By now you’ve probably heard the story: In October 2011, a suicidal man named Terry Thompson uncaged dozens of wild animals that he kept on his farm in Zanesville, Ohio, and then shot himself. The sheriff’s department spent a tense night tracking down the animals, killing all that they could find. Of all the inevitable narratives, one stood out for its voice and artful dramatic tension. Chris Jones’ “Animals” focused on the surreal hunt and on the unthinkable situation the sheriff and his deputies faced in the field as night fell and lions and tigers ran free. Jones, a two-time National Magazine Award-winning writer for Esquire, and a friend of Storyboard, kindly answered our many questions about how he reported and wrote the piece. Discussed: mortality, competition, Doritos, criminal trespass, sectional kickers and Truman Capote’s scarf. Bonus: You get to read his original ending. You’ll find the Jones answers in red, Storyboard’s in blue. Some questions to start:
Storyboard: You’ve talked about some of this before, so we’ll try not to be repetitive, but how did you decide to do this story and how did you sell it?
Jones: It was just one of those stories that stuck with me. I think because so much crazy stuff happens these days, or because we hear about it more than we once did, and so instantaneously, we sometimes move past compelling stories quickly and without taking more than a moment to say HOLY SHIT THAT’S CRAZY. This was one of those stories for me: dozens of tigers and lions and bears and wolves running around a farm outside Zanesville, Ohio. That’s unbelievable. But it takes us no time to move on to the next insanity. If I can, I’d like to give myself a little credit here: I don’t forget when crazy happens. This story stayed with me, right in the front of my brain. A few weeks after it happened, I called my editor, Peter, and suggested we try to do the definitive story on it. I pitched it pretty simply: “You’re a small-town Ohio deputy, walking through the woods in the rain, looking for tigers.” Peter didn’t say yes right away. I’d say it was a week or two later when he called me and said, You know, maybe we should do Zanesville. If I had to guess, it had stuck in him, too. It just had such a good chance to be bat shit.
Why did it interest you personally?
I’ve always been drawn to stories about death. If you look back at my bigger features, a lot of them deal with mortality in some way. I’ve also had a long-time thing for animal stories – I loved The Grey, for instance – but with less chance to write them. The story that I didn’t do that bothers me the most was a story about animals. (I won’t go into it, because I still hope to write it someday.) Zanesville was my chance to write the story that I didn’t do. It was a way to fill the hole in my head.
This story, by now, has been served four ways: Chris Heath wrote it for GQ with a slightly larger scope and more focus on zoo owner Terry Thompson; Cincinnati magazine’s Jonah Ogles also kept the focus on Thompson and told the story in present tense; Charles Siebert wrote a Byliner Original calling into question the authorities’ handling of the situation. How did you decide to drill down to a tight tick-tock on the hunt itself?
To be honest, I never thought about it any other way. Well, when I found out that Chris Heath was there (we’ll get into this more, I see), I thought about whether I should change my strategy, because it seemed to me like the most obvious approach. That’s not to take anything away from the other guys and how they wrote the story. But from the beginning I saw “Animals” as a procedural. For me, it was always just a story about what happened that night on that farm.
You and Heath were in Zanesville at the same time, right? Competing for the same story? How’d you find out he was there? Did he ever know you were there? What effect did that have on you, knowing another writer – for your main competition, no less – was there?
Yes, we arrived in town the same day. I found out from Sheriff Lutz. I had an interview with him at one o’clock on a Monday afternoon. It went really well and at the end, I said something like, “It would be awesome if you didn’t talk to anybody else about this anymore”—I said it with a smile, trying to make it seem like a joke, but I meant it. And he said that he had one more interview at three o’clock and then he was done. “As long as it’s not GQ,” I said, and he just got a look on his face. I have this moment on tape: I asked him four times if he was serious. I thought he was fucking with me. But he was not. I asked him not to tell GQ I was there (I didn’t know it was Chris Heath at this point), ran down some back stairs, took my other interviews for that day to another building and then called Peter from the parking lot and asked him what we should do. At that point, you either give up or you try to win. We decided to try to win. I did go through a few sleepless nights (I was fighting pneumonia too), trying to think if I should go at it some other way, and I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what he was doing. (I don’t know if Chris knew I was there; he has said that he did, but I don’t know how he would have found out. Not that long ago, someone wanted to write an e-book about that week in Zanesville, but Chris declined to participate, which bummed me out. I’d like to know his side of the story.) After I found out that it was Chris—and how I found that out is a secret—I figured out that we were at the same hotel and I got friendly with the front-desk clerk, and she told me where he was going, when he’d ask for directions, and I knew some of the places he was visiting and that he wasn’t talking to that many cops. A couple of the essential guys, in my mind, both said they hadn’t and wouldn’t talk to him, and that made me feel better. (I’ll tell you how frenzied I was. Midweek, my truck was broken into in the hotel parking lot; my camera and phone were stolen, but they left my far more valuable Canadian jujubes and passport. They took only the tools of my profession. That night I was convinced: IT WAS CHRIS HEATH.) I couldn’t figure out what story he was doing, exactly, because he was covering a lot of different ground, but I figured it wasn’t a procedural, or at least it wasn’t going to be anymore. I thought I’d done what I could to close that door to him. I’ve admitted that before, and people have been upset by that admission, but what the hell do they think journalism is, at least at this level? Some kind of pageant? You want a participation pin? Give your head a shake. My boss is paying me good money to write the best story, and I want to keep him happy so that I can do more stories and get paid more money. I’m not slashing anybody’s tires, but I’m not giving them a copy of the treasure map, either. Maybe that makes me a bad person, but I don’t much care if it does. I care about getting the best story. At that point, coughing up my lungs in rain-soaked Zanesville, it was all I cared about. I was fucking lit.
How did the overt competition affect your reporting and writing?
The biggest effect was time. We moved the story up from the April issue to the March issue, which really put some pressure on. Normally I’d take quite a long time with a story like this one. I spent a week on the ground reporting and another week writing. That’s fast by our standards. Very fast for a 10,000-word story.
