HILLSIDE, N.J. -- Frank Balun, the unassuming gardener who gained worldwide attention when he was hit with animal-cruelty charges for killing a rat that menaced his tomatoes, is off the hook.
Last night, Hillside Prosecutor Chris Howard begged poetic license as he moved to dismiss the charges against Mr. Balun.
"For although a rat died and its death (was) unceremonial, we believe that at the end of a trial, Frank's action cannot be said to be criminal."
To applause from 150 people in a packed municipal courtroom, Judge Albert Parsonnet agreed. Afterward, a smiling Mr. Balun -- whose hands trembled throughout the hearing -- said he'd do it all over again.
"He deserved to be killed," he said of the rat. "He was eating all of my tomatoes."
Between the time he killed the rat when it tried to escape a humane trap last month, and last night's hearing, Mr. Balun became a hero to anyone who felt victimized by the legal system.
"What it points out is bureaucratic bungling of the first order," said Hillside health administrator Angelo Bonnano, who keeps a file containing 69 letters he has received from around the country. "It is an embarrassment to anyone remotely involved in law enforcement."
Lee Bernstein, the Associated Humane Societies' executive director, who issued the summons against Mr. Balun, said after last night's hearing that at the very least a "nuisance animal -- or any animal -- deserves a quick and painless death."
Mr. Balun said that while he had become a celebrity, Mr. Bernstein had gotten "the same publicity -- only in an adverse form."
Two weeks ago, someone placed the crucified body of a muskrat, a cherry tomato in its mouth, on the front lawn of Mr. Bernstein's home in Union Beach, Monmouth County.
"That was a terrible thing," said Mr. Balun. ". . . But it's crazy what this man did to me. I'm a good citizen," said the 69-year-old, whose only previous brush with the law was a parking ticket two years ago.
Mr. Balun has not faced so much flak since his days as a top turret gunner, swiveling a pair of machine guns in a Plexiglas bubble atop a B-25 over Japan during World War II.
"That was the highlight of my career," he said. Until now.
Mr. Balun flew 33 Pacific missions, then returned from the war to a job as a garment cutter, shaping blouses in an Elizabeth factory. He retired seven years ago to a daily routine that included a three-mile run in nearby Conant Park, a little light housework, and tending his luxurious tomato vines.
Then Mr. Balun dispatched the rodent with a few whacks of a broomstick. Suddenly, he found himself facing $1,200 in fines, six months in jail -- and an outpouring of sympathy and interest.
Mr. Balun's childlike voice has been heard on the BBC and in Australia, and his wondering, bespectacled gaze has been broadcast to viewers of "CBS This Morning" and Fox's "A Current Affair."
As an honored guest at last week's New Jersey Pest Control Association convention, he got a standing ovation and a lobster dinner. That was the fun part. On the other hand, reporters would call his house early every morning.
"It is getting wearisome," he said. "I'm not a very good speaker. I'm a quiet person. . . . I've talked more now than I have in 10 years."