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Saturday, Apr 30, 2005County: Morris
Person of Interest: Tom Van Wingerden
Case Updates: 1 update(s) available
Tom Van Wingerden says he loves animals -- and so he was just showing some love one May morning in 2005 when he reached under the deck of his farmhouse and pulled out three newborn kittens.
Although the kittens were just hours old, the mother -- a stray -- was nowhere to be found. The umbilical cord was still wrapped around the litter, and one of the cats had been born with only three legs, he said.
"It was like the mother had rejected them," Van Wingerden said. "She knew one of them was sick and didn't want to have anything to do with them."
Nearly a year and a half later, Van Wingerden wishes he'd left the litter alone, too.
The 31-year-old flower farmer said he took it upon himself to find the mother and help nurse the crippled kitty and its two siblings, eventually allowing the cats to run around his barn and play with his two children, a son age 8 and a daughter age 5. But when the three-legged cat turned vicious and scratched his daughter last December, Van Wingerden made the feline pay the ultimate price.
He said he took it out back and shot it in the head with a .22-caliber pistol.
Now he's facing up to five years in prison after a Morris County grand jury indicted him earlier this week on animal cruelty charges. He shudders at the thought of having to do jail time after trying to save the crippled cat in the first place.
"If there is one thing that I would tell a judge, it's that I thought I was doing good," Van Wingerden said while working his farm on Jacksonville Road on Wednesday. "I'm not some crazed animal killer. I tried to do the right thing."
New Jersey law forbids the "needless" killing of animals, pets or otherwise. By law, Van Wingerden should have taken the cat to a veterinarian and had it euthanized. But he said he was going through a divorce at the time, his business was struggling, and he couldn't afford the expense.
"I had no money," Van Wingerden said. "There were days when I was giving my kids quarters for their lunch money."
The indictment, which was handed up Tuesday, charges that Van Wingerden first maimed the cat with a pair of pliers, then killed it. Van Wingerden denies he crippled the cat but does admit to shooting it, saying the animal had become "crazed" and was a danger.
"None of the other cats would have anything to do with it," Van Wingerden said. "It was hopping around on three legs, spinning around. It would bite and scratch. I did what I thought I should do."
The Morris County Prosecutor's Office asserts that Van Wingerden should have taken the animal to a veterinarian to have it euthanized. In a statement, Morris County Prosecutor Michael Rubbinaccio said the office takes animal cruelty cases very seriously.
"Our domestic animals play an important part of enriching our daily lives and often are treated as a family member," Rubbinaccio said.
"They are totally dependent on their owner for their safety and security. It is our duty as prosecutors to protect these most vulnerable companions from harm, and we have criminal laws to punish those that harm them. I take these cases very seriously as this level of viciousness can easily be turned on people, too."
Van Wingerden's lawyer, Jeffery Kassover, described his client's action as a "mercy killing."
The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals first learned of the cat killing through Van Wingerden's son. The SPCA had come to the farm in March to investigate a complaint that a dog Van Wingerden was caring for was not properly leashed.
The boy, in an attempt to defend his father, boasted that his dad had once saved a three-legged cat. The SPCA then questioned the father about the whereabouts of the cat, and charges of animal cruelty were brought after he admitted killing it.
|A Pequannock man accused of shooting a feral cat at his flower farm in 2005 has been cleared of animal cruelty charges.|
Tom Van Wingerden, 31, faced up to five years in jail when he stood before Judge Peter Conforti in Superior Court in Morristown on Tuesday. But the judge found no evidence to support the state's contention that Van Wingerden acted sadistically when he killed the cat in December 2005.
Van Wingerden found the cat under the porch of his Jacksonville Road home in March 2005, only hours after it had been born with a deformed leg. Van Wingerden later told investigators that he removed the leg with a razor blade, then nursed the animal back to health.
Van Wingerden later released the animal and allowed the three-legged cat to roam the greenhouses at his farm and to play with his young children. But he said as the cat matured, it began having fits and scratching his children. Van Wingerden told investigators he then shot the cat.
The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals learned of the shooting while it was investigating a separate complaint of a dog being kept outside at the farm. The SPCA charged Van Wingerden with animal cruelty, and he was indicted in September 2006.
The judge said the state's case was weak because it relied almost completely on Van Wingerden's own statements.
|Source: NorthJersey.Com - April 4, 2007|
Update posted on Apr 6, 2007 - 6:46AM
- NorthJersey Media Group - Sept 21, 2006
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