Scruffy, pictured above, was euthanized in October, several days after two teenage boys allegedly set him on fire. (Photo Courtesy of the ASPCA)
By Amy Lieberman
March 24, 2009
NEW YORK -- Two Brooklyn teenagers could spend up to 25 years in jail for setting a cat aflame in October, causing the severely injured tabby to eventually be euthanized.
Angelo Monderoy, 18, and Mathew Cooper, 17, were indicted last week by the King's County District's Attorney's Office; they now face multiple charges, including arson in the second degree, burglary in the second degree, aggravated animal cruelty and animal cruelty. In New York, aggravated animal cruelty is classified as a felony.
The 5-month-old case may well have remained unsolved had the New York ASPCA not utilized advanced forensics, one of its investigators says.
It's the first time the New York City cruelty investigative team relied on DNA testing, which is commonly used in human cases, but not animal-related incidents.
"This type of testing is becoming more and more accessible for our field," said Joseph Pentangelo, a special agent for humane law enforcement at the ASPCA. "In this case, what was done to the cat certainly cried out for a resolution. We figured that it was certainly an appropriate case to try it on."
Cooper and Monderoy are being charged for stalking Scruffy, a young male tabby, inside one of the men's Crown Heights apartment building. The cat was technically a stray, but had befriended some of the building's tenants, who would regularly supply him with food and care.
After catching the cat, the pair allegedly broke into a vacant apartment unit on Oct. 7, 2008, doused him with a flammable liquid and set him on fire. One person appeared to hold the cat down on his left side, as the right portion ofScruffy's body showed the most severe burns.
Later that morning, according to the King County's District Attorney's Office, "the cat was found outside crying, unable to move, but still alive. It was taken to an animal hospital, where it was euthanized, due to the severe burns it had suffered."
Identifying a culprit in an animal abuse case is frequently challenging, according to Deputy District Attorney Carol Moran, since "animals, much like a victim in a young child abuse case, cannot identify the attacker."
"Even if this cat had lived, it couldn't identify its attacker, even if it did know who did it," Moran said. "That means that we are always going to rely on some combination of investigative work, and in this case, forensics."
Elements of the crime were sloppy, Pentangelo said, and revealed several clues.
"The flames not only damaged the cat, but the floor and part of the walls of the apartment as well," he said. "This was a reckless act, which could have resulted in people being harmed, as well."
Investigators' survey of the area led them to the defendants, "who made some admissions to their involvement in burning a cat," Moran said.
Yet questions of Scruffy being the actual cat who was burned remained unanswered. Hoping to connect the pieces, the ASPCA investigative team looked to DNA testing as a viable option.
"To make sure we could prove that the animal, whose horrible injuries had caused this death, was the same animal these young men set on fire, the ASPCA really did something unique here," Moran said. "They used the scrapings of charred flesh from the apartment and then samples from the cat's body and sent it away."
The DNA matched.
"This is a very creative and innovative tool for the ASPCA to use, that gives us multiple ways to prove our case," Moran explained.
Pentangelo says it's the first time the ASPCA has turned to such a technique, though the testing is reasonably affordable, costing approximately $1,000. He said he could think of several previous cases that could have benefited from similar testings.
For instance, several months ago, a few men were walking down a Bronx street and pulled a cat who was sitting near its apartment's open window.
"They threw the cat to their dogs to attack it, and the dogs attacked the cat but not sufficiently, so the suspects beat the cat in an effort to get the dog to go after it,"Pentangelo said. "There was security camera on the street that captured the incident, but the cat was unrecovered [sic]. We never found the cat."
Had the police recovered a body of any dead cat in the neighborhood, they would have been able to potentially trace it back to the pet cat,Pentangelo explained.
"It could really serve a case and provide crucial points of evidence," he said.
Up until now, though, Pentangelo said, there hasn't been a "crime that presented a need" for DNA testing.
"It could have helped, but we really didn't need it before," he said. "The price has also been coming down. Costs in the past have made this more prohibitive."
No court date has been set for Monderoy and Cooper.
Cooper, however, is already in jail, following recent charges of burglary and assault in an unrelated incident, in the same building. In that alleged crime, he and another defendant are charged with beating a tenant with a cane and demanding money.