Every story makes different reporting and writing demands. Other than the competition factor, what were the challenges particular to this piece and how did you handle them?
I think a lot of the cops were wary of an outside reporter coming in – for all they knew, I was from New York, Truman Capote with his scarf coming to Kansas. So I had to spend some time explaining to them who I was and what kind of story I wanted to do. I’m from a small town, and I still live in a small town, and I wear plaid shirts without irony, and I think they figured out that I wasn’t slick, that I wasn’t the journalist they saw in their heads. I would have liked more time to get to know them before we did our interviews, but the police were all very generous with me. I liked all those guys quite a lot. I think they’re good men, and I like to think that they thought I was one, too. Of course, they had a different view of me than, say, Chris Heath did.
How have your writing habits developed or changed since you wrote this piece? You used to write with the companionship of late-night Cokes and Doritos — and then you went clean. Describe that decision and its impact on your writing. And is that still the case or are you back on the Cool Ranch?
Ha, yeah. No, still clean, outside of the occasional Diet Dr Pepper. I still write almost exclusively at night, when the house is quiet, but I’ve quit the fat and sugar fuel. I hate myself for saying this, but now I usually go for a run after dinner, thinking about what I’m going to write, and the brain-drug rush that gives me has replaced the crap. Paige, I’ve lost 45 pounds pretty much by not eating chips and pop when I write and running. Those are the only changes I’ve made. It kind of had to happen. I was starting to look like an IT guy. I’m not going to hand a story or even my job to someone else just because I ran out of breath during the chase. They’re going to have to beat me for it.
By Chris Jones
The horses knew first. Terry Thompson kept dozens of them on his farm just west of Zanesville, Ohio, a suffering river town and the seat of Muskingum County. Most of the living things in Zanesville had been born in Zanesville, or in the county at least; Thompson was one of the few importers. He had a particular eye for the unwanted. His horses weren’t pretty animals except that they were horses: worn-out chestnuts, muddy grays, a semihandsome paint named Joe. There was even a donkey and a fat little pit pony in the mix, and now they were together in the pasture, more tightly packed than usual, running in a wide circle. They were rolling almost, the bunch of them moving slowly at first and now finding their old legs, picking up speed like starlings, like the bands of a hurricane. Poetic opening, full of tension and interesting words/imagery – Muskingum, chestnuts, paint, pasture, starlings, hurricane. How and when did you know that this would be your lede? Are openings easy for you? How do you usually arrive at them? I talked to Sam Kopchak on my second day in Zanesville, and I was looking over his fence at those very same horses when he described what they were doing that night, and I came straight back to the hotel and wrote this. I can remember writing it very clearly. It didn’t change except for maybe a word or two, and it was always the lede. I’m more of an endings guy than an openings guy – I rarely write the opening first, in fact – but here, it just poured out and it felt good. I’m not super mystical about this stuff – I don’t believe in muses or divine inspiration; I believe in work – but that was just one of those nights when the right words fell out. That’s probably my favorite first paragraph I’ve written, but I couldn’t tell you why I wrote it that way. If it was a choice, it was only semiconscious. I just did it.
A neighbor, a sixty-four-year-old retired schoolteacher named Sam Kopchak, first saw Thompson’s horses sprinting around their hilly pasture, just on the other side of the wire fence that ran between their properties. Kopchak was on his way up the slope from the little white house he shares with his eighty-four-year-old mother, Dolores, to retrieve his own horse, a pinto named Red, from his small field out back. It was fifteen or twenty minutes before five o’clock, two hours before dark, and Kopchak wanted to bring Red into his barn for the night. He was a new horse owner, and Red was his only horse — that late Tuesday afternoon, October 18, 2011, marked only their ninth day of shared company — but he knew enough about horses to know that they don’t normally run in circles, not by the dozens, around and around. You create something of a linguistic canter here, and I can’t help thinking of your regard for “Death of a Racehorse.” Channeling? Also: Rhythm – an ear for language, and for the mathematics of sentence building, kind of – is so important to good writing. Why? And do you believe that skill is innate or learned, or both? Can writers learn to “hear,” and if so, how? I’m always trying to channel W.C. Heinz, but writing about horses invokes a kind of language pretty naturally, the way fishing or driving through the desert does. Rhythm is another one of those things that’s hard to explain. I definitely hear sentences … I read them back to myself a bunch and they have to sound right. They also have to sit right for me – they have to look right, as physical objects, on the page. (I’m starting to sound mental here, but I believe in honesty about these things.) It’s impossible to talk about talent without sounding arrogant, but I will say that whatever skill I possess is both innate and learned. I was into reading and writing from a very young age, something in me was drawn to words almost immediately, but I also still read a lot and try to drum out the rhythm of sentences or paragraphs that other writers have written and that I’ve liked. So I would say that yes, you can learn to hear, or at least learn to hear better, but I’m not sure you can take someone who’s tone-deaf and make him into a composer. There is probably a limit to the progressions that study will give you – except now you’re making me sound as though I’m saying that I have a gift, and I resent you for that. I’m not saying that. What I’m saying is that great writers have a gift. I’m a pretty workmanlike writer, I’d say, at least compared to colleagues of mine like Tom Junod or Charlie Pierce, true lyrical geniuses. I would say that I’m someone who’s worked hard to be better than I might have been. I like to think that I represent hope for aspirants, unless we’re working the same story, in which case I want them to look at me and see doom. There was a bad storm blowing in, but bad storms had blown into Zanesville before, and the horses had never torn after one another like that, kicking up the earth.
Kopchak was distracted from the horses when the grass moved nearby. He caught sight of a cat just then, a wildish male tabby named Klinger that had suddenly jumped out of the trees. Klinger hadn’t made an appearance in months, and Kopchak called out to him, thinking he’d dish him out some food. Instead Klinger ran away, disappearing back into the brush, and now Red spooked, too, bolting in the opposite direction, toward the far corner of the field, maybe 150 yards from the barn, as close as he could get to Thompson’s charging horses without going over the fence.
