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Reports: Released animals in Ohio charged deputies

By Moni Basu, CNN
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Sat November 5, 2011
Drivers were cautioned to remain in their cars and residents in their homes on October 18 because of wild animals on the loose.
Drivers were cautioned to remain in their cars and residents in their homes on October 18 because of wild animals on the loose.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • County sheriff's office releases reports about what happened in Zanesville, Ohio
  • Deputies came face to face with dangerous animals
  • Owner Terry Thompson cut their cages and then killed himself
  • The deputies said they were ordered to "neutralize" the animals on the prowl

(CNN) -- One damp, chilly evening in October, Dolores Kopchak called the police. She had a rather unusual problem: a lion in her back yard.

She was calling from Kopchak Road, named after her family and familiar to law enforcement authorities in the small town of Zanesville, Ohio. They had had responded to complaints there before.

Kopchak's neighbor, Terry Thompson, owned a bunch of wild animals. When Sgt. Steve Blake arrived on the scene, he saw a black bear and two African lions.

He immediately shut down Kopchak Road and called for help. What happened next on that evening reads more like the stuff of an action-packed adventure novel than police reports.

The Muskingum County Sheriff's Office has released many of those reports that reveal how law enforcement officials were thrust into a desperate hunt for potential killers on the loose.

On October 18, as highway signs cautioned drivers to remain in cars and local schools were making a decision to close the next morning, deputies traversed Thompson's property and beyond and came face to face with animals that most people see from the other side of a cage or in the safety of a guided safari.

Deputy Jay Lawhorne had been on Thompson's property before, responding to previous complaints about him, including animal abuse.

Thompson, 62, had been released from a federal prison September 30 after pleading guilty earlier this year to possessing illegal firearms, including five fully automatic firearms. A civil case seeking forfeiture of firearms was pending.

Lawhorne picked up his M4 rife with .223-caliber ammo and got in the back of the pickup.

The deputies began going up Thompson's driveway not knowing what they would find. It was already after 6 p.m. and they knew they only had one hour of daylight left.

There were cages on the left and the right of the driveway. Tigers, lions, cheetahs and bears roamed about.

They were ordered to find Thompson and "neutralize" any animal that posed a threat to people. With no tranquilizers on hand, their only choice was to shoot.

Thompson's house was empty, save two monkeys and a small dog, Blake said in his report. On his way out, Blake saw a body near an embankment.

It was Thompson. He was on his back. A handgun lay near him. And a pair of blue bolt cutters. He had used it to free all his animals from their pens before he shot himself.

A large white tiger was sitting 5 feet away. It appeared the cat had fed on Thompson's flesh, Blake said.

It was impossible for the deputies to approach the body because of the tiger.

The deputies called for more help and got out on foot.

Right behind Thompson's large barn, at the top of hill near the house, they saw several large cages where the larger lions had been kept. The deputies secured the heavy wooden doors but as they got closer, they realized the cages had been cut open.

A lion came out just 3 feet away. Lawhorne said he was forced to shoot it dead. Another deputy encountered a lion hissing at him and baring its lethal teeth.

Behind the lions were pens that held bears and wolves but, instead, a tiger and bear came out. The tiger charged Lawhorne. It, too, had to be put down.

The deputies were able to save a black panther and a spotted leopard.

At 11:30, the deputies gave up the search for the night. Lawhorne said Sheriff Matt Lutz told him his replacement would arrive at 6:30 in the morning.

But Lawhorne was not out of danger yet.

He and Deputy Adam Swope were walking down to the back of Thompson's property when they encountered a tiger hiding in the brush.

They radioed it in and were informed that a Columbus zookeeper was on her way to tranquilize the cat.

It took 15 minutes for her to get there. It was going to take another 10 minutes for the tranquilizer to take effect.

Lawhorne and other deputies stood by with assault weapons. Just in case.

The tiger jolted when the dart hit, but it did not get up. But after a few minutes, it charged directly at the zookeeper. The deputies fired. The tiger backed off and laid down.

They gave it another 15 minutes for the tranquilizer to take effect. The zookeeper then felt it was safe to approach. But when they were less than 10 feet away, the tiger thrashed again.

This time, it was shot dead.

In all, deputies shot 49 of Thompson's menagerie. Some, like the Bengal tigers, were endangered species.

Thompson's wife, Marian, chose a burial site, according to the police reports. The animals were placed in a single grave.

John Moore, who worked as a caretaker for Thompson's animals, said that he had last seen Terry Thompson the day before he died, according to the police reports. Thompson told him then that he had received a letter about Marian cheating on him.

He told Moore: "I have a plan to find out and you will know when it happens."

No one may ever know what Thompson's plans included -- his death is still under investigation and not all records have been released.

Thompson is gone. So are his animals. The Humane Society of the United States said that under the circumstances, it did not fault the deputies for using deadly force.

But a public debate was sparked over exotic animals and the laws that govern ownership.

The bizarre events that day were seen around the world. And Zanesville will forever go down as the small Ohio city with the really big animals.

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