A half hour into his interview with police, Anthony Appolonia broke down, according to the chief investigator on the case.
Appolonia said he was sorry. He begged authorities not to be mad. And in gruesome detail, he described how he had tortured and killed 19 kittens and cats he adopted through newspaper ads in just two months.
He said he broke their bones. Stomped on them. Threw them against a wall. Let them suffer for minutes or hours. Then he drowned them, the kittens in the toilet, the larger cats in the bathtub.
All because he thought they no longer liked him, he said.
On Dec. 4, 2008, the Monmouth County man was sentenced to five years in prison, one of the harshest animal cruelty punishments in state history.
Today, more than three years after his release, the 58-year-old Appolonia is living in Delaware.
And he is once again adopting cats he can’t account for, according to four people who say they unwittingly gave him the pets.
Appolonia, using his own name and various aliases, accepted at least five cats in the past 10 months after responding to Craigslist advertisements offering free or low-cost kittens and cats, the previous owners told NJ Advance Media.
The cats are now nowhere to be found. The former owners suspect they are dead.
In a two-hour interview in his Dover, Del., townhouse, Appolonia denied accepting cats, contending animal rights activists angry about his previous killing spree are out to frame him. At the time of the interview, conducted July 7, there were no cats in the home.
“I’ve done nothing wrong,” he said. “I did the crime. I did the time. If people say they gave me cats, they’re fabricating it. They’re (expletive) liars.”
He said he has been under the care of a psychologist for a “small mental problem” since his release and that the psychologist, whom he did not identify, “knows I haven’t done anything.”
The people who told NJ Advance Media they gave Appolonia cats said they do not know one another and had no motivation to speak out other than to find justice for their pets.
All said they learned of his criminal history in January, when warnings about Appolonia were posted to Craigslist and Facebook.
“I bawled like a baby when I learned about his past,” said Tammy Elliott, 48, a Lincoln, Del., resident who said she delivered a kitten to Appolonia’s townhouse, a short distance from Dover Air Force Base, in October. “It still haunts me.”
Those interviewed provided phone numbers from which they said Appolonia called. All match numbers linked to him in public records.
They also forwarded three emails in which a person seeking cats introduces himself as Tony Appolonia or Michael Racanelli. The emails contain Appolonia’s home and cell numbers. Appolonia has extended family members with the last name Racanelli, public records show.
The number of cats allegedly given to Appolonia could be higher.
A Wilmington, Del., woman who said she spurned his request for a cat after searching his name on the internet last November warned other Craigslist users about him.
The woman, Jessica Riley, said two people quickly replied to her, saying they had given Appolonia a total of three kittens. Those who emailed Riley could not be reached. Craigslist email addresses are no longer functional once a post is deleted or expires.
Others told NJ Advance Media Appolonia called them in search of cats as recently as June, this time using the name “Steve,” from one of the phone numbers connected to Appolonia through public records. Appolonia has a brother named Stephen.
The people did not give the cats to him, either because they thought him odd or because they received a warning about him after placing the ads, they said.
Stephen Appolonia, a Colts Neck resident, declined to comment on the allegations against his brother.
“We really have no contact with him,” he said.
Many of those interviewed were highly critical of the Delaware Office of Animal Welfare, which investigates cruelty cases in the state. They said they had filed complaints about Anthony Appolonia as far back as January, calling the agency’s investigation slow-footed, inept and anemic even as Appolonia allegedly continued to hunt cats.
Others said they had reached out to animal welfare officials several times and did not receive a call back.
“Delaware doesn’t seem to care,” said Lynn Spencer, a New Jersey actress and animal rescuer who alerted NJ Advance Media to suspicions about Appolonia after investigating him on her own. “This is an atrocity. The lives of kittens and cats are going unnoticed.”
Mark Tobin, chief of the agency’s enforcement bureau, confirmed in a telephone interview that Appolonia has been under investigation since early this year.
He said the probe had been hampered because the chief investigator had suffered a serious injury on the job and had been out for several months.
Reassigning the case had “caused a lag,” Tobin said, adding that the new investigator was “planning on being proactive.”
Tobin declined to say how many complaints the agency had received about Appolonia, characterizing it only as “a ton.”
“We are actively trying to collect evidence — evidence that will result in a conviction in this case,” Tobin said. “We are doing everything possible to get this accomplished.”
‘I’m not doing it anymore’
Standing in a second-floor hallway of his rental townhouse, not far from Route 10 in a lower-income Dover neighborhood, Anthony Appolonia made the sign of the cross.
“I’m very, very sorry for what I did,” he said. “I’m remorseful.”
He had invited a reporter inside the unit, where he has lived for nearly a year, to show he has nothing to hide, he said. He granted the interview on the condition that he not be photographed or recorded.
