Rough Beasts (Excerpt)

One year after the Zanesville zoo massacre, Charles Siebert re-examines the slaughter of fifty exotic animals on Terry Thompson’s Ohio farm in this excerpt from his new Byliner Original.

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  1. Terry Thompson’s precise time of death has never been established. What is certain is that by the time he had placed the barrel tip of his revolver against the roof of his mouth, he had taken great pains to ensure that the only witnesses to his life’s end would be those he knew would never utter a word about the manner in which he was about to desert them.

    A horse was the first to sense the impending mayhem that Terry unleashed that Tuesday afternoon. Just past 4:30 p.m., Sam Kopchak had wandered up into the field behind his house to walk his maroon-and-white Arabian-pinto mix, Red, to the barn for the night. He’d purchased Red only nine days earlier, the realization of a lifelong dream: to have his own steed for recreational riding. Kopchak told me that Red had been having a bit of trouble getting used to the large number of horses on the Thompsons’ property, but he said that the horse had always been extremely calm and easy to handle. As Kopchak approached him that evening, however, Red bolted.

    “He ran straight for this corner,” Kopchak recalled as we stood with Red just three weeks after Thompson’s death, staring across at seventy or so horses of all types and sizes on the far side of the five-foot post-and-wire fence dividing Kopchak’s land from the Thompsons’. “So I walked up here and looked and saw all those horses going round and round in a big circle, and I’m thinking, This is not normal, and then I looked again, and there in the middle of all the horses was this dark figure, and it was a bear. So I’m thinking, Okay, a bear got out. What else?”

    Kopchak waited until he noticed the bear starting to move in the opposite direction. He then drew Red to him with a bucket of drinking water and took hold of his halter.

    “The strange part about all this now,” he said, “is people ask us, ‘Weren’t you concerned in the past that there were all those animals over there?’ Well, we didn’t know they had that many. We’d hear the roaring every night, and for years I did have the same nightmare of a lion coming across the field and hopping right over the fence into my place. But you can’t live in fear all the time.”

    Kopchak recalled walking Red toward the barn, some one hundred yards away, on the far side of the field. After about five steps, he felt a presence pressing on the air around him, stopped, and looked toward the fence line to his left. There, no more than fifteen feet away, was the African lion of his nightmare, quietly staring at him.

    “I never noticed him on the way to get Red,” Kopchak said. “He must have come up to the fence while I was in the corner. I immediately thought, Okay, you’re not supposed to go faster. So we proceeded to go as briskly but as calmly as we could. When I finally got Red in his stall, he was more excited than he was when we were outside.”

    Kopchak locked the barn door, grabbed his cell phone, and called his mother down at the house. Dolores immediately phoned the Thompsons and got the answering machine. She then dialed 911. Within ten minutes, Sergeant Blake was at the front gate, phoning the Thompsons’ house, even as he dispatched Deputy Jonathan Merry next door to check with Dolores Kopchak about the lion and the bear.

    The massively malicious mousetrap of which Terry Thompson had seemingly made himself the central spring (going so far as to smear chicken blood over his body to lure his “loved ones” closer to him) was already working better than he could have imagined. Had a relative few animals not strayed into Red’s and then Sam Kopchak’s view when they did, John Moore would have arrived before the sheriff’s office even got called, and perhaps could have found a way to peacefully gather the animals he knew so well. Instead, Moore would soon become the forcibly enlisted guide to their slaughter, all so that Terry Thompson could exact his revenge on those he felt had wounded him.

    “Mrs. Kopchak comes to the door,” Deputy Merry recalled as we sat in his patrol car in front of the Kopchaks’ house, retracing the paces of that night. “She says, ‘There’s a lion and a bear loose,’ and I turned my head back toward the road and said, ‘And a wolf!’ I just dropped my clipboard, got back in the cruiser, and took off after it.”

    Standing in a driveway four houses down, Merry, at that time the only officer on the scene with a patrol rifle, was ordered to bring down the wolf before it could disappear into the dense patch of woods nearby. It was the first of the forty-nine animals to be killed that night. Merry next found himself crouched under the porch of Dolores Kopchak’s daughter’s house, face to face with the escaped lioness that he’d followed there.

    “She turned around and showed her teeth at me,” Merry said. “I had no choice. I couldn’t give her another chance to see what her next move might be.”

    Chasing a mountain lion that he had seen squeeze under the Thompsons’ fence, he encountered an African lion in Fred Polk’s driveway and killed it. Upon returning to the Thompsons’ entrance, he saw a black bear run past. It was heading in the direction of the front gate, where he now saw Fred Polk parked in the driveway, sitting in the cab of his pickup.

    “I went to grab my rifle from the seat where you’re sitting,” Merry told me, “but it got caught on this computer console between us. So I got out and started walking toward the truck to check on Mr. Polk. That was my intention. But the bear suddenly turned and came straight at me. It was about twenty feet away. I looked to see if maybe he was trying to go around me, but he wasn’t. I had no choice, sir.”

    ***

    Preview more of Charles Siebert's Rough Beasts.

Originally published in Byliner, October 2012