There, Red began to pace. Kopchak went into the barn and fetched a green plastic bucket that he filled with water, which he thought he might use to draw Red away from the commotion. A quality of your story that stands out: strong verbs throughout. Yours are overwhelmingly active, which gives the story more urgency and keeps the action moving. Talk about the importance of verbs for a second. You pretty much nailed it. I wanted this story to feel relentless, almost breathless. Lots of short, strong, active sentences, built of short, strong, active words. Norman Mailer’s “The Fight” taught me that. In the middle of his long walk up, Kopchak saw a black shape that was different from the others, different from all those panicked horses. At first he saw just its humped back beyond the crest of a hill. But then he saw the rest of it, and now Kopchak knew what the horses knew. He saw what was unmistakably a bear, giving chase.
He knew that Thompson kept animals other than horses. Everybody in Zanesville did. The farm was a local legend, T’s Wild Kingdom, an almost mythical place where, people swore, giraffes sometimes appeared in the fields, where camels had broken loose and darted onto I-70, running along the north side of Thompson’s seventy-three-acre spread. Everybody knew that Thompson kept more dangerous animals, too: lions and mountain lions, grizzlies and black bears, leopards and tigers and wolves. Many had been purchased at auctions over the years. Others were “rescues” whose former owners could no longer handle; some may have been illegally bred on the farm itself. They were packed into dozens of outdoor pens, lined up on either side of the long, sweeping driveway close to the house, set back from Kopchak Road. (Sam and Dolores are part of a long-established local family.) From the top of his field, Sam Kopchak could see the pens, and when the light was right, he could see movement up there. At night he could hear lions roaring through the trees. Neighboring farmers sometimes donated whole dead livestock to feed them. Thompson had been seen picking deer carcasses off the roads and dragging them up toward the pens, or he’d fill his white van with discarded chicken parts from nearby slaughterhouses. Your story differs from the others in that you don’t go into much detail on Terry Thompson and his troubled background, or on the history of T’s Wild Kingdom. How did you arrive at that choice? Truthfully? I didn’t have it. Chris Heath definitely did a better job on Terry than I did. He knew him better. I could never get a handle on him, at least not to my satisfaction. Terry in Zanesville is kind of like an unknowable myth. I was told stuff that I didn’t believe. I was told other stuff that was at least hard to believe. So for me Terry became nothing more than a fuse. We’ll never know him, and we’ll never know why he did what he did – I have my guesses, but they will only ever be guesses, because the one man who knows put a bullet in his head – so let’s start as deep into the story as we can: The animals are out. Now what? That’s a screenwriting trick, by the way. Start the story as close to the end of it as you can while still giving yourself a story to tell.
Kopchak kept his eyes on the bear, which continued to run through the fields. After he’d managed to corral Red, he would call Thompson, the way he had many times before, usually to come get his pit pony after it had pushed through the fence. The bear was an unusual sight, but it wasn’t, by itself, of any particular concern to Kopchak. He had once seen Thompson driving down the road with a bear cub on his chest. Thompson had stopped, rolled down his window, and asked Kopchak if he’d like to pet the bear; when Kopchak blanched, Thompson was upset. “People don’t understand animals,” he said, and Kopchak was never certain whether Thompson was talking about him or about the world at large.
Now he approached Red, reaching out with his bucket of water, calling to him gently. Red nosed in for a drink, and Kopchak got a rope on him. He put down the bucket and began to lead his horse back toward the barn. He’d covered maybe twenty or thirty yards, Red bouncing a little, pulling at his rope, when Kopchak suddenly felt a shiver go over him. “I can’t really explain it,” he says today, “except to say that I felt like I was being watched.” He looked back toward Thompson’s band of horses; the bear was pushing them north, toward the highway. Then Kopchak saw the lion.
It was a male African lion, with a great golden mane. “It was just enormous,” Kopchak says. The lion was to his left, feet rather than yards away, pressed against that thin wire fence. It was lying flat on the grass with only its giant head lifted up, and it had been watching Kopchak walking down the hill. The lion was looking dead at him. Kopchak let out a breath and fixed his eyes straight on his barn, still more than a hundred yards away. He made two decisions: He would not run, and he would not leave Red. He would walk, as calmly and as steadily as a sixty-four-year-old retired schoolteacher being watched by a lion could manage, all the way back down to his barn.
Kopchak looked back only once, and the lion returned his stare. It had also risen to its feet. The fence had seven strands of wire strung between its wooden posts; the lion’s back ran parallel to the second strand from the top. Kopchak continued to walk down the hill. Each push into the mud felt slower than the last. Finally, he opened the barn’s big sliding doors and stepped inside with Red in tow; he closed the doors with a clang and felt his shoulders slump a little. He put Red into his stall, and he reached into his pocket for his cell phone. Reception wasn’t good. He stood in a corner of the barn closest to the house, and he called his mother. He told her that he was inside the barn, and that there was a bear and a lion outside the barn, and she needed to stay inside the house. She also needed to make a phone call.
First, Dolores Kopchak called Terry Thompson, because she thought he was the closest help. An answering machine picked up. Next she called 911.
In the basement of the county jail in downtown Zanesville, two women sat with headsets over their ears Great details (plus the lighting, the water stains, etc.). Did you visit the dispatchers’ office expressly to collect detail so that you could use it in the unfolding narrative? You know, it was one of the cops who suggested I talk to the dispatchers, and I’m glad he did. They play a small but important role in the story. They’re the canaries in the coal mine. and computer screens in front of them. Fluorescent lights buzzed; there were brown water stains on the ceiling. At precisely five o’clock, one of their phones rang. The tension to this point has been building, building. You kept it tight and seeded the scene with small turning points: “Then Kopchak saw the lion” and “Finally, he opened the barn’s big sliding doors…” How do you generally build tension? There is practical advice here, such as the importance of section breaks and cliffhangers, but you guys at Nieman recently had a great piece by Paul Kix about John Jeremiah Sullivan and this very topic that said everything there is to say about it. Hang on, let me look it up. Okay, here’s the quote from Sullivan: A fundamental law of storytelling is: withhold information. As the writer Paul Metcalf put it, “The only real work in creative endeavor is to keep things from falling together too soon.” I love that line. That’s a great way to think about it. If narrative writers were baseball players, we’d be set-up men. We’d be long relievers.
