TOLEDO, Ohio – Five people were charged Monday with trying to steal the carcass of a lion that was among dozens of exotic animals released from a private compound by their suicidal owner and shot dead by sheriff's deputies in a big-game hunt.
Deputies said they stopped four men and a teenage boy who had loaded the lion into a Jeep several hours after the animals ran from their cages at the compound near Zanesville, in eastern Ohio.
Deputies were forced to kill 48 wild animals including bears, lions and endangered Bengal tigers after their owner, Terry Thompson, threw open their cages late in the afternoon on Oct. 18 and then killed himself on his farm.
The four men and the teen, ranging in ages from 21 to 17, were each charged with a misdemeanor count of theft, Muskingum County prosecutor Michael Haddox told The Associated Press. Each faces up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine if convicted.
Deputies said they noticed the headlights of a vehicle near the farm and decided to stop it, according to reports released by the county sheriff's office.
Inside the Jeep, they found a dead male lion, the deputies said. They then removed the carcass, belonging to one of nine lions that had been housed at the compound, and closed down a road to prevent anyone else from getting near the dead animals.
Prosecutors wouldn't say what they believed the men and the boy planned to do with the lion's body.
The four men charged were Cody Wilson, 21, of Byesville; Richard Weidlich, 19, of Cambridge; Brian Matthews, 21, of Kimbolton; and Joseph Jakubisin, 21, of Cambridge, Haddox said. The name and hometown of the boy weren't released because of his age.
Wilson, Weidlich and Matthews didn't have listed home telephone numbers. Jakubisin's number was no longer in service. There was no indication the men had hired attorneys.
Deputies have said they had no choice but to shoot the lions and other animals after they charged at them and were dangerously close to neighboring homes and an interstate highway.
Nearly all the cages had been unlocked, and holes were cut in the metal fencing.
Thompson, 62, had told a farmhand a day earlier that he was upset about his marital problems and that he had a plan, according to a deputy who talked with the caretaker.
Just days before Thompson set the animals free, he told a deputy that he was having a tough time taking care of them after spending a year in prison on a gun conviction. He also was deep in debt to the Internal Revenue Service.
Thompson bought his first exotic animal, a lion cub named Simba, at an auction for his wife's birthday about 14 years ago. He acquired other animals at auctions and from people who could no longer care for them.
Thompson's widow tried to claim six wild animals that survived their release and were recaptured, but the state Department of Agriculture ordered they be kept under quarantine at a zoo for the time being.
Gov. John Kasich, upon learning the widow planned to retrieve the animals, asked the agency to ensure they didn't pose a health threat. Earlier this year, Kasich let expire an order that might have prevented the Thompsons from owning exotic animals. He has signed a temporary order to use existing laws to crack down on such animals before new laws are proposed.