Animal-cruelty case ends in plea bargain

BLOOMFIELD, NJ — Vincent Ascolese, the former animal-control officer at North Jersey Humane Society Shelter, in Bloomfield, pleaded guilty to three counts of disorderly person’s conduct in Bloomfield Municipal Court on Thursday, March 9.

Ascolese, 50, faced multiple NJ Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals charges stemming from his euthanizing an injured fawn on June 29, 2015. The method he employed was exsanguination by cutting the animal’s throat. His two other disorderly person’s conduct pleas were for the improper disposal of a dog and squirrel housed at the shelter. The deer had been found on private property. Ascolese will pay a $1,000 fine, $33 court costs, and $3,500 is restitution to the NJSPCA.

Steve Shatkin, president NJSPCA said his organization was satisfied with guilty pleas and restitution.

“No animal should have to die cruelly at the hands of someone entrusted with their safety,” he said.

In a telephone interview following the proceedings, Ascolese’s attorney, James Lisa, said his client did not plead guilty for any allegation of animal cruelty.
“It is my understanding this will not impact his license,” Lisa said.

According to Carol Tyler, the northern director of the NJ Certified Animal Control Officers Association, Ascolese is presently a licensed animal control officer.

In his office, Bloomfield Prosecutor John Cerza called the guilty pleas “a good result for everybody.”

“It was important to get convictions,” he said.
Cerza said whether or not Ascolese gets his license revoked is up to another agency.

“My understanding is that these convictions can be used against him.” he said. “Everyone has their eye on this guy at this point in time.”

Lisa had asked Judge John Paparazzo to consider his client’s actions as coming under NJ Department of Fish and Wildlife laws, which would have been more lenient than NJSPCA laws prohibiting exsanguination. Lisa told Paparazzo that if there were any confusion, the common law of lenity would favor Ascolese whose actions would then fall under Fish and Wildlife laws. Cerza said because of this ambiguity, he believed the pleas were preferred to a trial which was scheduled on the day of the pleas.

“You don’t know what will happen in a trial,” Cerza said. “It’s important to get a conviction than leaving it up to an appeal.”

Cerza said he takes animal cases seriously.

“Clearly this is no way to treat an animal,” he said. “As far as the state is concerned, it was not an acceptable way to dispose of an animal.”

Regarding the “disposal” of an animal, Cerza said that word meant how an animal is treated. He did not know what became of the dog and the squirrel.

“Exsanguination is not a way to dispose of an animal under the Animal Cruelty Act,” he said. “This fawn was not afforded the opportunity to be examined by a veterinarian.”

But Cerza acknowledged that the deer, which was found presumably after being struck by a car, would have had to have been euthanized. “These animal control officers have a very difficult job,” he said. “They have to make on-the-spot decisions. But once the animal is in their control, they have to treat the animal with care.”

Cerza credits Sgt. Phil Amato, of the NJSPCA, who was in charge of the investigation.

During the courtroom proceedings, Lisa told Paparazzo that there were potentially other charges against Ascolese in another jurisdiction. Cerza said an investigation was pending in Bloomfield but no charges would come. Paparazzo asked if the Bloomfield investigation arose from any of the facts before him.
Cerza said no. Paparazzo asked Ascolese to explain what took place on June 29, 2015. He did while being questioned by Lisa.

Lisa asked if there was a dead deer that he disposed of improperly. Ascolese said yes.

Lisa asked if there was a squirrel and a dog that he disposed of improperly on June 19, 2015. Ascolese said yes.

Under NJ Division Fish and Wildlife laws, a critically injured animal may be considered already dead.

Lisa then spoke about his client.

“I’ve known Mr. Ascolese since he was a young man,” he said.

He told Paparazzo that Ascolese had saved a boy from drowning and “braved Sandy to save animals.”

Lisa was referencing Hurricane Sandy which hit the area Oct. 29, 2012.

“He loves his job,” Lisa said. “This is an aberration. Consider that when sentencing.”

Paparazzo asked Ascolese if he had a comment, but he did not. Cerza told Paparazzo that he wanted the court to accept the guilty pleas. Paparazzo said the case was interesting.

“There are two statues that are confusing to municipal judges,” he said. “Maybe the people in this courtroom can clean this up with the Legislature.”

He said the confusion was not fair to anyone.

“There’s not much case law,” Paparazzo said. “That’s when the legislature should step forward.”

Nicole Kirgan, public information officer for the NJ Department of Health, which certifies animal-control officers, said statutes allow a DOH commissioner to revoke the certificate of any person convicted of, or found civilly liable for, a violation of any provision of NJ Cruelty Statutes. Kirgan said the DOH had no comment, at this time, regarding the revocation of Ascolese’s certification.

Lisa had argued that a deer is a wild animal and Ascolese’s actions fall under NJ Fish and Wildlife laws. But in his office, Cerza said once an animal is taken into custody, it is no longer a wild animal so an ACO officer should follow animal cruelty laws. He called that the real problem in the case.

“We had an animal-control officer that was going to testify that the animal was alert and could raise its head,” he said.

Cerza called the case a perfect storm of complicated issues. Responding to Cerza’s online comment that people were going to keep their eye on Ascolese, Lisa said that was probably so.