“Yes, this is Mrs. Kopchak on Kopchak Road. We live next to Terry Thompson and there’s a bear and a lion out.”
“There’s a bear and a lion out?”
“Yeah — right, right up behind us.”
“What’s your name?”
“What’s your first name, ma’am?”
“And it’s behind your house?
“Is it behind your house?”
There was no reply.
“Is it behind your house?”
“Yes, it’s up … They’re chasing Terry’s horses.” Had the tapes been made public at that point or did you have to push for them? What other records-based reporting did you do for this story? Tapes were public. I read all the police reports from the cops on the scene that night, too. Autopsy report on Terry Thompson. But mostly I relied on first-hand accounts, on my interviews. Reports give good background, but they don’t really go into things like smells or feelings.
Later, after Zanesville, Ohio, had become famous and the tape of that 911 call was released and listened to by people around the world, a lot was made about how calm both Dolores Kopchak and the dispatcher had sounded.
The dispatcher was calm because she’s a professional emergency dispatcher and because calls about Terry Thompson weren’t out of the ordinary; this would mark the Muskingum County Sheriff Office’s thirty-sixth visit to his farm. How did this detail emerge? Sheriff Lutz, I think, gave me that. From that first interview, he was talking about how often they’d been out of the farm, that it had always been a problem.
Dolores Kopchak was calm because even little old ladies can find courage at opportune times. Her only failing that afternoon was she didn’t tell anyone that her son Sam was trapped up in the barn.
With this cliffhanger you’ve left us thinking Sam will be attacked. Sectional cliffhangers are so important in narrative and yours are great. Including this one, they are:
- Not far up First Hill, he also saw a tiger take the bear’s place, chasing down the horses.
- Now she and Beetem remembered all those animals packed into their cages, and they knew that they didn’t have enough time or tranquilizers to stop what was coming.
- Sheriff Lutz made a decision.
- And then it got dark.
- The tiger fell back into the grass.
- It was only after Lawhorne had hopped up into it that he felt a lump behind his lip and spat out his bone-dry plug.
- From that vantage point, Jack Hanna would remember later, it looked as though Noah’s Ark had run aground and wrecked in central Ohio.
- Lawhorne raised his M4 to his shoulder, and he pulled the trigger, and the last Zanesville tiger finally fell, the sound of the bullets echoing between the trees.
How do you approach them? Section breaks, or even paragraph breaks, are like little beginnings and endings. You want the reader to want to jump over that little hurdle of white space you’ve given them. So I think of them as little payoffs, each of which helps lead to the grand payoff, which is the very end. A former editor of mine called them “cookies,” like a trail of breadcrumbs. That makes them sound like cynical equipment, like a trick, but for me they’re very important. I put a lot of thought into the beginnings and endings of sections. Screw them up, and you’re going to lose a reader; nail them, and you’ve dug your hooks in deeper. They’re like those moments in life, those pivots when everything changes.
Sergeant Steve Blake sat in the front seat of his cruiser and took his first sip from a fresh cup of take-out coffee. He was fifty-nine years old, stocky, with tightly cropped silver hair. In his black uniform, he looked like a lifelong police officer, the supervisor of the Muskingum County Sheriff Office’s afternoon shift, a six-man patrol. Out of his uniform, when he pulled on a plaid shirt and suspenders, he looked more like a kind and gentle man, born of the country. The younger guys could crack on him because he acted and spoke slowly, with a thick Appalachian accent. But they also knew Blake had lasted so long for good reason.
Blake was parked near downtown Zanesville, sipping his coffee, when his radio crackled shortly after five o’clock, two hours into just another shift. “I had no idea that was going to be one of the worst calls of my life,” he says. This is interesting because he’s talking to you in the present day, while you started the section in-scene, with action. Why use retrospective quotes and risk breaking the spell? This is a good point, Paige. I’m not sure I have a good answer. I thought that quote had some foreboding in it, but reading it now, if I cut it, I’m not sure I lose anything there. I kind of hate you a little bit right now. Don’t hate the player; hate the game He flicked on his lights and sirens. Maybe ten minutes after five he was at the start of Thompson’s driveway, where the fence narrowed into a pipe gate, still locked in place. Deputy Jonathan Merry, an open-faced twenty-five-year-old, arrived only a minute or two after him. They stood at the bottom of the driveway and saw the bear, now circling down by the gate. The lion was farther up and to their right. Blake told Merry to go to the Kopchak house, the second house down the road, and take a statement from Dolores Kopchak. She might help them form a clearer picture of what they now faced, and clarity was important in a situation like this. He also told Merry that if the bear or the lion pushed its way through the fence, he should shoot it.
Sam Kopchak could see across to the bottom of the driveway from the little window in the door to his tack room, tucked away in a corner of his barn. He saw the officers talking to each other and thought, They’re going to need more than two.
Blake intended to drive up to the house and try to raise Terry Thompson. He’d asked dispatch to call him, but they’d heard the same answering-machine message that Dolores Kopchak had. Before heading up, Blake called his captain, Jeff LeCocq, to let him know that there were animals out again at the Thompson farm. “I knew this was something more than what we’d had before,” Blake says, “but I’m still thinking it’s manageable.” LeCocq thought it was worth raising the sheriff, a square-shouldered forty-three-year-old man named Matt Lutz. Both LeCocq and Lutz had knocked off for the day and had to pull their uniforms back on before they headed to the farm. It was a quarter past five. Lutz was twenty or so minutes away. LeCocq was more like thirty.
