Case Snapshot
Case ID: 1383
Classification: Beating
Animal: captive exotic
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Monday, May 19, 2003

County: Ocean

Disposition: Convicted

» Matthew Ronneberg
» Thomas Cavanaugh
» Matthew Mercuro

Case Updates: 6 update(s) available

Eight large exotic birds found dead in their pens at a local zoo were beaten to death with various blunt objects, but authorities have few clues in their search for the assailants. The birds -- four Peking ducks, two emus and two rheas -- were found early Monday by officials at the Popcorn Park Zoo in Lacey. One of the ducks survived the attack but was later euthanized, and a third emu was being treated for unspecified injuries. 
John Bergmann, the zoo's director, and zookeeper Bill Waters were on their way to feed another animal at the Ocean County facility when they noticed blood in the rhea's pen around 8:15 a.m.

Bergmann then ordered a full inspection of the property and the other birds were discovered a short time later in their pens, which are in different areas of the park.

A fiberglass shovel, a rake and a PVC pipe used by animal handlers as a protective baton were found broken in pieces on the grounds, and officials believe these items were used to attack the animals sometime late Sunday or early Monday.

"Eight birds had to be killed over somebody's aggression, sickness, stupidity? The animals were beaten to a pulp (and) they had blood all over them," Waters told the Asbury Park Press of Neptune for Tuesday's editions. "The person that did this should be caught and locked up for the rest of their lives."

Three staffers were on duty Sunday, but officials said none of them saw or heard any unusual activity. Bergmann would not say whether the park was equipped with security cameras or other surveillance equipment.

According to Manchester police, the night began when Mercuro, of Waretown, drove a family car to pick up Ronneberg and Cavanaugh, from Forked River, at around 2 a.m. Monday. They then went back to Waretown, then to Manchester, and eventually returned to Lacey and went to the zoo, police said.

Hankins said that both Ronneberg and Cavanaugh listed the same address in Forked River as their residence in their police interviews.

All three admitted to police to first killing a domestic goose at Waretown's Wells Mills County Park and then setting fire to a golf cart and spray-painting swastikas at Cousin's Paintball Fields and Pro Shop in Whiting, according to Hankins.

Hankins said that the three used spray paint to create a blowtorch to burn a golf cart, resembling what another Manchester police officer observed as a stunt portrayed on the MTV show, "Jackass."

Manchester police said that Cavanaugh admitted to making swastikas with orange spray paint, in four places, along with anti-police graffiti in two other locations. "He seemed proud of it," said Hankins about Cavanaugh.

The detective said that the charge of bias intimidation applied in this case because the reason for the swastikas seemed to be motivated by hate, rather than just shock value.

Hankins said that the swastikas were meant to be "kind of a hate thing," but he declined to discuss specifics about what Cavanaugh said to him.

The three proceeded to throw bricks through a stained glass window at St. Elizabeth Ann Seaton Church in Whiting, before heading to the Popcorn Park Zoo in Lacey to bludgeon to death the zoo animals with hard plastic tubing, according to police.

Ronneberg's father, Conrad, confirmed Friday that his son moved out of his home two months ago.  He said that his son was having trouble finishing his senior year of high school at Lacey Township High School and had in effect dropped out.

Case Updates

A judge on Friday gave another chance to stay out of prison to one of the trio of young men given probation for killing flightless, exotic birds at a Lacey zoo in 2003.

Superior Court Judge Wendel E. Daniels, in sentencing Matthew Mercuro for violating the terms of his probation, said he would keep Mercuro on probation instead of sending him to prison because it appeared the 21-year-old Waretown man had made strides toward straightening out his life since committing the violations last year.

Meanwhile, Daniels on Friday adjourned the sentencing of a second admitted bird killer who also violated the terms of his probation by giving adulterated urine to his probation officer during a drug test on Feb. 15.

The sentencing of Matthew Ronneberg, 21, of Forked River, Lacey, will be adjourned while he awaits a response to his application to Drug Court, in which defendants are strictly monitored while they undergo rehabilitation for drug addictions.

