Thursday, Apr 19, 2018
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Lawmen recount tension, tragedy of exotic animal hunt


Muskingum County Sheriff Matt Lutz appears with Jack Hanna at a news conference. The sheriff ordered his deputies to kill the animals in order to protect the public.

columbus dispatch/doral chenoweth III Enlarge

ZANESVILLE, Ohio -- The news trucks are gone, the mobile command center has left, and the cages that once held dozens of wild animals are empty.

Only now can those involved in what became the largest release of wild animals in U.S. history begin to reflect on their actions that night when numerous exotic and in some cases endangered animals were shot and killed after their owner, 62-year-old Terry Thompson, released them from their cages before killing himself Tuesday.

The first 911 calls came in at 5 p.m. and reported that some of Thompson's animals had escaped their cages and were chasing horses on his property, just off I-70 about two miles west of Zanesville. At first, Muskingum County Sheriff Matt Lutz and his deputies thought they were dealing with a couple of animals.

The response

Once they arrived, the deputies quickly discovered that something had gone terribly wrong.

Deputy Jonathan Merry was on the scene just minutes after his patrol sergeant. It was immediately apparent that this was no isolated escape. Pacing behind a short, wire livestock fence only a few yards off the road were a Bengal tiger, an African lioness, and two black bears.

Deputy Merry was told to check on the home where the 911 call originated, the Kopchak residence next door. Deputy Merry said he drove there but had no sooner knocked on the door when he spotted what he estimated to be a 130-pound gray wolf running down the middle of the narrow country road away from the Thompson property. The deputy radioed for instructions and was told by Sheriff Lutz, who was on his way from home, not to let the wolf escape into the countryside. Deputy Merry said he followed the wolf in his car south until it ran up a nearby driveway, past a neighbor's barn, and headed for the open field behind the house.

A member of the sheriff's special response team, Deputy Merry retrieved the 223-caliber rifle from the trunk of his cruiser and shot the wolf before it could make a tree line. He then got back in his car, his rifle beside him on the passenger seat, and returned to Thompson's driveway to check on the other responding deputies. When he stepped out of his vehicle to assess the situation, he noticed that one of the black bears was outside the fence a few yards from him.

Then it charged.

With no time to retrieve his rifle, Deputy Merry drew his sidearm and fired once, he said, killing the bear. It fell seven feet from where he stood.

"With the bear, the only thing I can remember thinking is, 'Do I have a clear shooting lane,'" Deputy Merry said in an interview last week. "It was just a reaction, where fortunately the training took over."

He had no sooner shot the bear when an African lioness crawled under the wire fence and began to run down the road. As the only officer on the scene at that time with a rifle, he was ordered to shoot to kill any animal that left the property. Over the next few minutes, Deputy Merry killed the lioness, a mountain lion that followed her down the road, and a male African lion that he saw in the driveway of an adjoining property. The second lion, however, didn't come from the same part of the fence where the other animals had slipped through.

That's when he realized the enormity of the situation.

As more deputies and Sheriff Lutz arrived, Deputy Merry was ordered to take his cruiser and rifle down to I-70, which runs along the northern border of Thompson's property, to keep any animals from escaping onto the freeway.

When he got there, he noticed a section of fence along the interstate had been knocked down and standing on the freeway side of the fence was another gray wolf.

Standing watch along the highway, Deputy Merry proceeded to shoot the wolf, two male African lions, a Bengal tiger, and a grizzly bear, all of which made it to the edge of the interstate.

While Deputy Merry was headed to I-70, the sheriff and more deputies were gathering at the entrance to the Thompson property. The first officer on the scene had entered the property with one of the farm's caretakers, who had grown worried about Thompson and come to the property.

They were the first to find Thompson's body on the driveway between his house and a barn, amongst dozens of large animal cages where he kept his collection. The officer could not get out of his cruiser to check on Thompson because of the animals milling about the yard, so he returned to the entrance.

Sheriff Lutz decided they couldn't leave Thompson's body in the driveway because he might still be alive. He ordered four deputies with assault rifles into the back of a pickup truck, and told a sergeant to drive the truck back into the property and kill the animals they saw out of their cages so they could recover Thompson.

