Surveillance video may accomplish something that the six episodes of “Rescue Ink” did not: an arrest leading to the conviction of a suspect
PHILADELPHIA, Pennsylvania––A decade after his brief heyday as one of the stars of the short-lived “reality TV” series Rescue Ink, Al “Alley Cat” Chernoff died on November 4, 2019 as the unseen inadvertent star of a two-person “reality TV” episode featuring his own off-camera murder.
Seeking tips to help them catch the killer, Philadelphia police on November 6, 2019 “released surveillance video, apparently obtained from inside Chernoff’s home,” summarized Philadelphia Inquirer crime reporter Robert Moran, “that shows an unidentified person casually walking through the living room, later entering the kitchen to wash hands, and then looking inside the refrigerator and freezer before leaving the house.”
“Police said that Albert Chernoff, 59, was killed with a blunt weapon around 10:30 p.m.,” Moran wrote. “Shortly before 3 a.m.,” about four and a half hours later, “police responded to a report from a neighbor,” who had apparently heard screams, “and found Chernoff partially tied to a bed with a massive head wound and several slashing injuries on his chest. Medics pronounced him dead at the scene.”
CBS3 reported that Chernoff was nude.
Releasing the home security video appears to have succeeded.
Followed up Moran, 48 hours later, “A 14-year-old girl, Ajahnae Smaugh, was charged with murder in the beating death of a well-known animal rescuer inside his Northeast Philadelphia (Rhawnhurst) home this week, police said.
Smaugh is also “facing charges of tampering with evidence, obstruction of justice, and possession of an instrument of crime, police said. The girl surrendered to homicide detectives Thursday,” Moran finished.
Elaborated Jimmy McCloskey for the online tabloid Metro UK, “A 14 year-old girl tied a 59-year-old animal lover to a bed before battering him to death with a nail-studded plank, police say. The suspected killer, who is believed to be a prostitute, reportedly slashed and beat U.S. Army veteran Al Chernoff to death.
“Police released surveillance images of the girl in airport worker Chernoff’s home, and believe the murder took place after a burglary went wrong,” McCloskey said.
Both McCloskey and CBS3 also identified Ajahnae Smaugh as an “escort.”
Ajahnae Smaugh identified herself on Facebook pages as “self-employed,” as having attended Simon Gratz High School in Philadelphia, and as having studied at the Community College of Philadelphia.
Finished McCloskey, “Several rescue organizations have since taken in Chernoff’s 11 cats, three turtles and two frogs. Chernoff regularly offered to help care for animals who were flown in and out of the city’s airport, with Philly’s rescue community now set to pay for his funeral.”
Tributes to Chernoff soon flooded social media, with many mentions made of his dedication to cats and homeless animals of many species.
Few questions were asked, however, about why the lanky youthful suspect with closely cropped hair was in Chernoff’s home in the first place, why the burly man was nude and tied to the bed, or why a nail-studded plank was in the bedroom.
Inevitably, Chernoff’s murder raised recollections of Rescue Ink, a series with a devoted following among animal advocates, but which amplified a questionable message about how animal advocacy and rescue are most effectively conducted.
Rescue Ink was essentially a thinly disguised and dysfunctional knockoff of Animal Precinct, aired by Animal Planet from 2001 to 2008 and still distributed in syndication.
After the success of Animal Precinct, Rescue Ink, also called Rescue Ink Unleashed, was inevitable. Since the beginning of television, each successful series theme has been followed by variations, trying to emulate the aspects of the prototype that captured an audience, while adding twists that the producers hope might attract even more viewers.
Typically the successful prototype is a gritty realistic drama. After knock-offs exploit that approach to the point of running out of ideas, caricatures follow. Some are forthrightly cartoons: The Flintstones (1960) followed The Honeymooners (1955).
Others are merely cartoonish in live-action format: Charlie’s Angels (1976), for instance, was a distant descendant of the cop show format pioneered by Dragnet (1951).
From “reality TV” to cartoon time
So-called “reality TV” scraps the costs of scripting, choreographing, and hiring professional actors, in favor of editing impromptu footage into something with enough semblance of a plot to hold viewers through the commercials.
Yet, despite the pretense of being “real” because it is unrehearsed, “reality” TV tends to closely parallel the conventions of scripted TV, which evolved in the first place because those conventions work.
Early “reality” crime shows, like Animal Precinct, followed actual law enforcement personnel on their actual rounds. After Animal Precinct became a smash hit came virtual copies: Animal Cops Detroit, Animal Cops Houston, Miami Animal Cops, Animal Cops San Francisco, Animal Planet Heroes: Phoenix, Animal Cops South Africa, and Animal Cops Philadelphia.
