Richard Mattia torture of sick and disabled hamsters

Watchung, NJ

Union County

October 18, 2002

An animal rights organization is urging the Union County Prosecutor's Office to vigorously prosecute a Mountainside man charged with torturing a hamster.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, based in Norfolk, Va., have exhorted Union County Prosecutor Theodore Romankow's office to press for a mandatory psychological evaluation of Richard Mattia, who's accused of abusing a hamster after he purchased it at a pet store in a shopping center in Watchung and keeping a sick hamster at home.

The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals also has filed 11 charges of abandonment of sick or disabled hamsters against Mattia. That case is scheduled for a hearing in Mountainside Municipal Court in Union County on Nov. 14.

Richard Rodbart, executive assistant prosecutor, said the Union County Prosecutor's Office will investigate vigorously any allegation of animal cruelty. He said the office had not yet been notified of the allegation against Mattia.

Somerset County Prosecutor Wayne Forrest said his office had already upgraded the disorderly persons offenses to indictable, fourth-degree crimes.  "That's what we thought the evidence supported," Forrest said.

Like the Federal Bureau of Investigation and top medical professionals, PETA cruelty caseworker Martin Mersereau said PETA recognizes the link between cruelty to animals and other violence.  "We're concerned about the community at large," Mersereau said.

Mattia, a 53-year-old carpenter, was charged with animal cruelty and animal torture after police found him in his car Oct. 18 in the parking lot of Petco in the Blue Star Shopping Center in Watchung with what they characterized as a mutilated hamster.

Police said they found he had clipped the animal's teeth so it couldn't bite back. They said he pinched and hit the hamster's head and pulled its paws. It survived, but was badly injured, authorities said.

"I deal with a hundred cases a month, but I can't say I've had too many this bizarre," Mersereau said.

When Mattia came to the headquarters to be charged, police said they found 18 packets of heroin in his pants. The drugs were worth $180, police said.

Mattia was arraigned in Somerset County on Oct. 25 and has until Nov. 15 to find an attorney or appear before a state Superior Court judge in Somerville to explain why he has not.

Update 3/6/03:

A Mountainside man who admitted torturing a hamster outside a pet store was sentenced yesterday to three years' probation and ordered to undergo treatment for substance abuse problems.

Mattia was arrested last Oct. 18 after employees of the Petco on Route 22 in Watchung heard squeals coming from Mattia's car shortly after he purchased the animal for $5.99.

Police discovered Mattia had clipped one of its teeth to keep it from biting him while he pulled at its paws. The hamster survived but was badly injured.   Mattia told police he was trying to teach the hamster to listen, authorities said.  Police also found him with 18 packets of heroin.

"I'm terribly ashamed and deeply sorry," Mattia said during his sentencing before Superior Court Judge Edward Coleman. "I understand what I did was terribly wrong and I'm prepared to pay back for it."

Authorities said two other hamsters were discovered when they searched his home, one of which was dehydrated, starved and infected. It later died. Mattia faces animal-cruelty charges in municipal court lodged by the Mountainside Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Mattia pleaded guilty in November to the Superior Court charges of animal cruelty and drug possession. He has since undergone psychiatric evaluations and attended a substance-abuse program, said Robert DeGroot, his Newark-based attorney.

In deciding on the three-year probationary term, Coleman noted Mattia's willingness to attend counseling before it became a condition of his sentence. Mattia could have received up to five years' probation.

DeGroot said Mattia, a Vietnam veteran and father of three children, led a law-abiding life for decades until a recent downward spiral from a drug addiction that followed his diagnosis of throat and mouth cancer, which is currently in remission.

"This particular offense certainly shows another side," DeGroot said. "The abuse of animals is perhaps a symptom that underlies a larger, perhaps more sinister problem."

In addition to probation, Mattia must submit to drug and alcohol treatment and psychological counseling. He also lost his driver's license for six months from the drug possession charge.


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