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Trial to Begin in Guinea Pig Dissection Case

Benny Zavala of Oxnard faces up to three years in prison on charges of killing his daughter's pet during a drug-induced hallucination.

October 21, 2002|Holly J. Wolcott | Times Staff Writer

The Superior Court trial starts today for an Oxnard man accused of dissecting his young daughter's guinea pig while high on methamphetamine because he believed it was a government spy robot.

If convicted on the drug and animal cruelty charges, 34-year-old Benny Zavala faces up to three years in state prison, but would likely only receive a year in county jail or probation because of his clean record, authorities said.

"He thought it was a robot that had a camera in the back of its head, and that federal agents were watching him," Deputy Dist. Atty. Tom Connors said in an interview.

Zavala's attorney maintains that his client has been wrongly accused. "He is innocent and I will prove that to the jury," said Deputy Public Defender Robert Dahlstedt, who declined further comment.

The case -- possibly the first felony prosecution in the area over a rodent -- has drawn the attention of national animal-rights advocates, who recently wrote to Dist. Atty. Michael D. Bradbury.

"If the allegations against Zavala are accurate, then we believe him to be in dire need of psychiatric intervention," wrote Martin Mersereau, a Norfolk, Va., caseworker for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. "The safety of the community may depend on it."

Animal cruelty, according to Mersereau, can be a precursor to more violent crimes. Zavala is charged with two counts of felony animal cruelty and a misdemeanor charge of being under the influence of methamphetamine, a stimulant that can cause paranoia.

Zavala, who has been free on bail since shortly after his arrest last year, watched quietly Friday as attorneys spent five hours selecting a jury.

Finding impartial jurors for animal cruelty cases can be difficult because of the close relationships people have with their pets, attorneys say. And the Zavala case held true to form.

One woman was rejected after saying her religious beliefs include worshiping animals, and a man was dismissed when he admitted killing his family's guinea pig several years ago during a fit of rage. The man said he deeply regretted throwing the animal against a wall in his home and called the incident "the darkest moment of my life."

A panel of eight women and four men, some pet owners and some not, will hear the case.

According to authorities, Zavala was at home with his father the night of Sept. 13, 2001, when he asked a neighbor over to his house. In front of his father and the neighbor, Zavala allegedly poked at "Guinea" with a knife and talked about a hidden camera inside.

Early the next morning, after the neighbor had left, Zavala is accused of beating the guinea pig on the head with a screwdriver before cutting it up and placing its eyes and brain inside small glass jars.

"This is a little unusual, for someone to be so paranoid," Connors noted.

After the dissection, Zavala called his neighbor and told her that he now realized the animal wasn't a robot. The neighbor is expected to testify that she notified mental health authorities, who called police.

Zavala allegedly told authorities that the guinea pig was diseased and could no longer stand. A necropsy of the animal, Connors said, revealed that it was severely malnourished. Starving, torturing or maliciously killing an animal is a crime.

Attorneys on both sides said they have several witnesses who will testify, but that the trial should wrap up by Wednesday.

Zavala's 6-year-old daughter lives with her mother and only saw the guinea pig when she visited her father.

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Times staff photographer Stephen Osman contributed to this report.

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