Adell Ziegler denies setting fire to Phoenix, the Jack Russell terrier that touched so many hearts, but that didn’t stop a judge from sending him to prison for two years.
State Supreme Court Justice Russell P. Buscaglia referred to the community’s outrage over the puppy’s plight – he suffered burns over 50 percent of his body – before sentencing Ziegler to the maximum penalty allowed by law.
Buscaglia also ordered the 19-year-old to stay away from animals for the next seven years and added another year to his sentence for a parole violation.
“There’s been language describing it as appalling, as gruesome,” the judge said of the reaction to Ziegler’s actions, “and I don’t disagree with any of that.”
In sentencing Ziegler, Buscaglia said he considered carefully his troubled upbringing, most notably the absence of any real family.
Ziegler’s lawyers painted a portrait of a young man abandoned as a baby by a mother involved with drugs and shuffled around from one foster home to another. They referred to the large number of people who have offered to adopt Phoenix and wondered why no one ever sought to adopt Ziegler while he was growing up.
“This was a child who was discarded by society,” said Ann M. Nichols, one of Ziegler’s defense lawyers. “His own mother turned him in to police because she wanted reward money.”
Prosecutor Kristen A. St. Mary countered by pointing to Ziegler’s lack of remorse and his continued insistence that his co-defendant, Diondre L. Brown, was the one who lit Phoenix on fire.
She also referred to tape recordings of phone calls that Ziegler made from jail in which he boasted about his actions.
“He was heard bragging about burning this puppy,” St. Mary said. “He boasted that he laughed while committing this act.”
District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III went a step further, describing Ziegler as a “genuine sociopath.”
“If anyone deserved the maximum, it was this kid,” Sedita said.
Like so many stories of abused animals, the tale of Phoenix rising from near death in late October seems to have struck a chord among animal lovers here and across the world.
The Buffalo animal shelter says hundreds of people, including some from outside the United States, emailed, called or messaged the shelter asking about adopting the Jack Russell puppy.
The fact that Phoenix was doused with lighter fluid and then set on fire only added to the outrage.
Ziegler on Tuesday continued to deny setting fire to the puppy but acknowledged he could have intervened at the time.
“I should have, and I apologize for that,” he told Buscaglia. “I never intended for anything to happen to the dog.”
And what about his admissions while in jail?
“As for me boasting and bragging, that’s not true.” he insisted.
Despite that denial, Ziegler pleaded guilty in April to felony aggravated cruelty to animals.
Brown, his nephew, claimed he acted as a lookout while Ziegler lit the puppy on fire. He pleaded guilty to felony animal cruelty and was sentenced in May to six months in jail and five years’ probation and was ordered to stay away animals for five years.
Assemblyman Sean Ryan, a Buffalo Democrat and the sponsor of a bill designed to double the maximum penalty for felony animal cruelty, said Buscaglia’s sentence underscores the importance of “Phoenix’s Law.”
“New York is unfortunately still lagging when it comes to sentences for animal abuse,” Ryan said in a prepared statement.
Sedita agrees and sees Ryan’s bill as a good first step. He also thinks it’s time to move the law, now part of the state’s Agriculture and Markets statutes, to the penal code.
“It sends the wrong message,” Sedita said. “This is not a farm issue. This is a real penal law issue.”