A former minor-league ballplayer and sometime actor who killed his ex-girlfriend’s cat when he says it attacked him reiterated his assertion Monday that the animal’s death was a terrible accident.
New York City prosecutors, however, said it was an intentional and depraved act. They put 37-year-old Joe Petcka on trial for aggravated animal cruelty, a felony, charging that he killed Norman, a 7.5-pound declawed tabby, in an alcohol-fueled rage of jealousy.
On Friday, a mistrial was declared after one juror continued to hold that Petcka was innocent after five days of contentious deliberation.
Free but not clear
Petcka was free but not clear. He faces a new hearing in late October on the charge, which could put him in prison for two years. On Monday, he and his attorney, Charles Hochbaum, appeared exclusively on TODAY to present their side of the story.
Referring to the one juror who saved him from a possible jail term, Petcka told TODAY’s Matt Lauer, “I guess I can just say be thankful for the one gentleman that listened to the truth I was thinking about, and he believed that I did not act intentionally.”
Petcka is a 37-year-old ex-athlete who once played in the Mets’ minor-league system. A waiter and bartender who once hawked paper towels and had one bit part on “Sex and the City,” he began a relationship late in 2007 with Sports Illustrated reporter Lisa Altobelli, whom he met in a bar.
The relationship didn’t work out, and after six or eight weeks, Altobelli told Petcka it was over. The two had been drinking and were in Altobelli’s apartment. That’s when Petcka said the cat attacked him.
Petcka testified during the trial that he kicked out at the cat with the steel-toed boots he was wearing when it bit him twice. But, he maintains, the kick was just a reflex action, not an intentional act.
A veterinarian testified that Norman suffered broken ribs, a ripped lung and liver, chipped teeth and torn tongue. He died shortly after the altercation.
Cat a surrogate?
Prosecutors argued that Petcka did to the cat what he wanted to do to Altobelli for ending their relationship. Petcka denied that.
“We think that’s a ridiculous charge,” Hochbaum told Lauer. “We think it was exaggerated by the girlfriend. At no time did Joe react in a vengeful manner, although we will suggest that he did not act appropriately.”
New York’s tabloids splashed the story across their pages, suggesting that Petcka’s contention that he kicked out after being bitten amounted to a claim of self-defense.
“We’ve never suggested this is self-defense,” Hochbaum said. “What we suggested is this was a bad reaction to a bad situation. What the law … requires is depraved and sadistic conduct, which was never present in this case.”
Petcka had testified that on the fateful night, Norman lunged at him and bit him. Surprised, Petcka said he lost his balance and fell by a coffee table. When the cat bit him again, he said he leaned backward and kicked out reflexively.
Altobelli was in bed at the time. She testified that Petcka came into her bedroom, screaming that the cat had bit him. She left the apartment, returning the next day to find Norman dead. Petcka said he left and did not know the cat was dead until he was arrested several weeks later in a restaurant where he was working.
A lone holdout
“You’re a big guy,” Lauer told Petcka. “It’s hard for anybody to imagine how this cat could have damaged you.”
Eleven jurors thought he was guilty, but one male juror believed Petcka’s contention that it was a terrible accident that did not rise to the level of a felony. Despite criticism of prosecutors who would spend time and money prosecuting such a case, the city has indicated that it will seek a new trial.
Lauer asked what the chances are that Petcka and his attorney will find another New Yorker in a new trial who will believe his account.
“It’s going to be difficult, especially in light of the publicity, but we’re convinced that we’ll find New Yorkers who understand,” said Hochbaum. “And we believe that we’ll come out victorious.”
Petcka said the incident has not changed his opinion of the city. “I love New York,” he said. “I’ve always been a big fan of it. This is one incident that happened that I can’t take back, and I feel extremely sorry that this happened. It was not a fun situation.”