Guns, drugs, & 71 neglected animals
FLEMINGTON, New Jersey––Among all the two-dozen odd busts of allegedly negligent animal rescues going down during the first six months of 2022, the May 26, 2022 impoundment of 71 animals from Rooster’s Rescue Foundation Inc. in Flemington, New Jersey, might have stood out even if the property owner had not called himself “Rooster” Featherston.
That Michael B. Featherston, 52, goes by the nickname “Rooster” just adds a dash of color to some of the most serious charges filed so far in 2022 against anyone involved in running a failed animal sanctuary.
Horses, cows, goats, pigs, roosters, & sheep
Not all of the charges against Featherston have anything obvious to do with the 71 allegedly neglected animals.
Featherston “was charged with animal cruelty for failure to provide necessary care, as well as drug possession, unlawful possession of an assault rifle, purchasing firearm parts to manufacture a firearm without a serial number, and other weapons offenses,” Hunterdon County prosecutor Renée Robeson told media.
“A May 20 search of the property at 940 Route 579 revealed animals including horses, cows, goats, pigs, roosters, and sheep found to be neglected and in poor living conditions, authorities said. Several dead animals were also found, investigators said,” reported Valerie Musson for the Englewood Daily Voice.
“All animals on the property were seized, given proper medical attention and surrendered to various rescue groups, according to the prosecutor’s office,” added Suzanne Russell of MyCentralJersey.com.
“An assault rifle, large capacity magazines and marijuana also were recovered, the prosecutor’s office said,” Russell continued, adding that, “The assault rifle is considered a ‘ghost gun’ because it has no serial number.”
The discovery of the firearms, unusual in mass animal neglect cases, the mention of roosters without mention of hens, and the nickname “Rooster” occasioned ANIMALS 24-7 to investigate whether Michael B. Featherston had any known association with cockfighting.
Some alleged cockfighters have operated under the pretense of running animal sanctuaries. But ANIMALS 24-7 checked accessible public records and news archives, as well as our own extensive files on animal fighting, and checked with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and Showing Animals Respect & Kindness, noted in recent years for undercover investigations of cockfighting.
No one had any record linking Featherston to cockfighting.
“Arrested in 1986 and not convicted”
What did turn up was Featherston’s testimony in a later case that he “was arrested and charged with a drug offense as a juvenile. These charges were subsequently dismissed. I believe,” Featherston said under oath, “that members of the Franklin Police Department have the incentive to frame me, because I was arrested in 1986 and was not convicted.”
Featherston was then 16 years old.
Featherston alleged he was framed when on May 16, 1991, as the Newark Star-Ledger recounted, “A Franklin Township couple convicted of drug charges relating to a substance they claimed was soap powder were sent to separate state prisons yesterday by a judge who decried their ‘arrogance.’ Michael Featherston, 21, was sentenced to up to seven years in a facility for youthful offenders, as Superior Court Judge Michael Imbriani in Somerville chided him for his ‘attitude’ throughout his trial and the sentencing.”
The 1991 case, according to a summary from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division, began when “In June 1990 the Franklin Township Police Department and the Border Anti-Drug Team of Middlesex and Somerset Counties conducted an investigation of suspected drug activity involving Featherston. The investigation led to surveillance of Featherston’s home in Franklin Township and ultimately to the issuance on July 7, 1990 of a search warrant which authorized a search of Featherston’s person, his residence and his car, and the 1985 silver Nissan belonging to his girlfriend, defendant [Diane] Medina.
The series of searches allegedly found cocaine, a paging device, and, the court summarized, “a loaded nine millimeter Beretta handgun, for which Featherston had a permit, with a clip with bullets in the gun and a clip next to the gun. Ammunition was also discovered.”
The conviction was reversed on March 19, 1992 by a three-judge panel of the appellate court, and a new trial was ordered for both Featherston and Medina, because “The prosecutor improperly extracted evidence of a prior arrest,” specifically the arrest in 1986.
ANIMALS 24-7 found no record of the case being re-tried, indicating that it was either dropped by the prosecution or settled by plea bargain.
But Featherston did not stay clear of trouble.
Reported the Newark Star-Ledger on March 1, 1996, “One minute, 25-year-old Frank Celi was stepping off a plane at Newark International Airport after a vacation in the Bahamas with his family. The next minute, he was in handcuffs, accused of abducting a Franklin Township man and beating him with a baseball bat because he reportedly owed him money.
“Police said Celi’s alleged accomplice, who they believe shot the Franklin man, Michael Featherston, remained at large. Featherston was shot in the leg and foot.
“Celi and his alleged accomplice are loan sharks who attacked Featherston for being late paying off a debt, according to police.”
ANIMALS 24-7 also found no record of the final disposition of this case.
Featherston appears to have next been in the public eye as result of a 2010 investigation by the Wage & Hour Division of the U.S. Department of Labor.
The outcome, summarized the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of New Jersey on June 30, 2015, was that Leonard Santos, 68, of Yardley, Pennsylvania, was sentenced to serve 85 months in prison; Alex Rabinovich, 59, of Richboro, Pennsylvania, was sentenced to serve three years on probation, including four months of home confinement; Santos’ son in law Richard Cottone, 40, of Windsor, Pennsylvania, was sentenced to serve 33 months in prison; and Featherston, then 45, living in Bridgeton, New Jersey, was sentenced to spend 12 months in prison.
All four sentences were plea-bargained.
