AN ELDERLY WOMAN who lives in Grace Kelly's childhood home in East Falls said her high-profile attorney told her that she didn't have to show up for her Wednesday court date on 16 animal-cruelty charges.
As a result, she was found guilty in absentia of 16 counts of animal cruelty and ordered to pay more than $10,000, the District Attorney's Office announced yesterday.
The woman, Marjorie Bamont, 82, didn't even know about the verdict rendered against her until the Daily News informed her yesterday.
"I can't get over what you just told me," Bamont said. "Something is very wrong and I don't know what it is."
The woman's attorney, Jack McMahon, did not dispute the version of events provided by his client but said an appeal he filed yesterday nullified the verdict.
"It was just a complete mixup, what happened [Wednesday], and it's been rectified," McMahon said. "Now we'll have a real trial and defend her vigorously."
On Oct. 31, agents with the Pennsylvania SPCA raided Bamont's house on Henry Avenue near Coulter Street and allegedly spotted a dead cat in the foyer after they said they received a complaint from a neighbor. Inside, agents said, they found 14 cats, some of which appeared emaciated. They also claimed the house was full of fleas and feces.
"I think Grace Kelly would be turning over in her grave if she saw the condition of that house," George Bengal, director of law enforcement for the Pennsylvania SPCA, said yesterday.
When Bamont returned home during the search that day with her 15-year-old dog, Maggie, in the car, the PSPCA took custody of the dog, too. Bamont said she was surprised to see media and a news helicopter already there.
"I feel that because it was Grace Kelly's house, it was sensationalized," Bamont said. "If it had been a rowhouse, this would not have happened."
Bamont said most of the animals in her house were strays she'd try to find homes for.
"I'm 82 now and it's tearing at my heartstrings," she said. "People must think I'm an animal here, that I live like an animal, but I'm not a hoarder."
Bengal said the PSPCA had received complaints about the house "for years." He noted, however, that while the house was run-down, it was not cluttered from floor to ceiling with junk, as is often found in hoarding cases.
Still, Bamont said she took care of her animals.
"There's no dead cat here, I know every cat I had," she said. "They've ruined my reputation when I've worked so hard all these years to save animals' lives."
Bamont said she was taken out of her home in handcuffs and placed in Albert Einstein Medical Center for a five-day mental-health evaluation. She called the experience "humiliating."
McMahon said he thought Wednesday's court date was just a hearing and told Bamont not to come. He said he was on a murder trial that day and asked a colleague to cover for him in Bamont's case.
That colleague, however, arrived late, missing the trial, and Bamont was found guilty of 16 counts of animal cruelty in absentia. She was ordered to pay $10,000 in restitution to the PSPCA and $800 - $50 per cruelty charge - in fines. She was also ordered to surrender her 14 cats and dog and banned from owning any animals for four years.
McMahon said if one is found guilty of a summary or misdemeanor offense in Pennsylvania "you have an absolute right to a trial de novo," which immediately nullifies the prior verdict as if it never happened until a new trial is held. Bamont has exercised that right, he said.
McMahon said Bamont has had her house fumigated and has hired someone to clean the cat boxes daily when and if she gets her cats back.
"This was not animal cruelty, it was just an elderly woman who had trouble getting around," he said. "She's an animal lover and the only reason this is news is because of the house."
Bamont, who thought she'd have her dog and cats back home by now, has vowed to continue to fight for their return.
"They made me out to be a crazy person who lived in filth and squalor," she said. "I have to get my animals back and clear my name."
- Staff writer Mensah M. Dean contributed to this report.