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Woman found guilty of animal cruelty, child neglect

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A Northfield woman who kept more than 100 dead cats in a freezer because she wanted to give them a Wiccan burial has been found guilty of animal mistreatment and child neglect.

However, 46-year-old Gabriella Bernabei said she will attempt to withdraw her pleas made Friday because she said her attorney and the district attorney scared her into an agreement to avoid jail time.

The mother of three maintains her innocence and says she’s been unfairly targeted because of her Wiccan beliefs.

“I feel this is an attack on my religion,” Bernabei said. “I was told, ‘Unless you accept the plea offer, you’ll be arrested ... and will spend 10 years in jail.’

“I felt like I had no choice (but to enter into the agreement).”

The pleas came shortly after a jury trial began. Bernabei pleaded no contest to child neglect and entered Alford pleas on four counts of animal mistreatment, which means she does not admit guilt but admits the prosecution could have proven the charges. The court found her guilty on all five charges.

Thirteen counts of animal mistreatment and two counts of child neglect were dismissed but will be considered during sentencing, which has not been set. A hearing for Bernabei to withdraw her pleas is set for Oct. 7, according to defense attorney John Bachman.

The plea agreement had not been filed as of Tuesday, but Bachman said it came with the prosecution’s recommendation for up to three months probation and no jail time.

Jackson County District Attorney Gerald Fox could not be reached for comment.

Bernabei said she feels she was poorly represented by Bachman, although Judge Mark L. Goodman denied her request to remove Bachman as counsel.

Bernabei and her husband, Robert J.A. Grassi, 57, were arrested and similarly charged after authorities rescued 17 cats last summer from a home littered with feces and discovered 106 cat carcasses in a nonfunctioning freezer, according to the criminal complaints.

The Jackson County Public Health Department placarded the house due to unhealthy living conditions during a social worker visit June 3, 2010.

The couple’s children reportedly were still sleeping when authorities entered the home, and feces was seen on the floor between two of them and on the pillow being used by the other.

The children were placed in a foster home.

Bernabei is free on a $1,000 signature bond and is not allowed to have or care for any cats in her home.

Bernabei said the children — now ages 7, 11 and 12 — are slated to return home.

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