Snake-bitten cop's neighbors fear escaped rattler
[Arlington, MA]

Wednesday, May 9, 2001

Arlington police yesterday were searching for a rattlesnake that bit the police officer who apparently owned it, leaving him hospitalized in critical condition and his neighbors trembling with fear and anger.

``I'm shaking,'' Jacquelyn Fiorenza said yesterday as police removed cage after cage from officer John Brescia's quaint-looking, one-story home, roughly a dozen yards away. ``You like to think you're safe because you live across the street from a police officer. And then you come home and find something like this.''

Brescia was in intensive care at Mount Auburn Hospital yesterday, authorities said, as police searched his 71 Marathon Ave. home.

In the basement, they found 21 non-venomous snakes in cages, and two timber rattlesnake skins that had been shed, Chief Frederick Ryan said.

Arlington police obtained a search warrant for the home on Sunday, after the 46-year-old officer became involved in a ``minor'' traffic accident, hitting a pole on Cleveland Street, a block away from his home, Ryan said.

At the time, Brescia claimed he'd been bitten in the hand by a timber rattlesnake while he was off-duty at the Blue Hills Reservation in Milton, the chief said.

But police doubted he would have driven all the way home in such an emergency.

``We are going on the assumption that is not a truthful statement,'' Ryan said of the officer's account.

Police yesterday were investigating whether Brescia, a 15-year police veteran, had a permit to own the snake as required by law.

An endangered species native to New England, the timber rattlesnake averages 2 feet in length and is typically gold, tan or brown in color, with black bands across its back and a black tail ending in a rattle, unless the rattle has broken off, said Michael Ralbovsky, a herpetologist who works as a consultant to the Massachusetts Environmental Police.

Although its bite is fatal in only about one out of 1,000 cases, he said, ``it is a venomous animal, and could certainly incapacitate someone . . . The best thing to do is to leave it alone and call the police.''

In the wild, timber rattlers mate in late April and can travel up to 3 miles from their dens, Ralbovsky said.

But because they're highly territorial reptiles and dislike the kind of cold the Boston area has seen in the last few nights, he said, it's unlikely such a snake - if Brescia did in fact have one - would have wandered from home, where it had warmth and food.

Yesterday, police decided to ``err on the side of caution,'' Ryan said, by going door-to-door notifying neighbors and holding a community meeting last night at Arlington High School. But to some, the news came too late.

``We have children in this neighborhood, and they were all out playing (Monday),'' said Marilyn Felice, who lives across the street from Brescia and has a 10-year-old son. ``They should have let us know as soon as they found out.''

School buses dropped off neighboring children at their doors yesterday afternoon, as a precaution. School administrators also sent home letters notifying parents about the possibility that a rattler might be on the loose, and advising children to stay away from bushes and other places where a snake might seek refuge.

``I was very, very scared,'' said 10-year-old Sean Keane, who has a pet reptile known as a bearded dragon, which he brought out for reporters to see, for good measure. ``I'm just glad it's a rattlesnake. At least it rattles, so you'll know it's there.''

Because timber rattlers are endangered and therefore protected under federal and state law, harming one is illegal, Ralbovsky said, and usually unnecessary.

``These are typically docile snakes,'' said state Environmental Officer Scott Maher. ``They usually only strike when provoked.''

Ryan declined to comment on Brescia's record with his department, including any commendations he may have had in the past.

The chief did, however, confirm that the officer was due in court Friday in connection with a temporary restraining order a neighbor had obtained against him because she claimed she felt threatened by him.

Neighbors said Brescia kept to himself and rarely had visitors in the handful of years he has lived alone on Marathon Street.

``I don't think he's ever even said hello,'' said Alison Carrig, his next-door neighbor. ``He's very much an introvert.''

Another neighbor, who asked that his name not be used, described the officer as sporting a shaved head and earring, and riding a motorcycle.

But if Brescia wasn't the first to strike up a conversation with his neighbors, Felice said, he was cordial enough to those who took the time to get to know him.

``He's actually very friendly,'' she said ``. . . I'm just stunned to find out what he had in his basement.''
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