Many questions remain about the murder of a prominent member of the animal rescue community inside his Rhawnhurst home.
Why was 59-year-old Albert Chernoff killed? And why was the suspect, a 14-year-old girl, allegedly inside his home on the night he died?
The teenager was taken into custody Thursday night, a day after police released surveillance video from inside Chernoff’s house on the 8400 block of Algon Avenue.
A report in the Philadelphia Inquirer identified the suspect as Ajahnae Smaugh. The police department is not yet able to release the teenager’s name, a spokesman told the Northeast Times.
Smaugh has been charged with murder, robbery and related crimes, according to court records. Smaugh’s bail was denied, and she is being held at the Philadelphia Juvenile Justice Services Center.
Chernoff was found partially tied to a bed around 3 a.m. Tuesday, Nov. 5, with a massive head wound and several slashes to his chest, authorities said. He was pronounced dead at the scene.
Family members of the girl saw the video, and the teenager reportedly surrendered to police Thursday night accompanied by her attorneys.
There’s no evidence that anyone else was at the house at the time of the killing, Acting Police Commissioner Christine Coulter told reporters in a video uploaded to FOX29.com.
“It’s extremely troubling,” Coulter said. “It was a very brutal murder and to think that there was anybody doing this — but a child — but then you have to look to why did this happen. That’s what the investigators are going to attempt to find out.”
Coulter said the girl is from Philadelphia, but authorities did not release any additional information about her.
Chernoff was well-liked by his neighbors and co-workers, Coulter said, and police don’t believe he has any criminal history.
Known as “Alley Cat,” Chernoff was well-known in the local animal welfare community, particularly for his work with cats. Comments and memories flooded social media following the news of his death.
“Al was one of those people that would drop everything for the animals and if you were a friend to the animals you were a friend of his,” said Blake Martin, of Animal Care & Control Team of Philadelphia, in an email.
Chernoff kept 11 cats, three turtles and two albino frogs at his Rhawnhurst home. All of the animals were taken in by the Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals or local shelters, Martin said.
One of Chernoff’s cats is being cared for by a friend who is an employee at a veterinary clinic in Delaware County.
Chernoff would go to great lengths to help a feline in need, friends and fellow advocates said. He would often help rescue cats caught in dangerous situations. Chernoff also took care of feral colonies around the city, conducting Trap-Neuter-Return and building shelters.
“The most important thing in Al’s life were his cats; there was nothing he wouldn’t do for them,” said Marianne Iaquinto, founder of Sam’s Hope, a Montgomery County nonprofit that helps those who struggle financially to take care of their pets. “If it came down to taking care of himself or the cats, the cats would get the care.”
Chernoff grew up in Northeast Philadelphia and had lived in the Algon Avenue house for decades, according to his cousin, David Levin. He didn’t have too many close family members in the region.
Levin said Chernoff served in the U.S. Army and for many years worked at Philadelphia International Airport, most recently as a maintenance supervisor.
In addition to cats, he had a passion for motorcycles. Iaquinto said Chernoff had five bikes, including a pair of military Harley-Davidsons.
Levin started a GoFundMe page to help pay for the cost of Chernoff’s funeral and to donate to animal rescue organizations. Through Tuesday, it had raised more than $17,200.
“I am blown away by the outpouring of support that he is receiving,” Levin said.
The family found out about the murder after seeing video of Chernoff’s house on the news.
“We’re still in shock. We can’t believe it,” Levin said. “Why would someone want to do this?”
A memorial service for Chernoff will be held Sunday, Nov. 24, at 11 a.m. at Goldsteins’ Rosenberg’s Raphael Sacks, 310 2nd Street Pike, Southampton.
Three days later, on Nov. 27, Smaugh is scheduled for a preliminary hearing. ••