UNION COUNTY, NJ---A little more than 20 years ago, Hillside gardener Frank Balun killed a rat that was ravaging his tomatoes crop and made national and international news.
Balun, now deceased, is featured in the documentary, The Ratslayer of Hillside, NJ, by Westfield native Andrew K. Ruotolo III, whose late father, Andrew K. Ruotolo Jr., was the Union County prosecutor at the time. So it comes as no surprise that one of Union County’s native sons has directed this 18-minute documentary about the infamous case. “When I came across an article on the case, in which my father was quoted, I was instantly captivated by the bizarre tale,” Ruotolo recounts.
The film’s first screening in Union County, co-sponsored by the County of Union, takes place on Sunday, December 6 at 7 p.m. at the Hamilton Stage in Rahway at 360 Hamilton Street. There will also be a panel discussion with audience participation. Suggested admission is $5 at the door.
“The film captures the intersection of justice, animal rights, prosecution, media hyperbole, and the downright ridiculous. I would like to thank the Freeholder Board for helping us to present this documentary to the public,” said Ruotolo.
The story begins when Balun attempted to ward off rats from eating tomatoes in his backyard. The WWII veteran was cited by Lee Bernstein of the Associated Humane Society for killing a rat. Balun was charged with animal cruelty for “needlessly abusing a rodent,” and was ordered to appear in court, where he faced six months in jail and a $1,250 fine.
After the story of Balun initially emerged in a Star Ledger account in 1994, newspapers from London to Australia picked it up as a media frenzy ensued with every major news network covering the spectacle. While Balun was heralded as a hero by the NJ Pest Control Association, receiving animal traps from supporters across the country, Bernstein endured the indignity of being lampooned on late-night shows, chastised on editorial pages, abandoned by animal-rights advocates and even targeted by protesters who dumped muskrat and chicken parts on his Union Beach lawn. At one point he found a rodent, nailed to a wooden cross, with a tomato in its mouth, on his property.
Combining present day interviews and archival news footage, The Rat Slayer of Hillside NJ tells the dramatic story of Balun and Bernstein and the case that pitted them against each other and would eventually come to define their personal legacies
The documentary, which was released last year, has been shown at various film festivals, including the Brooklyn Film Festival and Lighthouse Film Festival in Long Beach Island, most recently winning the Documentary Short award at the St. Lawrence International Film Festival in Canada and Upstate New York.
Like the case, the documentary is also local in origin. Andrew Lessner and Sean Devaney, a producer and a director of photography, are his childhood friends, attending elementary, middle and high school in Westfield together. Michael Angelo Covino and Zach Kuperstein served as producer and a director of photography respectively.
A panel of Union County residents, who are featured in the film, will participate in a brief panel discussion, including: Angelo Bonanno, a retired health administrator for several Union County towns, Elizabeth resident and former Hillside Prosecutor Chris Howard (who currently works as an attorney in the Union County Counsel’s office and has a private office in Cranford), and Frank Capece, a Cranford resident and attorney with Garrubbo and Capece in Union Township. Ruotolo will lead the brief discussion and audience participation is welcome.
More information is available on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ratslayerofhillsidenj)