Then came cartoon time. Much as the private detective genre follows the cop show, with protagonists who have more liberty to violate the constraints of real-life law enforcement, the Rescue Ink rescuers, including Chernoff, helped animals without having to observe warrant requirements and carefully maintain a chain of custody of evidence.
Instead of being neatly outfitted and clean-shaven public servants, the Rescue Ink characters were tattooed bikers, with the muscle-bound bodies of power lifters.
Rather than driving mundane animal control vans, they were shown with flamboyantly painted motorcycles and hot rods: eye candy having as little to do with practical use as the Batmobile, which would have been instantly recognized at any Gotham City gas station.
At times the Rescue Ink cast used language that animal control officers usually cannot use on
the job, or at least cannot use without risking their jobs.
Mostly, on camera at least, the Rescue Ink cast did things like feed pit bulls whose caretaker was hospitalized, drove animals to sanctuaries, took animals to be sterilized, and talked about how they felt about animals.
The image they projected, however, constantly cultivated by the voice-over narration, was that they were vigilantes on behalf of abused animals, who at any moment might knuckle a bad guy’s head.
Like Animal Precinct, Rescue Ink Unleashed was videotaped in New York City. Knowingly or not, it followed a tradition begun locally by American SPCA founder Henry Bergh. On November 21, 1870, Bergh coordinated a police raid on a dogfight at Kit Burns’ Tavern, the animal fighting venue depicted in the 2002 Martin Scorcese film Gangs of New York.
Bergh himself was among the police and ASPCA agents who blocked a hallway while one of the raiders, a Captain Allaire, dropped through a skylight into mid-ring in mid-fight to call an abrupt halt to the proceedings.
Later renditions of the raid, including on the ASPCA web site, mis-attribute the plunge to Bergh himself, who at six feet tall, age 47, probably could not have fit through the skylight and made the hard landing safely enough to confront the dogfighters.
Bergh loved to tell the story, though, to impress upon animal abusers and potential donors that if diplomacy failed––and Bergh himself was a former U.S. diplomat––any means would be taken to bring perpetrators to justice.
The tradition of the tough guy for the animals has played out through countless variations since, including the quasi-piracy of Paul Watson and the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, the undercover videography of Steve Hindi and SHARK, the nightrider tactics of various factions operating as the “Animal Liberation Front,” and the feral cat feeding done by the late New York City crime boss Vicente Gigante.
Though examples exist everywhere, New York City seems to produce a disproportionate number––at least of those who get high-profile media attention, no doubt because New York City is among the global hubs of the media industry.
Of note as a possible antecedent for Rescue Ink was The Witness, a 1999 Tribe of Heart video, much aired at animal rights conferences during the next few years, which dramatized the animal rescue work of then-Brooklyn building contractor Eddie Lama, an ex-convict portrayed as a tough guy.
Actually a soft-spoken fellow who acknowledged the decades of work of many little known rescuers before him, Lama even at the peak of his transient celebrity tended to stand in the back of the room at conferences and listen attentively to the other speakers. His most confrontational activity appeared to be airing animal rights videos to sidewalk passers-by on a widescreen TV mounted in the back of his van.
Lama and partner Eddie Rizzo, also an ex-convict, in 1998 founded the Oasis Sanctuary in Callicoon, New York. It failed about five years after Rizzo died in 2004; Lama thereafter faded out of the animal rescue and advocacy scene.
Limits of the “tough guy” approach
Animal advocates, frustrated by the slow pace of trying to bring abusers to justice through often inadequate laws and a clogged, sometimes indifferent judicial system, tend to like the idea of tough guys for the animals meting out vigilante justice.
Yet, while this was the image that Rescue Ink played up, reality was that the show illustrated the limits of the tough-guy approach.
An alleged cat-shooter they confronted in early episodes was a scrawny apparent immigrant who stood up to them and called the police.
The Rescue Ink cast yelled in the man’s face, and offered him non-violent help to keep cats out of his garden, but appeared to be no more successful in amending his outlook and his ways than the neighbors who summoned Rescue Ink.
Neither did the purported men of action accomplish anything extraordinary in two afternoons of trying to help an animal control officer catch four free-roaming chickens. Instead of baiting and netting them all at once, as successful chicken-catchers do every day all over the world, Rescue Ink chased the chickens all over the neighborhood.