Merry knocked on the door at the Kopchak house, and Dolores Kopchak answered. He pulled out his notepad, but before he managed to finish his first question — “Ma’am, I understand you saw a bear and a lion…” — he saw a gray wolf run down the middle of Kopchak Road. It was headed south, away from the highway, toward the collection of houses and mobile homes that dot the surrounding hills. Merry dropped his notepad on the Kopchaks’ front step and ran to his cruiser, where he had a Smith & Wesson assault rifle in the trunk. Blake saw Merry’s cruiser chasing off down the road, and he heard Merry shouting about the wolf on the radio. Blake again gave the order to shoot.
The wolf ran down the road several hundred yards before spinning right, to the west, up a gravel spur. Merry pulled out his rifle and gave chase on foot. The wolf was putting distance on him, seventy or eighty yards, now running through a hayfield at the top of a rise. At one point, Merry lost sight of the wolf altogether before he found it again, loping through the hay. He raised his rifle, found the wolf in his scope, tried to stop his lungs from heaving, and squeezed the trigger. He saw the wolf fall, and he ran up to it to make sure it was dead. Hay was broken underneath it. Just curious: Why were they so freaked out about a wolf? Seems like the lion would’ve been a bigger concern. I’m not sure they were freaked out because it was a wolf, but because it was the first animal to leave the farm. I think they felt like their job was containment, and if even one animal made good on its escape, they had failed, had left an opening for something worse to happen.
Merry ran back to his cruiser, throwing the rifle onto his passenger seat. He pulled out of the spur and raced north on Kopchak Road.
Fred Polk, whose own farm runs the length of the south side of the Thompson place, had seen the lights and heard the sirens and, along with one of his farmhands, had beaten Merry to the bottom of the driveway. They helped knock the pipe gate off its hinges, and Blake climbed back into his cruiser. He drove up to the house alone.
The driveway starts out relatively straight, rising over what’s known locally as First Hill. The horses usually feed to the right. To the left, there are scores of junked cars. There’s a yellow Volkswagen bug, a turquoise Ford Mustang, a pair of Studebakers rusted almost beyond recognition. There’s a horse trailer, and there are at least three boats sunk into the field, moored against solitary trees. Just beyond the cars, there are fuller woods, running down a steep slope to the shoulder of I-70. Farther up the driveway there’s the first barn, a newer metal building. Then the driveway begins to swing to the right, up Second Hill. At that corner there’s another barn, wooden, collapsing. There are also more abandoned cars and an old Winnebago, stripped of its roof. And then there are the pens, lined up on either side of the driveway. By the time Blake found himself rolling between those pens, he saw animals scattering to all corners — lions, tigers, bears — bolting out through doors that were swinging wide open. Oh, boy, he thought. This is bad. How did you approach the interviews for this piece? Sit down with these guys one by one? Interview them all together? And what were your tools? Tape recorder? Notebook? We always like to ask. They were all one-on-ones. I don’t think you want to interview subjects in a story like this together. Again, these were all very good guys, very generous with me, but I think the interviews probably change if they’re together. Cops, you know? They might be reluctant to be as vulnerable as they were, to admit the problems that they had, the ghosts they still saw. I think you’d risk more bravado in a group situation and less actual reflection. You want to help your subject be as honest as they can be, and I think one-on-one is probably the best bet. I record all my sit-down interviews, but I also have a pen and notebook going. I probably don’t need to, really, but it’s a habit, and you can use your notebook as a kind of psychological instrument, although it will sound creepy if I try to explain it.
Down below, it was already approaching worse. After he had shot the wolf, Merry heard dispatch radio that a lion had broken out through the fence. By the time he got back to the bottom of the Thompson driveway — it was still only about twenty-five minutes past five — he saw another deputy and an Ohio State Highway Patrol officer sprinting along the road. Merry tried to pull out his rifle, but its magazine was snagged in the wires of his dashboard computer. He jumped out of his cruiser without it. He had been out of his car for only a few seconds when he realized his mistake. The black bear that had been chasing the horses now set its sights on him. The bear charged at Merry through the opening where the gates had been. Merry pulled his sidearm — a pistol, a .40-caliber Glock — out of its holster, leveled it at the bear, and fired a single shot. “I was very fortunate,” Merry says. The bear went down in a heap, dead from a bullet to its head, seven feet from where Merry was standing.
By now Blake had reached the Thompson house, a large, brown-brick home that had formerly belonged to a doctor, with a decaying swimming pool out back. Once, it had been beautiful, but now it had been given over mostly to the animals. Blake laid heavily on his horn. No one came to the door, and Blake, with tigers standing a few feet away, decided not to get out of his car. He turned around, drove back down the driveway, and saw Merry standing over the dead bear, curled up by the road.
Merry was upset. “Sarge, I didn’t have any choice,” he said.
“You did what I told you to do,” Blake said. “It’s on me. I gave the order.”
Sam Kopchak, ducking down in his tack room, had heard the single pistol shot. Now he looked out his window and saw the two men, one older, one younger, in their black uniforms, leaning into each other. Not far up First Hill, he also saw a tiger take the bear’s place, chasing down the horses. You could have ended this section with “I gave the order,” but that would’ve been a dead end. By returning to Kopchak and what he saw, you push the story forward by leaving a question hanging in the air: “What’s going to happen to the horses?” You’ve got several perspectives going here: Blake’s, Merry’s, Kopchak’s – how did you keep them all straight so that you could then interweave them and arrive, in this case, at a stronger sectional kicker? It was a bit tricky, jumping between the folks here. But in the words of David Simon, I’m not writing for the lowest common denominator. It took me a while to trust that most readers are smart and will get what you’re doing. Those who don’t, well, you can’t write dumb just to appease them. I don’t think reading should be some test of will, some feat of strength, but I don’t think readers need to be coddled, either. There are three characters here. I feel like readers can handle that. I liked ending on Sam because, for me, he’s our stand-in, the observer rather than the participant. He’s like the ground wire in a lot of ways. He’s the guy saying, “You’re going to need a bigger boat.”