The third bird killer, Thomas Cavanaugh, 21, also of Forked River, was sentenced to an indeterminate prison term of up to five years by Superior Court Judge Edward J. Turnbach in July 2004 for violating the terms of his probation by using heroin a month and a half after he received the probationary term. Cavanaugh remains in prison.

The trio admitted bludgeoning to death five exotic, flightless birds - three emus and two rheas - as well as three ducks at the Associated Humane Societies' Popcorn Park Zoo the nights of May 18-19, 2003. That night, the men - all 18 at the time - also killed a goose at Wells Mills County Park in Waretown (Ocean Township), spray-painted swastikas and set fires at Pinelands Paintball in Manchester, and smashed a window at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church, also in Manchester. The case sparked the fury of animal lovers worldwide.

Turnbach initially spared each of the three men from prison, placing them on probation for three years on April 16, 2004.

Cavanaugh was the first to violate probation. Turnbach then sent Mercuro to Ocean County Jail in Toms River for 90 days on Oct. 29, 2004, for violating probation June 19, 2004, in Waretown by driving drunk while underage.

Mercuro again pleaded guilty April 7 of this year to violating probation. He admitted that he failed to make payments to the county Probation Department and that he committed two new offenses - a second incident of underaged drunken driving in Waretown on Oct. 31, 2005, and criminal mischief and trespassing in Beachwood on Sept. 11, 2005.

Turnbach postponed sentencing on the new violations so that Mercuro could complete a residential substance abuse treatment program. Turnbach retired in July.

Mercuro's attorney, Brian White, told Daniels on Friday that Mercuro spent four months in residential treatment and is now in what is called a "three-quarter house," which allows him outside during the day to work in a lumber yard.

"Mr. Mercuro stands before this court sober and healthy," White said.

Mercuro said: "I've got my life turned around."

Assistant Ocean County Prosecutor Michel A. Paulhus told the judge that Mercuro "deserves an opportunity."

Daniels agreed.

"I just want you to continue the way you're going and be a productive member of society," Daniels said.
Source: Asbury Park Press - Oct 7, 2006
Update posted on Oct 8, 2006 - 1:11PM 
One of three men who gained notoriety in 2003 for killing exotic birds at a Lacey zoo admitted Friday for the second time that he violated conditions of the probationary term he was given in the case.

Matthew Mercuro, now 21, of Waretown, admitted to Superior Court Judge Edward J. Turnbach that he violated terms of his probation by failing to make payments to the county Probation Department, and by committing two new offenses.

His attorney, Brian White, said the new offenses were underage drinking and driving in Waretown on April 4, before Mercuro had turned 21, and criminal mischief and trespassing in Beachwood on Sept. 11.

Mercuro's driver's license was suspended for 90 days for the Waretown offense, and he was fined in Beachwood Municipal Court after pleading guilty earlier this year to an ordinance violation, White said.

Mercuro was placed on probation for three years on April 16, 2004, for a crime spree on May 18 and 19, 2003, that included killing three ducks and five exotic, flightless birds at the Associated Humane Societies' Popcorn Park Zoo for abused and neglected animals in Lacey's Forked River section. Also, a goose was stoned to death at Wells Mills County Park in Waretown.

The case enraged animal lovers worldwide.

When Turnbach placed Mercuro and two other young men on probation for the crimes, he warned them that if they violated probation, he would send them to prison.

Turnbach, however, on Friday postponed sentencing Mercuro on his latest probation violation until June 2. The judge put off the sentencing after White told him his client is in a substance-abuse rehabilitation program.

Mercuro first violated the terms of his probation June 19, 2004, when he was charged by Waretown police with driving under the influence of alcohol. He was 19 at the time. On Oct. 29, 2004, Turnbach sentenced him to 90 days in the Ocean County Jail for the violation.

Earlier that year, in July, Turnbach had sentenced a co-defendant of Mercuro, Thomas Cavanaugh, then 19, of Lacey, to an indeterminate term up to five years in state prison for violating his probation by using heroin about a month and a half after receiving the probationary term.

The only co-defendant who has not violated terms of his probation is Matthew Ronneberg of Lacey.

