A howling shame

Woman faces animal neglect charges here, fraud charges in NYC

by Jesse J. Smith
August 26, 2010 02:25 PM | 0 0 comments | 20 20 recommendations | email to a friend | print
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Maria Castaldo
In most criminal cases the evidence — a gun, a bloody shirt, a sack of cocaine, for example — sits on a shelf in a storage room waiting for its day in court. But at the Ulster County SPCA’s no-kill shelter on Wiedy Road, the evidence consists of 48 barking, baying, leaping, chew toy-annihilating dogs seized in what animal welfare investigators call the worst case of animal hoarding in the county in three years. In its aftermath, SPCA officials say they are struggling to meet the financial demands of caring for 48 dogs until the criminal case against their owner, 52-year-old Marie Castaldo is resolved and they can be adopted.

Castaldo, a French national who had been living at the Super 8 Motel on Washington Avenue, was arrested last month after SPCA investigators obtained a search warrant at the former Phoenicia Feed Store at 1026 Old Route 28, where Castaldo allegedly kept 40 dogs in appalling conditions. A few days after the arrest, the animal welfare agency received another eight dogs that Castaldo had kept at another location. According to SPCA Kennel Manager Audra Sohrbeck, who accompanied the team at the feed store, the sight that greeted investigators when they entered the storefront was grisly. Fourteen dogs were running loose in the building. Other dogs were doubled up in crates, some stacked atop one another. All of the animals were covered in waste, emaciated and showing signs of severe neglect. A few had muzzles that investigators said were left on so long they had begun to dig into the animals’ flesh.

“Every time we had an encounter with (Castaldo) she had too many dogs for the space that she was in, but never this many,” said Sohrbeck. “We were floored. We thought, worst case, we’d be dealing with 17 dogs. It turned out to be 40.”

SPCA officials had been tracking Castaldo for a year as she moved through northern Ulster County from Witchtree Road in Woodstock, to Glenford and then the Town of Olive before turning up at the old pet shop a few weeks before her arrest. Wherever she moved, SPCA officials said, complaints followed. Animal welfare officers tracked reports of Castaldo’s dogs biting a man and attacking pets in Woodstock. They learned that she had been selling dogs in the parking lot of the Hurley Ridge supermarket. Neighbors complained of barking dogs and foul odors. But, according to SPCA Humane Law Investigator Adam Saunders, it was not until July, when Castaldo apparently took in an influx of new dogs, that authorities were able to bring a solid case against her.

“Each time she moved we visited her to ascertain what was going on,” said Saunders. “What we found, until this last time was that the conditions were not ideal, but legally adequate. She was walking a legal line, but she hadn’t crossed that threshold, and then she did.”

SPCA Executive Director Brian Shapiro said that the investigation was complicated by the fact that the group’s investigators are only empowered to act on animal cruelty allegations, not zoning ordinances, animal control laws or other statutes that Castaldo may have violated during her peripatetic tenure in northern Ulster County.

“My guys are investigators, just like police officers they can’t just barge in without a warrant,” said Shapiro. “We haven’t lost a case in two years and this is why, because we make sure that we investigate properly, in a way that can lead to successful prosecution.”

Legal woes in Queens

Castaldo was charged with failure to provide proper sustenance to an animal, arraigned in Shandaken Town Court and sent to the Ulster County Jail on $10,000 bail. Then, on Aug. 11, two weeks after her arrest in Ulster County, Castaldo was arraigned on felony fraud and grand larceny charges brought by the Queens District Attorney’s Office. The charges stem from Castaldo’s role as founder and executive director of the Queens International Film Festival. According to authorities in Queens, Castaldo bilked vendors out of $14,000 in goods and services while running the 2007 and 2008 festivals. The criminal complaint claims that Castaldo would make small up-front payments for services and then refuse to pay the remainder of her bill. She also falsely claimed that the festival was a not-for-profit organization. Castaldo was taken the Ulster County Jail to face the charges in Queens and is currently locked up in New York City’s Riker’s Island detention center on $15,000 bail. She faces seven years in prison on the fraud charges. According to Shapiro, Castaldo is also under investigation by Immigration and Customs Enforcement for being in the country illegally.

“While we were pursuing the animal cruelty aspect up here, information started to come in about her trials and tribulations in Queens,” said Shapiro. “Meanwhile in Queens they were pursuing the fraud charges and they began to hear that she was in trouble in Ulster County.”

While Castaldo is just beginning her journey through the legal system, SPCA officials say they desperately to get her dogs cleared of their “evidence” status and turned over to them to be adopted into loving homes. At the SPCA shelter Castaldo’s dogs are kept, much to Sohrbeck’s dismay, in outdoor exercise runs which have been converted into temporary shelters with the addition of doghouses and beds.

“I hate this,” said Sohrbeck walking among the exercise pens pausing occasionally to hand out treats. “We never house dogs outside, but when we have 40 dogs come in, we don’t have a choice.”

Castaldo got the dogs from rescue groups in New York City, where she apparently passed animal control officials’ vetting process for prospective foster caregivers. They range from battle-scarred pit bulls to chubby chihuahuas. Under the care of Sohrbeck and her team of SPCA staffers and volunteers, the animals have put on weight and begun to recover from their ordeal. None of the animals, Sohrbeck said, have displayed levels of aggression or health problems which would prevent them from being adopted.

“Every dog that’s here is adoptable to the right home,” she said.

But first, a Shandaken Town Justice will have to sign off on an order transferring custody from Castaldo to the SPCA. Shapiro had hoped the turnover would take place on Aug. 20 when Castaldo was scheduled for a hearing. But the accused dog hoarder never made it onto the transport from Riker’s Island and the dogs remain in legal limbo.

“Right now these dogs are evidence,” said Shapiro. “But they’re not evidence that sits on a shelf. They’re evidence that needs to be fed, and groomed and given medical care.”

The influx of dogs has strained the budget of the SPCA whose half-million dollar annual budget comes entirely from private donations. Shapiro said that medical care for Castaldo’s dogs alone had run to $25,000. The shelter has also been forced to increase staff hours to deal with the task of caring for the seized dogs as well as dozens of animals who come to the shelter as strays or are voluntarily surrendered by owners.

“We really need donations right now,” said Shapiro. “This has pushed us to the limit.”

Donations can be sent to the Ulster County SPCA, 20 Wiedy Road, Kingston, NY 12401.

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