COLUMBUS, Ohio – Records show the owner of a bear that recently mauled its caretaker to death had no workplace injury insurance to cover the man, an apparent violation of state law.
Ohio Bureau of Workers' Compensation spokeswoman Maria Smith said investigators will go to Sam Mazzola's home near Cleveland on Thursday to determine if he had paid 24-year-old Brent Kandra or other employees since his coverage lapsed in late 2005.
Ohio requires business owners who pay even one employee to carry insurance in the event of injury or death, Smith said.
The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which regulates workplace safety, is also trying to determine whether Kandra was Mazzola's employee or just a friend who occasionally helped out, spokesman Scott Allen said.
"We would only investigate if the person that was injured or killed was an employee of the company," he said. "We are still trying to determine whether he (Kandra) was or not. It's certainly not a clear-cut case."
Kandra was mauled Aug. 19 after opening the bear's cage for a feeding at the home where Mazzola keeps his exotic animal menagerie of bears, tigers, wolves and a lion. Kandra died the next day.
In describing Kandra's relationship to Mazzola in an interview with The Associated Press, Mazzola's attorney John Frenden said Kandra worked for Mazzola, making the point that he was an experienced animal handler.
In a separate interview, Kandra's father, John Kandra, told the AP that his son collected pay from Mazzola — albeit spottily — and that he had told his son, "I really wish you wouldn't work for him."
On Wednesday, John Kandra said his son worked for several of Mazzola's businesses over a number of years, erecting highway guardrails and fences, overseeing petting zoos Mazzola would take to malls, staffing his two pet stores or feeding the exotic beasts.
"Basically he was a part-time, fill-in guy. He had just started back after not working for him for a year," Kandra said. "He'd work part time on his days off so he didn't collect a paycheck. He'd be paid $20 or $40 in cash on a day off, probably under the table, and Sam would feed him dinner. They were friends."
A message was left seeking comment from Frenden. Mazzola's number has been disconnected.
Mazzola told reporters after the attack that Brent Kandra was like a member of his family and helped out with the animals. He didn't specifically describe Kandra's employment status.
Smith said investigators will be seeking evidence Kandra worked for Mazzola, such as canceled checks, lists of duties or work schedules.
She said the state sought $5,379.78 in unpaid workers' comp premiums when Mazzola filed for bankruptcy last year. After he told the state his business, World Animal Studios, had ceased operations in 2005, the state reduced his bill for outstanding premiums to $27.47.
"If it's found he has been operating a business, despite saying in March 2010 that he had not been in operation since November 2005, BWC will explore both civil and criminal options," she said.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture had revoked Mazzola's license to exhibit animals after animal welfare activists campaigned for him to stop letting people wrestle with another one of his bears.
Mazzola had permits for nine bears for 2010, according to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. The state requires permits for bears but doesn't regulate the ownership of nonnative animals like lions and tigers.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has asked Lorain County prosecutor Dennis Will to pursue reckless-homicide charges against Mazzola. PETA Foundation lawyer Jeffrey Kerr argued in a letter earlier this week that there is ample evidence he was aware of the risks, including that the bear had a history of aggression that Mazzola knew about.