Back in the basement of the jail, Joleen Kinsel, one of the emergency dispatchers, heard a deputy shout “99 Traffic” over his radio, and she felt her heart go thump. 99 Traffic meant that the radios needed to be kept clear.
Sheriff Lutz was among those racing to the scene in his cruiser, juggling his phone and his radio. It was approaching half past five. “I don’t know that I could tell you everything that I was thinking,” he says. Lutz was elected to his post in 2008, after serving the Muskingum County Sheriff’s Office in virtually every capacity since he was a boy. His dad, Mike Lutz, had also been a police officer; he was killed after interrupting a burglary in South Zanesville in 1994. After he learned of his father’s murder in a phone call, Matt Lutz, who was only a deputy at the time, had taken a few months off to recover, to decide what to do with the rest of his own life. He finally returned to uniform. “I just thought it was the right thing to do,” he says. “I thought my dad would have wanted me to stay on.”
Lutz had tried for years to strip Thompson of his personal zoo, but the one animal-cruelty charge the department managed to make stick — concerning the fate of some starved cows and a buffalo — hadn’t had the desired effect. The truth was that Thompson was doing nothing illegal, at least not according to the laws of Ohio. So long as he wasn’t charging admission, he could have all the animals he wanted, virtually unregulated. But Thompson was less fortunate in his handling of another of his hoards, an arsenal of more than one hundred guns. With the assistance of the ATF, Lutz had seen Thompson charged with the possession of illegal firearms after a sting had found some with their serial numbers carefully filed off. On that Tuesday afternoon Thompson was only two weeks removed from prison, having just finished serving his sentence, one year plus a day. His return to Zanesville had been noted by a lot of people, including Lutz; Sam Kopchak had seen him on his tractor only the previous afternoon, trying to return his life and his farm to something like order. Thompson’s wife, Marian, had left him in the year he was locked away — he was certain for another man — and volunteer caretakers had struggled to keep up with the load. His guns were gone; his finances were a mess; he still had all these hungry animals to feed. Everything was falling apart. Only three days earlier two deputies had made a prediction to each other: Terry Thompson had been backed into a corner, and something bad was going to happen on the farm. This is a deft compression of time. Did you feel compelled to reveal more about Thompson and his criminal background and problems? Again, not really. These were the facts I had cold; the other stuff was speculation. And like your point about retrospective quotes, too much backstory risked killing the momentum, especially at this point. (Backstory is an interesting subject all on its own. I think a lot of narrative suffers from having too much of it.) A little breath-catching is okay, and maybe even necessary, but I didn’t want readers to find themselves at any point leaning back and taking their feet off the floor.
At first, Lutz thought that what he had always feared had come true: Thompson had been mauled by his animals and a couple of them were out. But now he heard over the radio in his cruiser that there were more than two animals loose, and he didn’t know what to think. Lutz ordered that word go out immediately: Local residents needed to stay indoors; motorists needed to stay in their vehicles. Soon after, electric warning signs began to flash beside I-70: CAUTION EXOTIC ANIMALS. Lutz then ran through a mental list of his department’s best shots. He called in Detective Sergeant Todd Kanavel, the forty-nine-year-old head of his narcotics division, a tall, huge-handed hunter with an assault rifle in the back of his Chevy Silverado. He also wanted a pair of deputies, Tony Angelo and Jay Lawhorne, former Marines who had served together in the same platoon and now were members of Lutz’s SWAT team. Angelo had an especially dead eye. He also had a .308-caliber rifle. Last, Lutz asked Joleen Kinsel to call the Wilds, a ten-thousand-acre animal conservation and research facility about twenty miles outside of town: He needed tranquilizers. But Kinsel had already made the call, as soon as she’d heard “99 Traffic.”
First, she had tried to reach Dan Beetem, the preserve’s director of animal management. At that moment, Beetem was in the polar-bear exhibit at the Columbus Zoo, with visitors from the International Rhino Foundation. He was underground, watching the bears swim through the glass, and his phone was out of range. Great details. How’d you get? Asked where they were when they got the call, and then asked whatever questions needed to be asked after that. Next, Kinsel tried Barb Wolfe, a veterinarian at the Wilds and an expert in zoological medicine. She was also attending the rhino gala at the Columbus Zoo, but she hadn’t gone underground. Wolfe listened to Kinsel and grimaced. She ran to raise Beetem; in the meantime, he’d already surfaced from the polar-bear exhibit to find his phone filled with frantic messages. With apologies to their guests, the pair ran to their cars to begin their ninety-minute sprint to Zanesville. Wolfe took off her high-heeled shoes and pulled on her boots. Another great detail – source? Sometimes you don’t know to ask the question. I wouldn’t have thought of Barb’s footwear. She volunteered that detail. I usually give a preamble to subjects, telling them that details are what makes a story like this, that I will ask some strange questions because of that need for details, and that they should feel free to tell me anything they think might be even remotely important. I won’t make them look stupid. They can’t possibly bore me or tell me too much. Barb thought to tell me about changing out of her shoes. I’m glad she did.
Both Beetem and Wolfe had been to the Thompson property twice before, in 2008. In his efforts to shut down the farm, Sheriff Lutz had asked them to check on the animals. They had given him their impossible math: A big cat will eat as much as fifteen pounds of meat in a single sitting, which, given Thompson’s dozens of lions and tigers alone, meant that he’d need to push more than five hundred pounds of flesh into those pens every day. Wolfe believed that Thompson genuinely loved his animals, but his heart had outstripped his means. His treatment of them wasn’t cruel, exactly, but it was unsustainable. Now she and Beetem remembered all those animals packed into their cages, and they knew that they didn’t have enough time or tranquilizers to stop what was coming.
