SNIFFING OUT A SUSPECT IN CRUELTY CASE

Boss, a pit bull who was abandoned in Red Bank in April, was last believed to be available for adoption at the Humane Society. (Click to enlarge)

By JOHN T. WARD

Perez_van3Henry Perez is not one to boast. Media shy, he’s cautious to a fault about getting clearance from his superiors before talking to a reporter, and wouldn’t let redbankgreen take a fresh photo of him to replace the one at right, from 2008.

But he’s no wallflower either, and the Red Bank animal control officer, who also carries a badge as a volunteer enforcer for the Monmouth County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, contacted us recently because he wants to get the word out:

If you’re thinking of abandoning a dog or other pet, think twice about using Red Bank as your dumping ground. Because if you do, he may hunt you down.

Don’t believe it? Read on.

Back in late April, Perez was handed the case of a stocky, tan, male pit bull, believed to be two or three years old, that a resident had picked up wandering near Harding Road and taken to the police department.

The dog, named Boss, had been “very friendly” with the cops, they told him. But later, at Garden State Veterinary Service in Tinton Falls, Boss turned aggressive with other dogs. The facility called Perez and asked him to remove the dog, which was taken to the SPCA, in Eatontown.

There are two issues involved in animal abandonment, Perez says. One, it’s cruel, exposing the animal and humans that may encounter it to health and safety threats. And two, it’s expensive. Every time Perez brings an animal to the SPCA for one of the towns he covers – Red Bank, Fair Haven, Shrewsbury Borough and Shrewsbury Township – it costs that town $200 for care and feeding, and, if necessary, euthanasia.

So Perez doesn’t just let it lie when someone drops a dog off on the borough streets or in a park. He tries to find the owner and hold them accountable.

Often, there’s little or nothing to go on, and an investigation is closed after an hour or two, he said. But this one turned into a whodunit.

In this case, the dog was wearing a collar, with tags that indicated Boss came from Long Branch. Perez repeatedly called the phone number on a tag, but couldn’t make headway because of a language barrier.

Perez enlisted the help of his Long Branch counterpart, Guy Little, and the city’s PD. They went to the address on file for the dog’s owner, but the place was abandoned, Perez said.

A check of registration records indicated that the dog had once belonged to a Christopher Vernon. Some digging yielded the information that Vernon was in jail, in Middlesex County.

Perez says he didn’t know what Vernon was in jail for. He just wanted to talk to him about the dog.  So he went through the corrections bureaucracy, obtained permission from jail officials and, now operating in his capacity as an SPCA officer on a cruelty case, drove up to North Brunswick to visit Vernon behind bars.

That was a first for him, Perez said.

Vernon was “very emotional” when Perez told him Boss had been abandoned, Perez said.

“I could tell he really loved his dog,” he said. “His eyes got a little watery.”

Vernon agreed “at the drop of a hat” to give him a sworn statement, Perez said: he had given the dog to his friend, Hasan Matthews, for safekeeping while he was in jail. .

Again teaming up with Little and Long Branch cops, Perez went to the address Vernon had given him for Matthews. There, he found the brother of Matthews’ girlfriend, whose mother had kicked Matthews out “and never wanted to see him again,” the brother said. Perez gave the brother his phone number to pass along to his mother.

The mother called within the hour. Perez asked her to reach out to Matthews. “I told her to tell him that if he works with me, I won’t pursue the maximum penalty,” which could include up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine, Perez said.

A week after the investigation began, Matthews met Perez at the police station. Perez said he showed Matthews the language of the law on abandoning a domesticated animal and explained the charges.

“He started to say that he gave the dog to someone else, but I informed him he could explain all that to the judge,” Perez said.

In municipal court last month, Matthews pleaded not guilty, but Judge William Himelman found him guilty. Honoring Perez’s pledge, Himelman sentenced Matthews to repay the borough $200, plus $33 court costs. No jail, no $1,000 fine.

Matthews could not be located for comment on this story.

The case was a rarity for the amount of legwork it took to resolve, Perez said. Many, in fact go nowhere. But if there’s a thread, Perez said, he will follow it.

“I just don’t want the towns I cover to become dumping grounds for animals,” he said. “I know times are tough, and people sometimes can’t afford their pets, or the fee to surrender them to the SPCA. But abandoning an animal is wrong, and the towns get charged even if the SPCA only keeps the dog for a day.”

Boss, it turns out, was returned to Matthews – “he didn’t lose ownership of the animal,” said Perez – but Perez said last he heard, Matthews had given the dog up for adoption at the Humane Society.