Zanesville exotic-animal owner Terry Thompson lived and died on the edge
May 14, 2012 9:27 AM
Marian Thompson, widow of Terry Thompson, enters a hearing April 23 in Reynoldsburg, Ohio.
Lisa Marie Miller/The Columbus Dispatch
Marian Thompson, bottom center, kneels at the door of a leopard's cage shortly after the animal was returned to her after being quarantined.
By Liz Navratil Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
ZANESVILLE, OHIO -- Residents in this small, struggling town knew a few things about Terry Thompson for sure: He was once an Eagle Scout. He zipped through town on motorcycles, boats and planes. He was never the same after he returned from fighting in Vietnam. He loved his wife. He spent a year in prison. He had a few exotic cats and a baby bear. Most figured he would come to a bad end one way or another -- through chances he took or by his own design.
And so he did on Oct. 18, when, distraught over the declining state of his farm and the marriage he treasured, he freed most of the 56 animals living on his 76 acres just outside the city line and fired a single bullet into his mouth, killing himself and leaving his body for his animal children to feed upon.
"I described him as a guy that kind of pushed the envelope, a liked-to-live-on-the-edge type of person," Muskingum County Sheriff Matthew Lutz said seven months later, when the media frenzy was finally starting to dwindle and when the few surviving animals had been returned to the farm. "There's a lot of stories out there about the wild things he did. I wouldn't say that he's a legend, but I would say that he's well known."
Always on the line
The world learned about Terry Thompson after his gruesome death, while sheriff's deputies ran around the hillside property for hours shooting lions, tigers and bears. Longtime Zanesville residents learned of him in the 1950s, when his parents moved the family, their horses and a dog to a home on Airport Road on the east side of town, not far from the municipal airport.
"We did a lot of stupid things," said Gary Brock, who befriended Terry as a boy and remained close to him until November 2010, when Thompson went to a federal penitentiary on weapons charges. "Terry was Terry -- he always had something that we were doing -- not breaking the law, but always on the line."
Terry once persuaded Gary to eat poison ivy by telling him that if he ate the toxic plant he'd never get a rash from it again. The day after was miserable, Mr. Brock said, "but he was right."
Terry joined the Boy Scouts and eventually earned his Eagle Scout award. He drove around town in a 1964-1/2 Mustang but was more likely to be spotted in a plane.
"He had his pilot's license before he had his driver's license," said Christine Perone, who dated him for a spell in high school. Terry sometimes buzzed Christine's house with his plane, angering her father, who adored him nonetheless.
A tailback on the football team, Terry "loved girls" and was often surrounded by many of them, Ms. Perone recalled. "He was not unattractive at all. He was fun. He was nice."
But Mr. Brock remembered Terry's attraction to only two girls -- Christine and the woman he would eventually marry -- Marian Sharp.
Marian, now Marian Thompson, and her attorney did not respond to requests for interviews.
Family friends suspect the two met at horse shows, where Marian stood out as an elite equestrian. "I always thought that was the odd thing," Mr. Brock said. "She was the rich girl in town and he was the average guy."
Nevertheless, Ms. Perone said, "they were crazy about each other. You didn't see one without the other."
Never the same after the war
Thompson, like many other men from his generation, would never recover from what was about to happen next. In 1967, shortly after he graduated from high school and shortly after he tried to persuade Mr. Brock not to enter the armed forces, Thompson was drafted. He deployed as a gunner to Vietnam, where he fought near the Cambodian border.
"It was like he never returned," said Fred Polk, who knew Mr. Thompson when he was a boy and lived next to him on Kopchak Road, where Thompson would later build his collection of exotic animals.
Thompson recounted for Mr. Brock fairly frequently that "he had to pick up a lot of his dead friends that had crashed."
Decades later, in secretly taped conversations with a confidential informant the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Thompson frequently talked about the war, using his experience as a way to boast of his gun knowledge but also expressing some veiled remorse for the lives lost.