With night falling, and the obvious inability of the livestock fence bordering the property to contain the animals, they would have to be killed to keep them from getting out and possibly harming county residents.

"I think some people think we might have enjoyed doing this, that we wanted to do this," Deputy Merry said. "In no way, shape, or form did we want to do this. It was our only option." He maintains that he and the other deputies were put in such an awful situation because of the state's lax exotic animal laws. "If there is any light in this situation at all, it is that maybe laws will be passed now that maybe will save these animals in the future."

The collector

It's unclear how Thompson came up with the money to purchase the expensive animals and keep them fed.

His wife of 34 years, Marian, had a monthly retirement pension coming in from her 30 years as a teacher. He could have squirreled away money from the sale of his assorted business ventures. He formerly owned the Harley-Davidson dealerships in Coshocton and Zanesville, as well as a beer-and-wine carryout.

In Zanesville, he legally sold guns out of the back of the motorcycle shop as a federally licensed firearms dealer, a business he continued to operate out of his home before surrendering his license about seven years ago. "I've sold $10,000 worth of guns in one day," Thompson bragged in a recorded 2008 conversation with an informant who bought guns while the federal Bureau of Tobacco, Alcohol, Firearms and Explosives listened in.

Federal agents tried to build a case that Thompson was selling illegal guns but ultimately only won a conviction against him for possessing unregistered machine guns and sawed-off weapons.

In 2007, after paying off the mortgage on his 46-acre hilltop property, he sold out to a coal company for $500,000, although he apparently retained the right to continue to live on the land. He also had apparently hung onto cash that might otherwise have gone to pay taxes and bills. The Internal Revenue Service claims that he and his wife owe $55,696 and they face thousands of dollars in unpaid court judgments.

He also used his stockpile of guns to acquire animals, telling federal agents that he had traded firearms for a monkey, tiger, and leopard, among other creatures.

He apparently tried to feed his huge collection of cats, bears, and other animals on the cheap. He would pick up road kill to feed them, and neighbors donated dead livestock. Thompson also regularly bought huge barrels of chicken parts discarded as unfit for human consumption from processing houses.

A fresh pile of those chicken parts was found near his body Tuesday night. Sheriff Lutz has refused to speculate about why Thompson might have placed the animal food near his body before shooting himself, but the freed animals were attracted to the body.

A coroner's preliminary examination revealed that Thompson had been bitten on the head by some type of large cat, and officers say his body was dragged several feet from where they believe he pulled the trigger. Sheriff Lutz said it's not yet known when exactly Thompson killed himself.

The aftermath

Only six animals remain from the 56 Thompson owned.

Two monkeys, which officials at the Columbus Zoo have identified as Celebes macaque monkeys, were found locked in their cages inside Thompson's house. Those and the other animals -- two leopards, a black leopard and a brown bear that were found in cages that Thompson hadn't opened -- were taken to the zoo for care and safekeeping.

Sheriff Lutz said on Thursday that he doesn't know what will happen to the animals, and he's going to let Jack Hanna, the zoo's director emeritus, decide what happens to them next. Mr. Hanna has said he did not intend to take the animals from Thompson's wife, who could not be reached for comment.

The publicity about the animals' release and deaths brought renewed attention to the state's laws regarding the sale and ownership of animals not native to Ohio. Mr. Hanna was one of many who called on legislators to take action to ensure nothing like what happened in Muskingum County can happen again.

Legislators responded with a draft bill introduced in the House on Thursday that would restrict ownership of several species, require owners to carry $25,000 of liability insurance, and make it mandatory to have electronic monitoring devices implanted into the animals.

Gov. John Kasich has been criticized for allowing an executive order signed by his predecessor to lapse when he took office, which some believe could have forced Thompson to get rid of his animals when he was released three weeks ago after serving about a year in prison on federal weapons charges.

Mr. Kasich responded Friday with an executive order of his own that, among other provisions, restricts wild-animal auctions and shuts down those auctions deemed to be operating illegally.

He asked Sheriff Lutz and Mr. Hanna to join a task force that is examining the state's laws and is expected to make recommendations for stricter regulations soon.

Sheriff Lutz said rules governing wild animal ownership should be as rigorous as those for obtaining a concealed carry license for a handgun. "These animals are just as dangerous as a weapon," he said.

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