Chief Amato (right) and the MCSPCA's Ursula Goetz worked together to bring an animal abuser to justice.
By Ariana Huemer
The details are horrifying, even with a good outcome to the case: 50-year-old Anthony Appolonia admitted to systematically torturing and killing at least 19 cats, most of whom he obtained from "free to good home" newspaper advertisements.
Now, a little more than a year after prosecutors filed felony animal cruelty charges against Appolonia, he received five years in prison for each cat killed, to be served concurrently.
Groundbreaking Conviction and Sentence
The five-year sentence for animal cruelty—the maximum possible penalty—set a precedent in New Jersey.
According to Monmouth County SPCA Chief of Police Buddy Amato, it is the first time in the state's history that anyone received the maximum sentence solely for animal cruelty.
And, Amato warned, "A clear message has been sent to animal abusers in the country: that animal cruelty is taken very seriously in Monmouth County and will not just be swept under the rug."
This groundbreaking animal cruelty conviction was, as Amato put it, a team effort: a collaboration between the Monmouth County SPCA and the prosecutors' office, along with a lot of support from The Humane Society of the United States' Sherry Ramsey.
Before coming to The HSUS, Ramsey served as an Assistant Prosecutor in Monmouth County, so it was only natural that MCSPCA officers called on her for advice as the case against Appolonia developed.
"After speaking with Chief Amato, I provided some legal research and advice on problems that might develop in this kind of case. I also followed up with the prosecutor to discuss the charges," said Ramsey.
"This case is a perfect example of how an animal cruelty case should be handled. Everyone involved did a terrific job to ensure this case was prosecuted to the fullest extent."
The Trail of Evidence
After receiving numerous tips from worried citizens who had entrusted their cats to Appolonia, Monmouth County SPCA Executive Director Ursula Goetz sent Chief Amato out to investigate.
At Appolonia's Aberdeen Township apartment, Appolonia wove a circuitous story to explain the disappearance of so many cats, providing a long list of people to whom he had supposedly given the cats. None of the contacts checked out.
When confronted again by Amato, Appolonia broke down and gave a written and videotaped confession of his crimes, describing in grisly detail how he had first beaten, tortured and then drowned each of the cats, night after night.
Props to the Prosecutor
But the hard part had just begun. "The arrest was just the beginning of the case; bringing it to a conclusion was the hard part," said Amato. "Without the prosecutor's office picking up on my work, taking the ball and running with it, we wouldn't have gotten this conviction and sentence."
"They treated this case as seriously as they would have if it were a mass murderer against people."
Indeed, the Monmouth County prosecutor's office used its considerable resources to conduct a full investigation, from obtaining search warrants to photographing and bagging the evidence. And prosecutor Nicole Colucci argued the case so eloquently before Judge Edward Neafsey that Amato didn't need to stand up and testify at Apollonia's sentencing.
A Lesson to be Learned
One of the hardest parts about this case, according to Amato, was dealing with all the human victims who had entrusted Amato with their beloved animals. Each person whom Amato interviewed was overwhelmed with grief and guilt at having put their family pet into the hands of a killer.
Amato says this underscores the importance of due diligence when considering parting with your pets.
"That's why there is such a long checklist that you have to go through to adopt an animal at the SPCA," says Amato. "People who are trying to rehome a pet need to do the same. Ask for references. Or leave it to the professionals, to the SPCA. Even when you know what you're doing, there are ways that things slip through the cracks."
While the victory in the Appolonia case marks a satisfying end to 2008, Chief Amato isn't slowing down in 2009. Says Amato, "I just arrested a guy who crushed his girlfriend's rat to death during a fight. I'll be seeking the maximum penalties for him too."
Coming from Chief Amato, that's no empty promise.
What You Can Do
Help us continue bringing criminals who abuse animals to justice. Donate to our reward fund today.
Ariana Huemer is cruelty case manager for The Humane Society of the United States.