The former Aberdeen Township man spoke openly about torturing and killing 19 cats in just eight weeks in 2007. He said he had not hurt animals before that period. Appolonia previously lived in Union Township, Berkeley Heights, Chatham, Clark, Colts Neck and Lavallette, records show.
“I was coming up on my 50th birthday,” he said. “I was stressed at the time. I had no job, no social life and disagreements. I’d rather not say with who. I have a great family.”
Finding cats couldn’t have been easier. He responded to dozens of newspaper ads, in most cases convincing the owners he would provide a stable, loving home for the animals. In some cases, he adopted multiple cats from people, traveling throughout Monmouth, Ocean, Middlesex and Mercer counties.
The killings might have gone on indefinitely had members of the animal rescue community not become suspicious after hearing about his frequent adoptions. It was their tips to the Monmouth County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals that sparked the criminal probe.
While Appolonia did not go into detail about what compelled him to kill at the time, his 2007 confession provides clues.
Stuart Goldman, the officer who led the investigation for the Monmouth County SPCA, said Appolonia told investigators in his videotaped statement he loved the cats he adopted. Then something turned.
“He said he would take the cats and sit down on the couch with them to watch TV,” said Goldman, now president of Animal Cruelty Enforcement Services, a private company that investigates cruelty cases and pursues civil or criminal sanctions.
“They were his friends,” Goldman said. “He would start by petting them. And all of a sudden he would look at them and think they were mad at him, that they didn’t like him. They weren’t his friends anymore. He developed an anger, and as he described it, he had to hurt them. He would have to punish them.”
Goldman never found the bodies, and he said there was no sign of killing or violence in Appolonia’s immaculate apartment. Appolonia, he said, confessed to wrapping the dead animals in newspaper, placing them in plastic bags and discarding them in the Dumpster at his apartment complex.
Appolonia pleaded guilty to animal cruelty charges in September 2008. Three months later, Superior Court Judge Edward Neafsey sentenced him to the maximum term, citing a prior conviction for credit card fraud and the impact the killings had on those who gave Appolonia cats.
“What was aggravating about the situation was not just the crimes themselves, but that he held himself out to the public as someone on a mission of mercy by taking in cats people couldn’t care for,” Neafsey, now retired, said last month. “I received more letters from the public and victims in that case than in any other case, including all of the homicides I had.”
After his release from prison in November 2012, Appolonia said, he lived for a time in a homeless shelter in Newark, Del., and then with a friend he met at the shelter before securing the $850-per-month townhouse. He said federal disability benefits help him pay the rent.
He said he has not owned or harmed a cat since his arrest.
“I’m not doing it anymore,” Appolonia said. “I’m trying to get my life together. I just want to be left alone.”
He said he does not use the internet, a claim he later contradicted by acknowledging he goes on Craigslist at a local library to look for jobs. But he reiterated he does not search for cats on the classified site.
Without prompting, Appolonia invited a reporter to search the two-bedroom townhouse, its only furniture two couches, a television and a telephone stand. There was no evidence of cats or pet products.
When the reporter asked to see the first-floor bathroom, Appolonia reached for the closed door and froze, suddenly shaking. He then ordered the reporter out, threatening to call the police and complaining of harassment.
Some 15 minutes later, he called the reporter back and asked him in again, saying he was embarrassed about an unflushed toilet and that he had suffered an anxiety attack.
“The bathroom gave me bad memories because I used to drown them in the toilet or the tub,” he said, referring to the New Jersey killings. He said he had begun shaking because he is hypoglycemic and had suffered an episode of low blood sugar.
An examination of the bathroom showed it to be spotless. Appolonia said he did not remove anything between the time the reporter left and returned.
To buttress his contention that he could not catch a cat, he displayed a grossly swollen left leg, the result, he said, of a condition known as lymphedema.
He also complained that since January, when people posted the warnings on Craigslist and Facebook, his life has been more difficult.
“Basically, this is ruining my social life, because a lot of women are animal lovers,” he said. “On the bus a month or two ago, two women confronted me and said, ‘This is the cat killer.’ I’m tired of it.”
Frank Cuffee, a construction worker who has been remodeling the vacant townhouse next door and who has come to be friendly with Appolonia, was present during the interview. Cuffee said that in the three weeks he’d been working there, he had not seen Appolonia with a cat.
“He’s a cool guy,” Cuffee said. “He just wants that part of his life to be over with.”
‘He seemed so nice’
James Waite and Heather White said they didn’t want to part with their 2-year-old cat, a black and white calico they named Tony. But because the cat had reacted aggressively to their new baby, the couple said, they needed to find him a new home.
