Crime

This teen set fire to a caged cat, then fed it to his dogs. Should he get a break?

Teen torches caged cat

Miami prosecutors say Roberto Hernandez, then 17, torched a caged cat, then fed it to his pitbull dogs.The State Attorney's Office is asking a judge to sentence him to 364 days in jail. This video was edited not to show the cat on fire.
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Miami prosecutors say Roberto Hernandez, then 17, torched a caged cat, then fed it to his pitbull dogs.The State Attorney's Office is asking a judge to sentence him to 364 days in jail. This video was edited not to show the cat on fire.

The video is excruciating to watch. A South Miami-Dade teenager stands over a cat in a small cage, dousing it with some sort of flammable liquid.

He lights matches, flicking them on the animal. Suddenly, the animal bursts into flames. The cat writhes violently in agony.

The teen then “leisurely grabs a drink and watches the defenseless caged animal burn alive,” according to Miami-Dade prosecutors.

“The defendant doesn’t stop there,” Miami-Dade Assistant State Attorney Nicole Garcia wrote in a motion filed last week. “He is seen opening the cage, grabbing the burned animal and throwing it to his pit bulls in order to finish killing the animal or to dispose of its remains.”

The never before publicized case against 19-year-old Roberto Hernandez — and the surveillance video evidence that is the linchpin of the state’s case— is appalling for even the most casual of animal lovers. Hernandez’s defense team has suggested he may plead guilty directly to the judge in the case, meaning without a plea deal.

Prosecutors want him sentenced to at least 364 days in jail, plus five years of probation. Defense lawyers, citing his troubled childhood and his being forced to drop out of high school to help on his family’s farm, want probation and court-ordered therapy. They also insist that the animal, which is difficult to make out on the video, was a raccoon, not a cat.

Ultimately, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Nushin Sayfie may be tasked with deciding the punishment herself at a hearing scheduled for March 14.

Hernandez’s defense lawyer, Assistant Public Defender Kevin Cobb, did not return an email or a phone call seeking comment.

For years, Miami-Dade prosecutors have aggressively gone after all manner of animal abusers, from dog hoarders to illegal slaughterhouse operators to puppy kickers. But Hernandez’s case, as outlined by prosecutors, is unusual because of the sheer brutality of the act — and because it was caught on video.

The burning happened on July 10, 2016, at the Hernandez family’s rural property on the 16600 block of Southwest 174th Avenue. A couple that rented a home on the property saw Hernandez “dousing a live cat with some sort of combustible liquid,” according to an arrest report.

Hernandez, then 17, began lighting matches, flicking them on the trapped animal until it burst into flames. The animal began jumping and writhing in the small cage “in extreme pain and suffering seeking to escape while burning alive,” according to a Miami-Dade police report.

“He was very entertained burning the cat,” the tenant, Marlene Gonzalez, said in a deposition.

The incident was captured on the Gonzalez home-surveillance system. Hernandez lived in the main house with his mother.

The tenants later said that Hernandez was always “being a brat,” once even pelting their son’s car with a large rock. They also reported that Hernandez did not like the stray cats that lived on the property. The killing tormented Gonzalez, who eventually reported it to Miami-Dade police officers, who arrested Hernandez in 2017.

According to court filings, Hernandez’s defense rests on the claim that the animal is not actually a cat but a raccoon — and he killed the animal because it was rabid. But Florida law defines animal cruelty as “unjustifiable pain and suffering” to any “living creature.”

“I’m very sure it was a cat,” Gonzalez said at the deposition.

The defense portrayed Hernandez’s home life as unstable. His biological father was addicted to alcohol and drugs and was abusive. His mother remarried three times, and Hernandez never got along with his stepfathers.

He also had to drop out of high school at age 16 after his grandfather, who maintained the South Miami-Dade farm, was sent to prison, the defense said. Hernandez needed to take care of chickens and ensure “the harvesting of eggs.”

Prosecutors, however, say the farm was chiefly used to host illegal cockfighting matches. When police arrested Hernandez, officers found a cockfighting arena and cages where the roosters were being raised. The Gonzalez family, which reported the cat killing, also said they saw cockfighting matches being held on the property.

Prosecutors say they will not object if Hernandez is granted a “withhold of adjudication” on a felony animal-cruelty count, meaning Hernandez won’t be a convicted felon. But they want the jail time, the probation and 100 hours of community service.

“Even if he was unaware of the statute criminalizing animal cruelty, it should be instinctively known to the average man of his age that burning an animal alive is wrong,” Garcia wrote. “It appears he has no regard to the pain and suffering of animals.”

David Ovalle covers crime and courts in Miami. A native of San Diego, he graduated from the University of Southern California and joined the Herald in 2002 as a sports reporter.
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