Batchuta the Tiger’s Playmate Arrested for Trespass: Insanity Defense for David Villalobos’ Bronx Zoo Escapade?

David Villalobos, the young man arrested for allegedly wanting to “become one” with a Bronx Zoo tiger, is far from the first New Yorker to commune so closely with nature. Antoine Yates, a/k/a, the “Tiger Man of Harlem,” has that distinct “honor.” In fact, as a prosecutor in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, I was the Assistant District Attorney that handled Mr. Yates’ case. Unlike Villalobos, Mr. Yates was indicted for numerous crimes including felony Reckless Endangerment in the First Degree (New York Penal Law 120.25). Ultimately, because Ming the tiger had free range inside a large sprawling apartment in a public housing complex where children, building employees and other residents were potentially accessible, Yates pleaded guilty to felony Reckless Endangerment. Now retired Supreme Court Justice Budd Goodman sentenced Yates to five years probation along with a few months on Rikers Island.

Despite the similarity in the apparent love of all things Animal Planet, Villalobos’ case is starkly different. That is, while his actions certainly imperiled his own health, children, police officers an other denizens of New York City were not potential prey. In fact, unlike an apartment where a housing employee may have access and enter the premises only to be surprised by a large feline (let’s not forget the cayman who took up residence outside the bathtub), Villalobos had to drop down approximately seventeen feet above to access the Bronx Zoo tiger den. Simply, Villalobos only endangered himself.

While I am in no position to analyze the mental health of Yates or Villalobos, it is certainly fair to question their rational thought from a non-medical perspective. After all, who enters a 400 plus pound predator’s lair in a zoo enclosure? One might argue, res ipsa loquitur, the latin term for “the thing speaks for itself,” in terms of one’s sanity to either possess a tiger in an apartment or jump into its enclosure, but that is not the legal standard of insanity.

Because it appears that he is charged by way of a New York Desk Appearance Ticket for Criminal Trespass in the Second Degree (New York Penal Law 140.10), the question is whether or not at the time Villalobos entered the enclosure he had an understanding and knew what he was doing (was he capable of forming the intent and knowledge)? This is sort of a very basic view of how the law interprets the insanity defense. If anything, the insanity defense may be hampered by Villalobos’ own alleged statement that “[e]verybody in life makes choices.” At a quick glance, it appears that this assertion could be used as evidence that he knew full well what he was doing when he entered the tiger’s home. We can all agree Villalobos was “crazy” in practically offering himself up as prey to a stronger, quicker and more agile animal, but that is not the standard in the New York Criminal Justice System.

Whether or not an insanity defense is put forth, prosecutors must prove (and I do not assume it will be very difficult), that Villalobos entered an area without permission or authority that was fenced off or constructed in a way to prevent intruders from entering. The greater question is will prosecutors recognize that Villalobos obviously has many issues that will not be fixed by a criminal conviction or will they insist on a misdemeanor criminal plea? Will they permit Villalobos to grow from this incident, get the help he needs and take responsibility for his actions while not being saddled with a permanent criminal record? These are the true questions in this case.

The Bronx District Attorney’s Office can treat Villalobos in a similar manner as the Queens District Attorney’s Office treated Rafael Diaz for running onto the baseball field after Johan Santana pitched the first Met’s no-hitter in team history. However, while a criminal record and thousands of dollars in fines will certainly deter would be overzealous baseball revelers from jumping on the field, the Bronx DA has another deterrent with a little more power than a potential criminal conviction. An orange and black, 400 pound man eating machine…Batchuta.

Saland Law PC is a New York criminal defense firm representing clients throughout New York City and the metropolitan area.

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