U.S. Attorney: how it worked
“Between November 2009 and September 2010,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of New Jersey explained, “Santos operated Sands Mechanical Inc. as a subcontractor on the restoration and rehabilitation of the Marine Corps Reserve Training Center at Joint Base-McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in Burlington County.
“In order to increase the profitability of the project, Santos, with the aid of Cottone and Featherston, demanded that certain employees kick back a percentage of their weekly paychecks or face termination.
“In February 2010, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division (WHD) was tipped off that the Sands employees were being forced to kick back portions of their salary and were not being paid the prevailing wage for Burlington County. Santos agreed to repay $80,000 to those deprived employees. Santos cut settlement checks to those employees who were owed back wages.
“However,” Cottone and Featherston warned those employees not to cash their settlement checks. Instead,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of New Jersey continued, “Cottone and Featherston took the employees to a nearby check cashing business, where they endorsed their checks over to Cottone, who cashed them and returned the funds to Santos.”
Paintbull & Airsoft
Featherston may have first used the nickname “Rooster” to promote “3 Paintball & Airsoft game field locations in New Jersey,” according to an Instagram posting.
At least one of those locations, Shooters Paintball & Airsoft, appears to have used the same premises used by Rooster’s Rescue.
According to the Rooster’s Rescue web page, “Rooster Featherston, our founder, grew up loving all kinds of animals. As an adult in his 20s he got his first dog, an American Eskimo named Roulette. After learning about the breed he decided to start rescuing others. He came to find that most people who had Eskies, shouldn’t have!
“To facilitate taking care of the growing number of dogs he saved, Rooster moved to rural Pennsylvania onto a 122 acre property,” the Rooster’s Rescue web page says. “After a year he moved back to New Jersey where business opportunities afforded him the ability to make more money and thus enable him to rescue more animals.
Goats, pigs, calves
“After over a decade of saving just cats and dogs,” the Rooster’s Rescue web page continues, “Rooster found himself on his own farm. At first he saved a potbelly pig named Bacon and a fainting goat named Stuart. Soon there were many more goats and pigs! A chance encounter provided him the opportunity to save a calf, Carlito.
“After learning of the plight of bull calves born in the dairy industry, Rooster decided to act. He was able to secure a 63-acre farm in Hunterdon County, New Jersey. He then founded Rooster’s Rescue Foundation, Inc., a 501 c3 nonprofit corporation.”
Not much of that seems to be verifiable from third-party sources, but Rooster’s Rescue did obtain IRS 501(c)(3) status in 2019.
However, Guidestar.org indicates that Rooster’s Rescue has never filed IRS Form 990.
Rooster was “big help” to Cherry Grove Farm
Why Featherston, or anyone, might imagine one-at-a-time rescuing could do much about “the plight of bull calves born in the dairy industry” is unclear, since Rooster’s Rescue does not appear to have engaged in public education on any visible scale that might have used one or two calves as examples.
But Featherston did accept many animals from Cherry Grove Farm, a self-described “diversified, sustainable dairy farm and creamery situated on 480 acres of woodland, wetland and pasture in Lawrenceville, New Jersey.”
“Rooster has helped us out with calves in the past,” acknowledges the Cherry Grove Farm web site. “When a calf is born in the wrong season, or we just have too many calves, we look for new farm homes. Rooster has been a big help.”
For instance, the Cherry Grove Farm web site continues, “Tundra, the calf born just last month, was in need of a home, so we asked if the two older goats could tag along. Rooster was open to adopting the girls, so Peaches and Pickles relocated with Tundra to Rooster’s Rescue Foundation.”
Overload in 60 days
Posted Featherston on November 6, 2018, “We will be offering sponsorship opportunities for all existing residents of our Rescue as well as the opportunity for people to own their own calves that will reside with us! Details coming soon!!!”
Subsequent postings mentioned that, “We also rescue Jersey calves in addition to Holsteins,” and promised to provide lifelong care for a calf for transport costs of $225, later reduced to $220.
Featherston on January 25, 2019 said that “On Christmas Eve 2018 we rescued 3 six day old calves as well as 2 three day old goats!!! Then on New Year’s Day, we rescued an additional 4 six day old calves!!! This was all followed by the birth of Coco, a precious little female goat, on January 15th, 2019 at 12:59pm!!!”
A week later, on January 26, 2019, Rooster’s Rescue Foundation “saved 3 more calves today.”
On February 5, 2019 came “a six day old calf and 2 eight year old goats!”
By February 20, 2019, Featherston had also taken in a retired racehorse, a female Rottweiler, and a pair of Guernsey bull calves.
In fewer than 60 days Rooster’s Rescue had acquired 19 animals with cumulative projected lifespans of more than 200 years, at an average cost of upkeep of $1,000 a year apiece.
“Where are all the concerned people?”
But Featherston on February 22, 2019 was still trying to acquire more, posting to Facebook “I need $800 to save this precious life! $400 to buy her, $200 to pay for transport, $200 for a vet check, hay, feed, and shavings for her bedding.”
Raising funds to help animals, however, proved more difficult than Featherston seems to have expected.
Lamented Featherston in one of his last Rooster’s Rescue Foundation postings: “Where are all the concerned ‘please somebody save her’ people???”
Many popped up making furious comments after Featherston was charged with neglect, but no one appears to have pointed out earlier that he was taking in far too many animals, too fast, with no evident background in any of the skills needed to run a successful animal sanctuary, and history that would tend to discourage potential donors inclined to ask questions before writing a check.