HELMETTA - There was a major turn of events Wednesday in the animal cruelty case involving the Helmetta Regional Animal Shelter, which was the subject of a Kane In Your Corner investigation.
The Middlesex County Prosecutor's Office has withdrawn felony animal cruelty charges against the shelter’s former directors and kicked the case back to municipal court. The decision has animal rights activists questioning the way the county handled the case, since the decision was made before many key witnesses, including the shelter's former veterinarian, were interviewed.
"To have it downgraded from felony to municipal charges, it just floors me," says Collene Wronko, the leader of a shelter reform group.
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The Middlesex County Court Administrator's Office confirms the Middlesex County Prosecutors Office quietly declined to indict Michal and Richard Cielesz on felony charges earlier this month and requested that the case be remanded to municipal court. The decision came almost exactly four months after the NJSPCA and Middlesex County Health Department closed the shelter because of disease-ridden conditions.
While the felony charges might have carried a possible sentence of up to 15 years, the municipal charges are usually punishable by a $1,000 fine, according to Capt. Richard Yocum, president of the NJSCPA. The decision to drop the felony charges illustrates a continuing disconnect between the prosecutor's office and SPCA, which conducted the initial investigation. While SPCA officials repeatedly predicted that hundreds of animal cruelty charges would be filed, the prosecutor ultimately filed just six, only three of which were felonies, and those have now been downgraded.
Some have serious questions about the handling of the case. Dr. Alan Dubowy, former veterinarian at the shelter, says he and other insiders were never contacted by investigators prior to the felony charges being downgraded. "Why not?" he asks. "Why not talk to people who were actual, firsthand witnesses?"
Some animal activists also raise questions about what they believe could be, at the very least, the appearance of a conflict of interest. When Michal Cielesz applied for the Helmetta shelter director job, one of the personal references she listed on her application was an assistant Middlesex County prosecutor.
Kane In Your Corner placed repeated calls and emails to the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office, asking to discuss the handling of the case. None of those messages were returned. Yocum said he was "disappointed" the more serious charges were dropped but "hopefully we’ll be able to get justice" in municipal court.