ST. LOUIS – The owners of an exotic animal park and one of its board members have been charged with evidence tampering for allegedly trying to cover up a tiger attack on a volunteer.
The owners of Wesa-A-Geh-Ya in Warren County, Kenneth and Sandra Smith, and board member Roy Elder initially led the sheriff's department to believe that a pit bull, not a tiger, attacked volunteer Jacob Barr, who had part of his leg surgically amputated following the Aug. 3 mauling.
The three were charged with evidence tampering, a misdemeanor, on Friday. Elder and Sandra Smith are accused of lying to investigators by saying a dog attacked Barr. Kenneth Smith, who shot and killed the attacking animal, is accused of participating in a cover-up by moving the dead tiger's body to a different location.
"We're not guilty," Sandra Smith, 58, said by telephone Monday.
She has said she initially misled investigators because she feared the facility's animals would be euthanized if authorities learned the truth.
According to probable cause statements filed Friday, Elder told a deputy that a pit bull attacked the 26-year-old Barr. Sandra Smith told a paramedic she injured her arm by striking "the pit bull that was attacking Barr."
But after the deputy left the Smiths' 17-acre property, he learned Barr had told his father that he had been attacked by a tiger, not a pit bull. Kenneth Smith, 51, allegedly then told authorities he shot the tiger, loaded it into the rear of his pickup truck and moved it to another location.
"Smith stated he had removed the animal from the scene because they had been under a tremendous amount of scrutiny and did not want the information from the attack to become public," according to the court filings.
Court records also show that lawyers representing Barr have filed a lawsuit against Wesa-A-Geh-Ya and the Smiths. The attorneys did not return a phone call seeking comment Monday.
Sandra Smith said she doesn't blame Barr for filing a lawsuit. "Jacob has to do what Jacob has to do," she said. But, she said, Elder let Barr near the tigers, not her. "I never gave them permission to go in there."
Elder does not have a listed phone number and court records indicate he does not yet have an attorney.
Dozens of exotic animals have been moved from Wesa-A-Geh-Ya to Colorado, Oklahoma and other states since the attack. Smith said she voluntarily relocated the animals, but said two tigers remain onsite, as she tries to find them a new place to live.
Wesa-A-Geh-Ya means "Cat Lady" in Sandra Smith's native Cherokee language. The Smiths moved to eastern Missouri in 1986 with a tiger and two cougars but acquired more animals over the years.
In 2003, the Smiths surrendered their license to exhibit the animals, and it was later revoked after the U.S. Department of Agriculture found violations at the site, including gaps in fencing where lions and tigers had lived.