The chickens were finally caught, but only after the Rescue Ink members demonstrated many ways to stress already frightened animals––albeit animals who soon received good homes at a sanctuary.
More about TV than humane work
Polling other animal rescue agencies, Patrick Whittle of Long Island Newsday found Rescue Ink praised by Associated Humane Societies of New Jersey chief executive Roseann Trezza (see Will regime changes underway in New Jersey bring a new day for animals?), and Katie’s Critters Small Animal Rescue founder Wendy Culkin, but criticized by Michelle Curtin of Second Chance Wildlife Rescue and Suffolk County SPCA chief Roy Gross.
Rescue Ink members had crashed a Suffolk County SPCA press conference a few days earlier to denounce how the agency had handled a major serial cruelty and neglect case, and argued with Curtin at the scene––in front of local TV news cameras.
Regardless of the apparent sincere intent and efforts of the rescuers, again including Chernoff, who was among the few cast members to remain visibly involved in animal rescue after videotaping Rescue Ink ended, the program was always more about television than humane work.
Real-life crime drama
But there was also some real-life crime drama behind the TV scenes, exposed on November 14, 2009 by Mark Harrington of Long Island Newsday.
“Robert Misseri, 40, has alternately been described as the executive director, organizer, dispatcher, CEO and principal” of Rescue Ink,” Harrington began.
Rescue Ink itself was a nonprofit organization, which surrendered charitable status in 2011, but “two separate entities, Rescue Ink Productions and Rescue Ink Publications, are for-profit enterprises that pay members for participation in the TV show” and a book deal, Harrington explained. “Misseri is managing partner of both companies.”
The book was co-authored by former Newsday reporter and columnist Denise Flaim.
Misseri told Harrington that he had donated at least $12,000 of his money to the nonprofit Rescue Ink entity, and said the production company paid expenses for the show, including ‘payments to all participants,’” Harrington added.
Murder & arson charges dropped, but money-laundering stuck
“In a 2000 indictment against him and 10 others,” Harrington revealed, “Misseri was accused by federal prosecutors of directing the ‘Galasso-Misseri crew’ of the Colombo organized crime family. But as the case neared trial, the charges against him largely disintegrated. According to the indictment, a witness had accused Misseri of being in a car during the 1994 murder of Louis Dorval, an accused mobster.”
Another man, former Long Island gym owner Christian Tarantino, in 2013 drew a life sentence for the killing.
Misseri had also been charged with arson. “The arson accusation involved a fire at the Have-A-Home Kennel in Old Brookville,” wrote Harrington, “in which Misseri denied any role. A police report made no mention of him having been in a car of men who confessed to the crime, court papers said.”
The murder and arson charges were dropped, but Misseri pleaded guilty to alleged money-laundering in 2002. “In addition to 37 months in prison, Misseri was sentenced to three years supervised release and ordered to pay $109,349 in restitution, court papers say. He was given credit for time served, and he says he served 32 months,” Harrington wrote.
“Gambino family associate”
Another Rescue Ink cofounder, Joseph Panzarella, allegedly survived an attempted mob “hit.” According to Harrington, “In court papers filed in the 2008 racketeering and murder trial of convicted mobster Charles Carneglia, Panzarella is described by prosecutors in Brooklyn as a ‘Gambino family associate who was shot in a 1995 mob conflict. Carneglia, according to the papers, sought to avenge the shooting of Panzarella by another accused mobster. The court papers in a footnote describe Panzarella as an ‘unnamed co-conspirator’ in five racketeering acts of the Carneglia case. He has not been charged with any crime.”
In April 2000, when Misseri was jailed for five months awaiting trial, “the North Fork Animal Welfare League recalled [in a letter to the court] how Misseri and his wife happened to be driving by when a dog escaped from its kennel,” Harrington noted. The Misseris helped to slow traffic and recapture the dog.
Robert Misseri, after Rescue Ink, formed the Long Island organization Guardians of Rescue. Most recently, according to Quartz writers Ephrat Livni and Justin Rohrlich on April 30, 2019, Misseri was working “with federal agencies on investigations of dogfighting operations.”
Thus there is some evidence that Misseri and some of his friends, including Chernoff, were and are “tough guys for the animals.”
ASPCA left law enforcement
But the most serious work done against animal abuse in New York City, on Long Island, and anywhere is still done by the direct successors of Henry Bergh et al, who have badges, search warrants, and gather evidence that stands up in court.
Unfortunately, this no longer includes the ASPCA itself, since it transitioned out of handling any active role in law enforcement in mid-2013.