Fake DVM in 'undercover kitten' sting operation is sentenced

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Brooklyn, N.Y. - Pet owners too busy to take their animals to a veterinary clinic may have thought they'd found the perfect solution: A "veterinarian" who made house calls, offering to pick up ailing cats and dogs and return them after treatment.

BROOKLYN, N.Y. — Pet owners too busy to take their animals to a veterinary clinic may have thought they'd found the perfect solution: A "veterinarian" who made house calls, offering to pick up ailing cats and dogs and return them after treatment.

Steven Vassall, 29, however, isn't a veterinarian. He pretended to be one, until an undercover sting operation involving a kitten named Fred exposed the deception in a case that attracted worldwide attention.

An investigator for the Brooklyn district attorney's office rigged an apartment with a hidden camera in February 2006, called Vassall and pretended his kitten needed to be neutered.

According to official reports, Vassall said he could do it for $135, then was arrested as he left with cash in hand and Fred, an 8-month-old former stray, in a box. Investigators also recovered a price list for vaccinations and other veterinary procedures, including surgeries.

Vassall initially was charged with torturing and injuring animals, criminal mischief, unauthorized use of a professional title and unauthorized practice. The latter two counts are Class E felonies in New York (the lowest-level felonies) and carry a four-year prison term. The formal indictment handed down a few months later accused Vassall of attempting to perform medical procedures on at least 14 animals.

District Attorney Charles Hynes, calling animal cruelty a "heinous crime," was quoted at the time as saying "We will make sure this so-called doctor faces the maximum penalty."

In a plea deal on May 22 in State Supreme Court, Vassall was sentenced to three years of mandatory psychiatric treatment, requiring him to attend a daily outpatient program, followed by five years' probation. He must refrain from any future involvement in animal care.

"That means he's under eight years of close supervision. If he fails to comply with any of these provisions, he'll face anywhere from two-and-two-thirds years to eight years of incarceration," Carol Moran, an assistant district attorney in Brooklyn, tells DVM Newsmagazine.

Moran, who had adopted Fred and another kitten she calls George from the city's Animal Care and Control shelter a few months before the sting operation, volunteered Fred for the undercover assignment. "With Fred, we had a cat with a legitimate history — a back story that he needed to be neutered," she said. "He was the right cat for the job."

Officials were alerted to Vassall's operation by pet owner Raymond Reid, whose 5-year-old Boston terrier, Burt, survived a botched operation. Reid told authorities he should have been suspicious of a veterinarian who only made house calls and treated animals at an unknown location, "but he seemed like a genuinely nice guy."

Vassall "took plenty of money" from pet owners, advertising mostly through flyers and word-of-mouth, Moran says. "He began by boarding and grooming pets, then did some teeth cleaning and gradually progressed to attempted surgeries."

Reid's dog barely survived. Vassall had recommended surgery to remove a foreign object from its intestines, but after difficulties recommended euthanizing the animal. Reid refused. Vassall returned the dog, with infected sutures in its stomach, and presented a bill for $985, after which Reid went to police. The dog later received treatment from a DVM.

The New York Department of Education, which oversees professional licensing, warned Vassall as far back as the late 1990s that some of his advertising flyers "were giving the wrong impression," Moran explains. Vassall's only experience with animals was as "a kennel cleaner — a sort of orderly — at a veterinary clinic when he was a college student. He was not a technician and never really worked with vets," the investigator says.

Hynes decided to prosecute this particular case because of Vassall's history and to set an example. "He (Vassall) was a danger to animals and to people," Moran adds.

The district attorney's office now works with veterinarians, particularly those at the city's animal shelter, "helping them handle cruelty cases, to recognize abuse injuries and to be mindful that there might be more than one explanation for certain injuries," Moran says.

"It isn't always the offender who brings an abused animal to a vet," Moran explains. "Sometimes another family member does, or someone who sees what's going on."

Moran says there is "a compelling reason to investigate these cases, and that is that animal cruelty is the gateway to violence against people. Those who were involved in the Columbine school shootings, for example, and many others who have taken human lives, started by abusing animals.

"That's why we take these cases seriously and try to stop the abusers early on. We think this will help in some way to make Brooklyn a safer place."

Using her cat in the sting operation — "we'd never had an undercover animal before" — brought worldwide attention to the case, Moran says. "I had media people calling from as far away as Brazil, Europe and all over the United States."

Fred later received a small badge on his collar, a Law Enforcement Appreciation Award and was honored at an adopt-a-thon benefit hosted by Mary Tyler Moore and Bernadette Peters.

He was to be featured in a classroom program about animal care, but was killed last August after running out the door at Moran's residence and into traffic.

"We have fostered several animals and have other pets of our own. Fortunately I still have George" Moran says.

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