"This is a 308," he told the informant, whose conversation led to his conviction on gun charges. "So I could have killed you when you came in the front gate. But, of course, I've never killed anyone in civilian life."
Thompson was "different" after he returned from the war, several people said, but few could easily pinpoint how. Even more so than before, Mr. Brock said, "everything kind of went with speed. I think he just had to be on the edge because he was on the edge in Vietnam and he just never got off it."
Around town, people heard rumors that Thompson had once flown beneath the Y-Bridge, the city's claim to fame and a landmark on the National Register of Historic Places. Some said he touched down on golf courses or flew over horse shows. Some said he drove his motorcycles and boats so fast police couldn't catch him. Few people knew whether these stories were true and Thompson seemed to enjoy the mystery.
Asked about the many stories, Thompson "never said he did and never said he didn't" do many of the things attributed to his name, Ms. Perone said.
When Thompson returned from the war, he took a job selling cars in Muskingum County, Mr. Brock said. In 1977, the same year he married Marian, then a sixth-grade teacher, Thompson opened a motorcycle shop called T's Harley Davidson, using his nickname. Years later, sheriff's deputies would jokingly call his farm "T's World" in reference to the rundown business and Thompson's eccentric habits. The couple ran the shop until the early '90s. At some point, they received a license to sell firearms, a license that they eventually returned.
As the years passed, friends and neighbors noticed a change. While the two retained their kind demeanors, "they became unusual," Ms. Perone said.
About 1997, the couple attended an exotic animal auction, where Thompson bought an ailing baby lion for Ms. Thompson as a birthday present.
"Once you have an exotic animal, you're somewhat tagged as someone who will take unwanted or abandoned animals. And that's how it grew," Ms. Thompson testified in court years later.
Sheriff Lutz said his deputies had been called to the property off Interstate 70 between 30 and 35 times since 2005, most frequently for calls that the horses had escaped. They charged Thompson with animal cruelty or a similar offense after a buffalo on the farm died, he said.
"We did not have a lot of issues with the exotics other than people calling and complaining about how they were being kept and how they were being fed," the sheriff said. "And then we would take some state agencies with us out there -- the department of agriculture and the humane society -- we had some veterinarians from the Columbus Zoo ... out there with us, and there were never any animals that were being starved."
The exact contents of the farm remained a mystery to most Zanesville residents, glimpsed only when the Thompsons brought a bear cub or lion cub to the county fair or when Thompson drove around town with one of the exotic cats in the passenger seat of his car.
Neighbors said a bear once chased a girl down the street, but they were not able to confirm whether the animal came from the Thompson farm or elsewhere. Thompson told Mr. Brock he and his wife slept with a leopard until it grew too big.
Neighbors heard the lions roaring at night. Mr. Polk said he slept with several loaded guns in his house, worried that the worst would happen.
Oct. 18, 2011
It was luck, neighbor Sam Kopchak said, that he had bought a Pinto-Arabian named Red nine days before the release -- a horse that would know before any human that something was amiss on the Thompson farm.
Mr. Kopchak had slowly been introducing Red to the pasture behind his home and went to check on the horse shortly before 5 p.m. Mr. Kopchak spotted a bear running up the side of the Thompson farm and realized that one of the animals had gotten loose.
"I never really thought of the animals to tell you the truth," he said. He thought to call the Thompsons, as he and his mother had done the other times an animal had escaped.
Moments later, "I just felt like something was looking at me." He turned around and spotted an African lion sitting yards away, just on the other side of a wire fence meant to keep back only the horses.
"He's not gonna get me and he's not gonna get my horse," Mr. Kopchak thought, steering his horse back toward the barn where he took shelter, listening as the deputies later shot animal after animal in an action he described as heroic.
Mr. Kopchak picked up his cell phone and called his 84-year-old mother, Dolores, who calmly called first the Thompsons -- to no avail -- and then 911.