After shooting the bear, Deputy Merry had wrestled his rifle out of the front seat. Now he looked up from his gun and saw a lioness slipping under the wire fence. She began to run south down Kopchak Road, in the same direction the wolf had raced. Merry chased her. The lioness ran up the driveway of the house next door — occupied by Sam Kopchak’s sister, Tammy, and her family — and under the porch. Merry raised his rifle and, from a dozen feet, shot the lioness and killed it. How did you decide how to structure this piece? Is this version the one you drafted originally or did you play around with it? This story has a pretty natural arch – animals get out, animals get shot, animals get buried, cops still can see the animals. (That sounds more callous than I want for it to, but that’s basically what this story is about. It’s an account of a massacre. It’s not going to be pretty.) I didn’t really mess too much with structure. I just told the story. Nothing big changed with this one, partly because we didn’t have time to get fancy, and partly because Peter and I both felt that the story should be told straight. It didn’t need any decoration. The only thing that changed during the editing was the length. It went from 12,000 to 10,000 words. But the engineering stayed the same.
He then went back to the Thompson driveway just in time to see another animal — a mountain lion — push its way under the fence. The mountain lion, too, ran south, except it went past both Kopchak houses, this time veering left into Fred Polk’s farm. Merry ran after the mountain lion on foot. Halfway up Polk’s driveway, he stopped. While the mountain lion was on its way in, a male African lion was on its way out, charging toward Merry. He shot the lion. Two other deputies, who had just arrived on the scene, ran past him. They shot the mountain lion in Polk’s backyard.
Right about then, John Moore, one of the volunteer caretakers, arrived at the farm. He was forty-eight years old, and he had worked at the farm for fifteen of those years. He knew the animals nearly as well as anyone. (Marian Thompson had heard from the police, but she was out of town and hours away; she’d called Moore and asked him to hurry over.) Moore met Sergeant Blake at the bottom of the driveway while shots rang out around them. Blake told Moore that a lot of the animals were out, but there was no sign of Thompson.
“Is there a white van up there?” Moore asked.
Yes, he had seen a white van.
“If a white van’s up there, Terry’s there,” Moore said.
Blake put Moore in the backseat of his cruiser, and they drove together back to the pens. There were animals everywhere.
“Will you go in the house?” Blake asked. Surprises me that he’d send a civilian, even one familiar with the property, into the house. What did you make of that? I think at that point, Blake was so struck by what was going on, just about anything he did could be forgiven. You have to remember what he was trying to take in just then. Tigers, for starters.
Moore disappeared through the door.
Blake pulled out his shotgun, loaded with deer slugs from the cruiser’s rack, and decided to search the yard. Behind the house, by the fetid swimming pool, he found a mountain lion, sitting in the fading sun. He kept his shotgun pointed at the cat, and, he recalls, they came to an understanding: I won’t bother you if you won’t bother me. Blake went around the mountain lion and the rest of the house before he arrived back at his car. He blew the horn, and Moore came out. He hadn’t found Thompson.
Together they went back inside. A terrible stench filled Blake’s nostrils. There were two bedrooms that were relatively tidy, but the rest of the house had been beaten back in time by the animals. The floors were covered in dirt. In the kitchen, two monkeys screamed and shook the bars of their cage. Three leopards — two spotted and one black — and a small bear were also still locked away, crashing around. When Blake began pushing open doors, his shotgun at the ready, he was suddenly filled with the fear that Thompson had booby-trapped his house with something other than animals: a dead man’s line tied to a door knob, explosives wired to a light switch. The screaming of the monkeys followed him everywhere, breaking his concentration. “Those monkeys, raising hell,” he says, shaking his head. “It was just unreal.” Room by room he and Moore searched the rest of the house. They came up empty.
They returned to the car and Blake once again headed down the driveway. “Stop!” Moore shouted from the backseat, looking out the window to his right. “I think Terry’s down there.”
They got out of the cruiser, and they both saw Terry Thompson, down a short embankment, bloody and lying flat on his back. There was a pistol on the grass; Blake didn’t see the blue bolt cutters that were lying about ten feet away. A tiger — a white tiger, a genetic mutant — was gnawing at Thompson’s head. Most of the top of his head was missing; other parts of him had also been eaten. Others have reported that Thompson’s thighs and genitalia were missing. Why did you choose to omit that detail? I knew what the tiger had eaten. I just thought it was a bit too far to go, that the moment was gruesome enough. I can understand why other guys used it, and I thought about using it, but it just didn’t sit right with me. I don’t know. Just a gut call. It might have been wrong. Now the white tiger dragged Thompson around, puncturing his throat with its teeth. There was a lot of blood. Behind his body, a small trash fire smoldered. Smoke rose into the darkening sky. “I’ll always wonder what he didn’t want us to find,” Blake says. The tiger continued to feed. Horrors! If they’re shooting everything else, why didn’t they shoot this? The body was evidence, no? I think Blake was still trying to get a handle on things at this point, and I’m not sure he felt awesome about his chances alone with a shotgun. You’re right, ideally, they stop the animals from eating Terry. But ideal went out the window the instant Terry opened those cages.
The two men climbed back into the cruiser. At the bottom of the driveway Blake and Moore found Sheriff Lutz, who had just arrived on the scene. Merry’s bear remained on the road like a kind of sentinel. There were dead animals everywhere, at least six, by Lutz’s recollection.
He was relieved to see Blake, the only one of his men who had gone missing. “Terry’s dead,” Blake said. “And there’s probably twenty animals loose up there.”
“There’s more than that,” John Moore said.
He began a count, trying to remember each face, each pair of eyes. There were seventeen or eighteen tigers. Nearly as many lions. Mountain lions. Leopards. Bears. Wolves. Monkeys.
“Forty-eight,” he said finally. “Maybe forty-nine.”
By now, it was approaching six o’clock. Wolfe and Beetem were still on their way from the zoo. There was maybe an hour of good light left, and the storm was rolling in. On the other side of I-70, there was a nursing home, a McDonald’s, an A&W, a gas station. There was a Super 8 motel. And just a mile down Route 40, there was a school, surrounded by trees.
Sheriff Lutz made a decision.
