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Farm owner won't be charged in deaths of chickens

The prosecutor will not charge the egg farm's owner, who ran out of money for feed before thousands of birds died.

By CHASE SQUIRES, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 11, 2002

The prosecutor will not charge the egg farm's owner, who ran out of money for feed before thousands of birds died.

DADE CITY -- The State Attorney's Office expects today to close the investigation into the death of thousands of chickens at a Trilby egg farm in March. An official said there will be no criminal charges filed.

Paperwork marking the formal closure is scheduled to be prepared today in Dade City, but Bruce Bartlett, the chief assistant state attorney, on Tuesday said State Attorney Bernie McCabe agreed with investigators there is no evidence of criminal wrongdoing.

The case involved the death of as many as 200,000 chickens at an 80-acre Cypress Foods Inc. farm between U.S. 98 and U.S. 301 north of Trilby Road.

Bartlett said an investigation concluded that about 2,000 to 4,000 chickens starved at the farm before the rest were euthanized.

Tuesday's announcement disappointed Gene Bauston, president of the animal rights group Farm Sanctuary, which has pressed McCabe to file charges.

Bartlett said an extensive investigation included a review of Cypress Foods' ongoing bankruptcy case, interviews with owner James R. Biggers and a study of his finances. In the end, Bartlett said, the death of the chickens appeared to be the unfortunate conclusion of a once-profitable farming venture that couldn't survive a downturn in egg prices.

Biggers, Bartlett said, ran out of money to buy food for the chickens.

"You're dealing with a man who had millions, and now basically is on Social Security," Bartlett said. "It was kind of a house of cards when it started to crumble."

Bauston said that no matter why the money ran out, it was Biggers' decision to risk his chickens' lives on a bid to save the company. Despite his misfortunes, Bauston said, Biggers made the choices that led to the animals starving.

"We're extremely disappointed that State Attorney Bernie McCabe did not file charges," Bauston said. "The bottom line is there were hundreds of thousands of birds starved here. They were (Biggers') birds; they were his responsibility."

A Tampa attorney who works with Farm Sanctuary, Paul Rebein, said he remains convinced there is evidence of wrongdoing.

The decision to file no charges was not a surprise for Cypress Foods attorney Herbert Donica, who said the company and Biggers turned over reams of documents to investigators.

"Those guys, in my opinion, reviewed everything available, then reviewed it again," Donica said. "They did the most thorough job I've ever seen."

Biggers, Donica said, gave up all his rights and told the attorney to give investigators everything they asked for.

"He had absolutely nothing to hide," Donica said. "He basically, voluntarily, took his life savings and reinvested it back in the company. There's nothing left at the end of the day."

An attorney who represents Biggers individually, Warren Dawson, said he was pleased with the State Attorney's Office decision.

"We cooperated completely," Dawson said. "No crime or any wrongdoing occurred."

Dawson said Biggers navigated the economic cycles of the egg business for 40 years before running into a protracted downturn last year that outlasted his finances.

Both Donica and Dawson said they did not expect Biggers would want to comment on the case, and a telephone number for Cypress Foods' Winter Haven headquarters has been disconnected.

Hundreds of thousands of chickens were euthanized at Cypress Foods farms in Georgia as well, but Donica, Dawson and Bartlett said they were not aware of any criminal investigations into those farms.

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