Smithtown’s Robert Misseri is possibly the world’s -- forget the Island’s -- most unusual animal rescue volunteer. First of all, he’s the star of Animal Planet’s “The Guardians,” a short-run Saturday night series (10 p.m.) that launched Jan. 7, which features a “group of diverse and passionate individuals known as Guardians of Rescue” -- Animal Planet’s words.
My words: They’re unusual, too. Per Animal Planet, they include “ex-military personnel, retired police detectives, former FBI investigators, carpenters, electricians and even former convicts and gang members.”
“Guardians” is about some volunteers (including Misseri) who travel around the Island, or as far away as Philadelphia, to find dogs or other animals in peril. Using the gentle art of persuasion as only heavily-tatted-and-muscled guys with names like “Face” and “Moose” can skillfully administer, those dogs are then extricated from their owners and placed into an adoption pipeline.
Misseri, 48, is president of Guardians – which operates out of a space at the Nesconset Shopping Center in Port Jefferson Station, but has volunteers across the country who rescue stressed or endangered animals, mostly cats and dogs. Guardians also runs Paws for War, a therapy dog program for veterans, also based in Port Jeff Station.
Now, about Misseri: He’s an ex-con who served a 30-month sentence after pleading guilty to a money-laundering charge in 2002. His brief life behind bars, however, could have turned into a life behind bars. A 2000 Federal indictment against him and 10 others said he directed the “’Galasso-Misseri crew’ of the Colombo organized crime family,” according to a Newsday account which elaborated: “A witness had accused Misseri of being in a car during the 1994 murder of Louis Dorval, an accused mobster whose body was found stuffed in a large toolbox found floating in the ocean south of Long Island.”
Then this bizarre irony: The indictment also claimed he had been part of a crew that burned down an Old Brookville kennel.
Misseri hides none of his past, and even mentions it on the show -- also unusual. The upshot: Other than the laundering one, all the charges disintegrated when a witness (who was behind bars) recanted. As Newsday reported long after his release from jail, “His court record also includes several letters filed by religious and charitable organizations and friends attesting to his generosity and compassion. One even hints at his future working with animals.”
I spoke with Misseri -- who now lives in Smithtown, was raised in Commack and works for a catering business in the city -- about the show and about that past. An edited version of our chat:
Tell me a bit about ‘Guardians.’
“We’re mostly volunteers and everybody obviously comes from different backgrounds ... and for some of us, it’s taken over our live. For sure, me. My weekends, my vacations don’t exist anymore ... There is always somebody calling about an animal (in distress) especially on Long Island.”
Why Long Island?
“Because people know we’re here (in Port Jeff). Especially get calls from the East End of Suffolk.”
Is the rescue industry –- so to speak -- booming on the Island?
“Social media has brought a lot of attention, thank God. People are still not adopting enough from shelters, and a lot of people are still purchasing dogs from backyard breeders – and obviously the dog is (eventually) going to die.”
You’re group has been compared to the Guardian Angels of animals. Fair?
“Yeah, that’s what people say. We get things done that few people can get done.”
Any friction with local law enforcement animal control officers?
“Not at all. We work with the ASPCA out here on Long Island (and) we’ve spoken with many police officers who say they love what we’re doing because if they have to raid a house, that dog is now in a pen and it’s not going to threaten officers.”
Some members of your group are gently insistent about getting to the endangered dog but is there anything extralegal going on, like trespassing?
“We don’t trespass. That’s what keeps us in line. None of us can help animals from a prison cell, so we don’t break the law. When we knock on a door there’s always the risk of danger, but we generally don’t go in with one person ... People will look to test you, or tell you the dog is OK (but) we say we’re not here to give you a hard time. A lot of time we know there is drug activity in the house and that’s the reason they have a dog.”
Ever been in a dangerous situation?
“Yeah, there have been multiple threats and we had a situation in Bellport where we were surrounded by a bunch of gang members. But after 15 minutes, they actually gave us names of cases of other dogs that needed help. It’s all how you speak to people and control yourself. Once they know they can’t back us into a corner, they work with us.”
You also had another TV show – “Rescue Ink,” which aired for a short time on Nat Geo back in 2009. What happened with that show?
“(Rescue Ink) was an organization I started. I was against doing a TV show at the time, but there was another guy who was the face of the show and it got to his head. I refused to go on and subsequently National Geographic shut it down...”
Let’s talk about that past. Were you a member of the Colombo crime family?
“I was not. I was definitely in business with the wrong people. But the (federal) case was probably the most bizarre case many people have ever seen. Obviously I was charged with murder and arson, then an individual came forward and told the truth. But it started out as a fraud case that I was involved in which stemmed to this RICO case .... Attorneys still talk about it today and how complicated it was (but) my charges were dropped and they charged other people. It’s sad that it has to come up 17 years later. I’m doing nothing but good (now). I don’t get paid for this. It’s my passion.”