A Bel Air attorney pleaded guilty today to helping a friend break into the home of the friend's estranged wife, where he killed the family kitten by zapping it in the microwave oven.
With tears streaming down his face, Attorney Stephen E. Protokowicz Jr. told the court the cat's death was an accident. He apologized profusely and said both men had been drinking heavily before the break-in.
"If it is in your power," he told the judge, "I'd rather be sent to jail than to have the kids, my partners, or my family have to go through anything else."
Baltimore County Circuit Court Judge Barbara Kerr Howe sentenced Protokowicz to a year on jail on a single count of breaking and entering. He also received 90 days on a cruelty to animals charge. Both jail terms were suspended.
Protokowicz then was given 18 months of supervised probation, and was ordered to perform 40 hours of community service. He also must seek treatment for alcoholism, provide restitution and counseling for the children whose cat he killed, and pay $500 in fines and court costs.
Harford County Assistant State's Attorney Jay E. Robinson said Thomas Sanders, identified as Protokowicz's friend and former client, was charged with two counts of breaking and entering in connection with the incident, which occurred Oct. 13, and another break-in the previous day.
Sanders is to be tried separately.
Because Protokowicz frequently argues cases before Harford County judges, today's hearing was assigned to Howe, who sat in Harford County Circuit Court.
Protokowicz faced a maximum penalty of three years in jail and a $500 fine on the breaking and entering charge, and 90 days in jail and $1,000 fine on the cruelty charge.
His attorney, August F. Brown, told the court that the state Attorney Grievance Commission has notified Protokowicz that it is looking into the incident.
The inquiry could lead to disciplinary action or disbarment.
Joseph I. Cassilly, the Harford County state's attorney, said his office began investigating the case after Sanders' estranged wife, Nancy Anderson Sanders, reported the Oct. 13 break-in to the county sheriff's office.
Nancy Sanders also filed the complaint against Protokowicz with the Attorney Grievance Commission Dec. 14.
In the grievance, a copy of which was obtained by The Evening Sun, Nancy Anderson Sanders said that she and Thomas Sanders separated in April 1991 and that she and the children moved into a new home.
The complaint accused Thomas Sanders and Protokowicz -- who represented Thomas Sanders in some of the couple's divorce proceedings -- of breaking into the home. Nancy Sanders and the children were away at the time.
The complaint alleged that Protokowicz "placed the kitten in the microwave oven. At some point he turned on the microwave with Max, the kitten, still inside."
After returning home, the family found the 7-month-old kitten dead on the kitchen floor with "champagne poured on it," according to the complaint.
At first, the family thought Max had been poisoned, but when cat hair was found in the microwave, the real cause of death was discovered. An autopsy revealed the animal had died from hemorrhage of the lungs.
Brown told the court that Sanders and Protokowicz moved in together following separations from their wives. Brown described his client as depressed by the end of his marriage and the recent death of a friend. Protokowicz had consumed a half bottom of rum and shared some beer with Sanders when they decided to break into the Sanders' home and search for some corporate papers connected with the divorce.
Once inside the house, Brown said, the men opened and drank a bottle of champagne. When the family kitten began getting underfoot, and jumped onto the counter, Protokowicz placed it in the microwave, which was mounted over the range.
Later, while trying in the dark to turn on the light that shines down from the microwave onto the range, Protokowicz inadvertently started the microwave, Brown said.
When Sanders heard the microwave beeping, he ran to the kitchen, Brown said. The dead kitten was removed from the oven and dropped onto a puddle of champagne that had been spilled earlier onto the floor.
In a panic, they fled the house, Brown said.
"I didn't belong in your house that night," he told Nancy Sanders in his tearful courtroom apology today. "I invaded your privacy. I wasn't thinking straight that night."