UNION COUNTY, NJ - A little more than 20 years ago, a Hillside gardener’s attempt to ward off rats from eating tomatoes in his backyard ended up with him facing possible jail time and a fine, generating a national and international media firestorm that continues to reverberate as legend throughout Union County.
So it comes as no surprise that one of Union County’s native sons, Andrew Ruotolo, whose late father Andrew K. Ruotolo Jr. served as the Union County Prosecutor from 1991-95 (and for whom the Prosecutor’s building is now named in his honor) has directed an 18-minute documentary, “The Ratslayer of Hillside NJ,” about the infamous case. Ruotolo’s mother, Mary, was also a Freeholder who served from 1998-2004.
The County of Union will co-sponsor the presentation of the film, its first screening in Union County, on Sunday, December 6th 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 documents the case against the late Frank Balun, a Hillside resident and WWII Veteran, who was cited by Lee Bernstein of the Associated Humane Society for killing a rat in his backyard. 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.
“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 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.”
“As someone who serves as a municipal prosecutor, I can tell you that we do often face challenging situations, but this was a truly unique instance that has become part of Union County lore,” said Freeholder Chairman Mohamed S. Jalloh. “Residents will enjoy the questions and issues that are raised in this strange but true Hillside story, and the humor with which it is presented.”
The Freeholder Board, through Chairman Jalloh’s 2015 initiative “UCACT,” has supported theatrical productions and events through the Union County Performing Arts Center and Hamilton Stage.
The documentary was directed and produced by a Union County cast that included Ruotolo (Director), Andrew Lessner and Michael Angelo Covino (Producers), and Sean Devaney and Zach Kuperstein (Directors of Photography). Ruotolo, Lessner and Devaney all attended elementary, middle and high school in Westfield together.
A panel of Union County luminaries, 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, 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), including his hometown of Hillside, 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.
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.
-- Angelo Bonanno – Former Health Administrator of Hillside Health Dept.
-- Frank Capece - Frank Balun's defense attorney
-- Chris Howard – Former Hillside prosecutor
-- Roseann Trezza - Executive Director of Associated Humane Societies (Assistant Director at the time)
-- Linda Voltaggio and Vince Voltaggio (brother and sister - friends/neighbors of Frank Balun)
-- Rosalyn Bernstein-Charnes (Lee Bernstein's ex-wife, current resident of Union, NJ)