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Buffalo man pleads guilty in puppy-burning case

A 19-year-old Buffalo man accused of dousing a Jack Russell terrier puppy with lighter fluid and setting him on fire in October pleaded guilty Monday to felony aggravated cruelty to animals.

But Adell Ziegler denied lighting the puppy, since named Phoenix, on fire.

“My co-defendant lit the dog on fire, and I was present,” Ziegler told State Supreme Court Justice Russell P. Buscaglia.

Ziegler admitted to acting in concert with Diondre L. Brown, 17, the partner in the puppy-burning incident, so Ziegler is criminally liable for whatever Brown did.

Brown, who has claimed he acted as a lookout while Ziegler lit the puppy on fire, has already pleaded guilty to felony animal cruelty.

Ziegler pleaded guilty to the highest charge for which he could have been convicted had he gone to trial, said Erie County District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III.

Ziegler faces a maximum two-year prison sentence and $5,000 fine when sentenced June 14. Restitution for the care and treatment of the puppy also may be part of his sentence, the judge said, adding that Ziegler was not offered a sentencing commitment.

Ziegler’s defense lawyer, E. Earl Key, advised against the plea. “From a legal standpoint, it doesn’t make sense,” he said.

Key said he has told his client to expect the maximum sentence “with no benefit whatsoever.”

Before the plea, prosecutors Kristen A. St. Mary and Matthew A. Albert had prepared for a June 3 bench trial in which they planned to prosecute Ziegler for setting the puppy on fire.

Phoenix continues to recover from first-, second- and third-degree burns to more than half of his body.

Since the incident, Ziegler has admitted his actions to several family members and friends and boasted this case has made him famous, Sedita said. Ziegler was a parole violator at the time of his arrest in the animal-cruelty case, and he is expected to remain in custody on the parole charge through October.

Sedita credited the work of Dr. Rebecca Wagner and the staff at Buffalo Small Animal Hospital for taking care of the horrifically burned puppy.

“Because of the efforts of veterinary professionals like Dr. Wagner, the life of a helpless puppy was saved,” Sedita said in a news release. “Because of the efforts of law enforcement professionals like Ms. St. Mary, a demented and remorseless animal abuser was prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”

Assemblyman Sean Ryan has sponsored legislation that would toughen penalties against those who are convicted of aggravated animal cruelty.

In the Phoenix case, “the defendant, who pleaded guilty to a horrific act of animal cruelty, will only face a maximum of two years in prison and a $5,000 fine,” Ryan said. “If enacted, Phoenix’s Law would double penalties and, in addition, those convicted of aggravated animal cruelty would have to undergo psychiatric evaluation and treatment at their own expense.”

Many experts see a link between cruelty to animals and a propensity for future violence toward people, Ryan said.