What happened next was "like a dream state," said Dolores Kopchak, who remained alone in their home while much of the action unfolded.
Moments after Ms. Kopchak called 911, Deputy Jonathan Merry knocked on her door. As she opened the door, a gray wolf charged toward Deputy Merry, who shot it dead not far from her front door. Around them, two black bears, a Bengal Tiger and an African lioness roamed about -- the first of dozens of animals to stray from their broken or opened enclosures.
The sergeant in charge, Steven Blake, contacted his captain, Jeff LeCocq, who in turn called Sheriff Lutz, who had just finished eating supper at his home in the nearby town of Philo.
Sheriff Lutz agreed to come to the farm. When he learned that dozens of animals were loose, he gave the order to kill.
"Everybody says that it had to be a hard decision, but it really wasn't for me. I knew from being there what kind of animals he had and I knew what those animals could do," the sheriff said.
The frenzy began. For nearly seven hours, many in the rain, deputies, Special Response Team members and other officials tried to hunt the animals.
Up a hill in the center of the property, not far from some animal cages and the family home, deputies stumbled upon a body. Blood marks in the dirt suggested it had been dragged. The head had a bullet wound and bite marks from a cat. The pants were down and the genitals were missing. Blue bolt cutters and a Ruger .357-caliber revolver sat feet away. Chicken parts were strewn about the nearby driveway. Gunshot residue covered parts of the left hand, a sign, authorities said later, of a suicide.
"Terry was kind of cocky when he would go in and open the pens up in front of you and feed the animals. I just thought at some point that one of the animals would maul him or kill him kind of by accident," the sheriff later said.
But detectives would learn that Thompson's death was likely well planned. Thompson had been out of federal custody on weapons charges for three weeks when he cut the cages and killed himself.
His federal probation officer, Joe Moore, told detectives later that Thompson was "overwhelmed" by the condition of the farm when he returned and worried about how he would bring it back up to his standards while on electronic monitoring. The couple owed more than $12,000 in taxes on the property (a foreclosure notice has since been filed by the county).
John Moore, who had been hired to care for the animals six days a week, told officials that Ms. Thompson had not been living at the home since April or May that year, when she left to show horses at state and county fairs. He said Ms. Thompson frequently sent him money and stopped by the farm two or three times a week.
The day before his death, Thompson told the caretaker that he "had gotten a letter about Marian cheating on him while he was away," according to a report from the sheriff's office. He then said, "I have a plan to find out and you will know it when it happens."
Retrieving Thompson's body was no easy task. A large tiger guarded it for several hours and deputies had to fight off other animals before they could safely approach.
While trying to secure the area, a team of deputies searched some nearby lions' cages, and Drake Prouty, an unarmed auxiliary deputy, reached inside each cage and closed the doors in what fellow deputy Anthony Angelo called an "unselfish courageous" act.
But the chain-link cages had been cut so the animals could escape despite the closed doors, so the deputies had to shoot some of the lions.
The action dwindled shortly before midnight, when Sheriff Lutz sent many of his men home. Several returned the next day to clean up the animal carcasses, which were later buried on the property. That morning, with help from a zoo worker, they tried to save a hiding tiger by tranquilizing it, but the tiger "jolted" and a deputy shot it for fear it would kill the zoo worker.
Six animals -- three big cats, two monkeys and a bear -- survived the release either because Thompson didn't set them free or because sheriff's deputies were able to contain them.
State officials ordered that they should be placed under quarantine for six months, the time needed to spot signs of rabies in living animals. They were taken to the Columbus Zoo, where one, a leopard-jaguar mix, was euthanized after a cage door fell on its neck, leaving it with irreversible damage.
Ms. Thompson retrieved her animals and returned them to the farm a little more than a week ago.
Sheriff Lutz said authorities might never know why Thompson chose to set his animals free before killing himself.
For Mr. Brock, that answer is clear: "He said he'd feed himself to the animals if he knew he was dying. He told me that at least three times."