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New Jersey local health official charged in the premature euthanization of more than 300 cats and dogs

The animal cruelty and misconduct charges stem from an investigation launched in August 2018.

The Hamilton Township Animal Shelter.
The Hamilton Township Animal Shelter.Read moreGoogle Street View (custom credit)

Hamilton Township’s health officer has been charged with allowing more than 300 animals at the township shelter to be euthanized prematurely, the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office said.

Jeff Plunkett, 63, was originally charged with animal cruelty and misconduct in May, along with then-shelter director Todd Bencivengo, 57, for allegedly allowing 236 cats and 93 dogs to be euthanized between Jan. 1, 2016, and Oct. 1, 2018, without waiting for the state-mandated minimum of seven days for possible adoption.

A grand jury on Wednesday returned an indictment charging Plunkett with two counts of third-degree animal cruelty and one count of second-degree official misconduct, the Prosecutor’s Office said.

Bencivengo, who was not indicted, has been accepted into the pretrial intervention program on a count of third-degree animal cruelty.

“He will plead not guilty,” Plunkett’s attorney, Les Hartman, told the Trentonian. “That’s the next step: Not guilty at an arraignment. Without giving away our defense, we don’t see the facts of this case establishing animal cruelty and official misconduct — especially that charge. We haven’t changed our position in any way.”

Hartman said the indictment was expected.

If convicted of misconduct, Plunkett could face five to 10 years in prison and loss of his pension.

The charges stem from an investigation launched in August 2018 by the prosecutor’s Humane Law Enforcement Unit, based on two complaints referred by the New Jersey Division of Criminal Justice.