Mercuro, Cavanaugh and Ronneberg each were 18 years old when they went on the two-day spree of destruction. In addition to killing the birds, they spray-painted swastikas and set fires at Pinelands Paintball in Manchester. They also smashed a stained-glass window at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church, also in Manchester.
Source: Asbury Park Press - April 8, 2006
Update posted on Apr 10, 2006 - 11:40AM 
Bird killer Thomas J. Cavanaugh, 20, who broke into the Popcorn Park Zoo in Lacey Township and killed eight of them on May 18, 2003, will be considered for parole from his five-year prison sentence in September.

Cavanaugh was one of three men involved in the burglary at the zoo on Lacey Road in Bamber Lake. Once inside they killed three emus, two rheas and three ducks.

Their rampage also included stoning a goose to death at the county park at Wells Mills in Ocean Township, setting a golf cart on fire at Pinelands Paintball in Manchester, and smashing windows at St. Ann Seton Roman Catholic Church, also in Manchester.

Superior Court Judge Edward J. Turnbach initially gave Cavanaugh five years probation and ordered him to make $4,935 in restitution, but when he was caught using heroin while in a drug rehabilitation program, Turnbach sent him to prison on July 2, 2004 for violating his probation.

Cavanaugh got the sentence after pleading guilty to four counts of animal cruelty, two of criminal mischief, and one each of burglary and arson.

Turnbach gave him credit for 362 days he spent in jail on the charges against his prison term.

If the State Parole Board decides in September to release Cavanaugh from Mountainview Youth Correctional Facility at Annandale he will be free by April. If not his maximum release date is May 2, 2008.

Comments about Cavanaugh's release can be sent to the State Parole Board, CN 862, Trenton, N.J. 08625.
Source: Times-Beacon - July 21, 2005
Update posted on Jul 25, 2005 - 1:34AM 
An Ocean County man who had been spared a prison sentence for killing exotic birds at a zoo has received 90 days in jail for driving drunk during his probation.

Mercuro and the others were given probation for the crime, but he was charged in June with drunken driving. Superior Court Judge Edward J. Turnbach ordered the jail time Friday, but did not sentence Mercuro to state prison because he had otherwise complied with the terms of his probation.

"I'd like to let you know I'm ashamed of my actions," Mercuro told the judge. "While I'm ashamed of the things I've done, I'm willing to suffer the consequences."

Thomas Cavanaugh, one of Mercuro's co-defendants, was sentenced to five years in prison in July by Turnbach after Cavanaugh violated his probation by being expelled from a rehabilitation program for drug use. Turnbach told Cavanaugh he had been warned his three-year probation term hinged on kicking drugs and staying out of trouble.
Source: Newsday - Oct 30, 2004
Update posted on Nov 10, 2004 - 12:41AM 
Matthew Ronneberg pleaded guilty to animal cruelty, criminal mischief, criminal trespass and burglary. He will be sentenced July 16. Thomas Cavanaugh and Matthew Mercuro pleaded guilty to burglary, criminal mischief, arson (a golf cart and a shed were set ablaze) and four counts of animal procurement to harm. They will be sentenced after Ronneberg.

To thank the prosecutor for aggressively pursuing this case - and request that the defendants receive psychiatric treatment and be restricted from future contact with animals - send a polite letter to:

Thomas Kelaher
Ocean County Prosecutor's Office
119 Hooper Avenue
Toms River, NJ 08753
Update posted on Mar 1, 2004 - 5:02PM 
Matthew Ronneberg, Matthew Mercuro, and Thomas Cavanaugh now face four third-degree charges that carry as much as three- to five-year jail sentences, upon conviction. Each was previously charged with burglary in connection with the killing of three emus, two rheas and three white peking ducks at Lacey's Popcorn Park Zoo during the early morning hours of Monday.

Ronneberg, Mercuro and Cavanaugh first appeared for eight counts of animal cruelty, burglary, criminal trespass and criminal mischief from Lacey in front of Ocean County Superior Court Judge Peter J. Giovine Thursday afternoon.

All remain in jail on what is now $100,000 bail, $50,000 for each set of the two town's charges, with no 10 percent option.

Read More: Press of Atlantic City
Update posted on May 25, 2003 - 4:17PM 


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