were too sick, too toxic, too critical to move,” said Willa Bagwell, executive director of Animal Friends of the Valleys. 

“After careful analysis, a team of veterinarians, reptile specialists, and animal cruelty investigations experts determined that due to the extreme neglect, cruelty and dangerously unhealthy long-term conditions, contaminated environment and the potential for further suffering, euthanasia was the safest and most humane option for the animals and the community at large,” Carlson said.

Bagwell, who had been involved in the investigation since it began, described the scene and smell at the 3rd Street facility as “horrific.”

“We had animals that had been dead for weeks with maggots crawling out of them,” she said. "There was terrible suffering in unimaginable conditions."

Of the animals that were still alive when the investigation began, Bagwell explained most were too sick, too weak to eat.

Officials with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals initiated the investigation into the animal cruelty allegations at Global Captive Breeders and Bagwell said the animal-advocacy group confirmed the Lake Elsinore case marked the largest seizure of rodents in U.S. history.

"GCB was a reeking hellhole for the rats, snakes, and other animals who were left to starve, drown, and die among the rotting corpses of other animals," said PETA President Ingrid E. Newkirk. "The individuals responsible for this staggering cruelty must be prosecuted and banned from laying their hands on another animal."

PETA alleged Behm videotaped himself in the 1980s throwing mice, rats, and rabbits into a bathtub with ferrets, who attacked and killed them. Behm admitted to conducting these unapproved "experiments" in part for his own "enjoyment," but the statute of limitations had expired by the time law-enforcement authorities discovered the video footage, PETA alleges.

PETA has graphic videos on its website, allegedly of Behm's ferret experiment, and of abused animals inside Global Captive Breeders.

When the Lake Elsinore investigation began and officials started speaking with potential witnesses, some in the 3rd Street neighborhood came forward to complain of foul smells emanating from the building, Bagwell said.

According to its website, Global Captive Breeders sold reptiles and rodents to the public via delivery.

“I feel strongly that we have a case of animal suffering and death due to human greed,” Bagwell said at the time of the investigation.

"By far, this is the most severe and large-scale single facility forcing animals to live in vile and horrific conditions that I have experienced in my nearly 30 years as an animal cruelty investigator," said Captain Cindy Machado, Marin Humane Society animal services director and an expert in investigations of cruelty to animals who assisted in coordinating and leading the response and investigative teams at Global Captive Breeders. 

"We found evidence of animals drowning; dying in enclosures; rotting and decaying in cages; living for days without water; deprived of simple, basic care; and living in high levels of contaminated air—by far exceeding the level of suffering we have ever encountered."

In a released PETA statement, the organization contends that during its two-month investigation in Lake Elsinore its investigators "documented a failure to provide animals with adequate space, food, and water; injured and sick animals deprived of veterinary care; and reptiles left to languish and die in filth-encrusted tubs, surrounded by their own waste and the maggot-ridden remains of other animals. GCB workers, including its manager, shot at rats with a BB gun, froze them alive, bludgeoned them with metal tongs and gun handles, and smashed them against hard surfaces in an attempt to kill them."

According to Hall's statement, the cruelty investigation revealed that Delgado was seen causing traumatic injury or death to numerous rodents at the facility. It is also alleged in the investigation that Behm as aware of the deplorable conditions at the facility and directed the cruelty of reptiles and rodents, Hall stated.

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