They turned to Craigslist, which is awash with offers for free cats, and posted an ad in late summer 2015, they said.
Appolonia quickly responded, they said, adding they delivered the cat to his townhouse.
“He just seemed like a lonely old man,” said Waite, 24.
White, 25, said she asked Appolonia if she could stay in contact with him to make sure the cat was adjusting. He agreed and even called her the next day to say it was working out fine, White said.
“He seemed so nice,” she said.
The couple precisely described the home’s location and interior, remarking on the lack of furniture, and noted accurately that Appolonia was significantly heavier than he was in pictures published after his arrest and sentencing.
In addition, Waite said, Appolonia had “one really fat leg.”
Earlier this year, the couple saw a Craigslist post that linked to a 2008 Star-Ledger story about Appolonia’s sentencing.
White said she called and texted Appolonia repeatedly.
“I tried to be nice,” White said. “I texted him and said I heard all this stuff about you. I just wanted to make sure our cat was OK, and he started yelling at me in a text back. He said, ‘I don’t know who you think you’re talking to. Don’t text me or call me again!'”
Waite and White said they repeatedly reached out to the Office of Animal Welfare without receiving a response. In mid-July, NJ Advance Media gave their cell phone numbers to Tobin, the chief of the enforcement bureau. The couple said Saturday they had yet to receive a call.
Tears of regret
Tammy Elliott said she had a similar experience with Appolonia.
Elliott, who lives in rural Delaware, said Appolonia seemed enthusiastic and friendly when he called her in mid-October about her Craigslist ad offering a five-month-old kitten she had rescued.
She said she warned him the kitten, an orange tabby, was skittish. He said he planned to name her Daisy, Elliott said.
In hindsight, Elliott said, there was one red flag. Appolonia told her to be discreet when bringing the kitten to his townhouse because he didn’t want his “nosy neighbors” to know he had a cat, she said.
She delivered the kitten a few days later, spending about an hour with Appolonia, she said.
“He said he suffered from anxiety and said his therapist told him it would be good for him to have a cat,” Elliott said.
Breaking into tears, she added: “That cat was already scared and needing love, and when I think of what she must have went through….”
Like Waite and White, Elliott precisely described the townhouse, its location and Appolonia.
Two days after she left, Elliott said, Appolonia called her again to tell her it didn’t work out.
“He said she was too skittish, but he knew a lady with a little girl, and the little girl, the daughter, fell in love with the cat and so he gave it to them,” Elliott said.
Appolonia then asked her if she knew of an older kitten for adoption, Elliott said, tearing up again as she described arranging for her friend to give Appolonia a cat.
When she learned in January about Appolonia’s past, Elliott said, she asked others who had allegedly given Appolonia cats to contact her. She said she then forwarded at least five responses to the Office of Animal Welfare and spoke to the investigating officer.
The same month that Elliott said she gave Appolonia the orange tabby, the former New Jersey man allegedly adopted two more kittens from a couple in Smyrna, Del., about 10 miles north of Dover.
Myra Hitchens said she and her husband met Appolonia at the Smyrna rest area off Route 13 after he responded to her Craigslist ad. Appolonia, who does not own a car, arrived by bus, Hitchens said. He had a cat carrier with him, she said.
Months later, she saw the alert about Appolonia – including his photo – on Craigslist.
“I said, ‘Oh my God. That’s the one I gave the kittens to,'” Hitchens said, adding that she gave a statement to the Office of Animal Welfare. “I was really upset.”
NJ Advance Media provided Appolonia with specific details of the allegations against him in a follow-up phone interview. He again denied accepting cats and said he had not met with James Waite, Heather White, Tammy Elliott or Myra Hitchens.
Anyone could know the layout of his townhouse, he said, by looking inside a similar rental in the complex.
When asked how someone would know about his enlarged leg, his weight gain since 2008 or the lack of furniture in his townhouse, he declined to respond, instead demanding that no story be published.
“You’re not only going to put me in the hospital,” he said, “it’s going to tear my family apart.”
For the New Jersey residents who gave Appolonia cats in 2007, the new allegations revive old heartaches.
“We all thought he would go back to doing it,” said Lois Justice, 81, of Lakewood, who gave him an adult cat. “He comes on as a very nice person, but he’s not.”
Ben Hoffman, 74, of Belford, and his late wife gave Appolonia two cats that year. The kittens were among three Hoffman had nursed back to health after finding them outside, their mother gone.
Appolonia, he said, wanted the third cat as well. Hoffman told him it wasn’t yet strong enough. He still has it today.
“This guy should never have been released,” Hoffman said. “But how do you give a life sentence for killing cats?”
➽ Convicted N.J. cat killer facing new inquiry in Delaware (Aug. 8, 2016)