Not long before six, Jay Lawhorne weaved through the roadblock that had been set up at the top of Kopchak Road and swerved into the bottom of the driveway. He was the last member of the SWAT team to arrive. He was carrying an M4 assault rifle across his front and an MP5 submachine gun on his back — the Marines had taught him the importance of a smooth transition between weapons — as well as his Glock on his leg. He had eight thirty-round magazines stuffed into the pockets of his cargo pants. He hoped it would be enough. Kanavel’s Silverado was already idling where the pipe gate had been; the men in the back beckoned at Lawhorne to hurry up. Blake was behind the wheel, the windows rolled down so that he could hear directions. Kanavel, Tony Angelo — Lawhorne’s old sniper friend — and Deputy Ryan Paisley stood in the bed. Lawhorne jumped up with them, slammed closed the gate, and then pushed a wad of tobacco behind his lip.
Lutz had given them unambiguous orders. They were going to be alone on the farm, those men in their truck, and they were to shoot every animal they saw. Three teams of deputies had been sent out to watch the farm’s perimeter: One patrolled the southern exposure, on Fred Polk’s farm; a second would watch the fence line along Kopchak Road; a third, including Merry, had been sent down to the shoulder of the eastbound lanes of I-70. The three patrols would act as firebreaks, preventing any animals that were flushed out from escaping, but the bulk of the load would fall on the men in that truck. “I think people were thinking we were hooping and hollering, like a bunch of rednecks,” Kanavel says. “This was a police operation.” Other criticisms have come out, including some from Moore, who, in Siebert’s piece, said he argued against mass slaughter. What reaction did you get from the people of Zanesville, including law enforcement, about the piece, and what information has come to light since this piece ran? Do you re-read your stories once they’re in print or do you let them go? I don’t re-read my stories, but I don’t let them go, either. I keep in touch with subjects with whom I’ve connected. I heard from most of the people in this story. They were kind about it. (Merry, the young deputy, had cancer treatment shortly after this story came out, a small detail in his life’s narrative that he neglected to tell me when we were together; he showed the nurses the story, he told me.) Nobody I talked to had a problem with what the police did – nobody in Zanesville had a bad word to say about them, because they’re the ones who had fucking lions in their backyards. “The people that criticized what we did, they weren’t on Kopchak Road that night,” Blake told me, and that about sums it up. John Moore – I tried very hard to talk to John Moore. I put letters in his mailbox. I left phone messages. I knew someone who knew him and tried to convince him to talk to me, but he never did. You’d have to ask him why. But I’ll be honest with you Paige: Steve Blake is a guy I would fight for. We made a strong personal connection for various reasons, and to read Moore talking shit about him in Siebert’s story tells me that Moore – I’m trying to think of the kindest thing I could say. I would say John Moore is an unreliable witness.
Angelo, the best shot, took the first pull, at a lion in the horse pasture more than one hundred yards away. (It might have been the same lion that Sam Kopchak had encountered. He remained hunkered down in his tack room, startled when the shooting began in earnest. “It sounded like there was a war going on out there,” Kopchak says. “Just boom, boom, boom, boom.“) That lion went down quickly — struck in the head by Angelo’s single bullet — and the five men allowed themselves to believe for a moment that maybe this whole awful mess wouldn’t be so bad. But then two tigers ran out from behind the wooden barn and bolted toward the truck.
The tigers were a band apart. Jack Hanna, the famed wildlife expert and the director emeritus of the Columbus Zoo — who had joined the convoys now steaming toward the farm — would later tell an old story about an escaped tiger. He had watched, terrified, while a veterinarian had tried to tranquilize the animal. It had responded to the dart by covering eighteen feet in a single leap, knocking down the veterinarian and eviscerating him.
The two tigers were within eight feet of the truck when the men opened fire, Kanavel absorbing the kicks from his AR-15. Both cats went down, filled with bullets. Now Kanavel saw Terry Thompson’s body, still being set upon by the hungry white tiger. There were several other animals running around them. Chicken parts were scattered all over the driveway. Kanavel radioed Lutz and told him, “Everything’s out.”
Lutz told Kanavel about three cats that had been spotted by the patrol on Polk’s farm. Kanavel yelled down to Blake, who drove the truck through the pasture, scattering the horses. First they came upon a male lion, massive, with a mane that was almost black. The men established a pattern: Angelo would fire the first shot, and then the others would volley safety rounds into the same animal. Together they shot the lion several times, and it still managed to run, disappearing behind an abandoned car. Shit. Then they found the other two cats; no one in the truck remembers what they were exactly. “Everything starts becoming kind of a blur,” Kanavel says. They shot those two cats. Blake then steered the truck behind the abandoned car. The lion was there, stretched out, dead.
For the next hour, the men drove across the property, shooting animals. Were you ever worried that this would start to feel like a story about gratuitous slaughter? From a law enforcement perspective that didn’t seem to be the case – they were genuinely worried about public safety – but did you worry that focusing so tightly on their play-by-play hunt would have an unintended effect on the reader? Yes, I worried about that. That was definitely the reaction of some readers. But in the end, my job is to tell the truest possible story of that night. A lot of animals got shot. That’s what happened. They shot perhaps two dozen of them, mostly lions and tigers, catapulting across the fields. (Contrary to later media reports, the tigers on the Thompson farm were not rare Bengal tigers. They were mixed breeds, the tiger equivalent of mutts.) The back of the truck filled with casings, rattling with every turn; there were enough that footing became a concern. Casings flew into the truck’s cab, too, where one found its way inside Blake’s collar and down his back. It wasn’t long before the men’s hearing had been blasted out. Great detail – how did it emerge? I asked Blake if it was loud, just one of those scene-setting questions; Lawhorne also talked about not being able to hear for shit after the shooting stopped. Everything became muffled then, voices and muzzle fire lost behind the ringing. Still, the men kept shooting, racing against the night and the coming storm. Down in his barn, Sam Kopchak couldn’t take it anymore and made a run for his house, propelled mostly by faith. In that last hour of light, Lawhorne would burn through exactly 220 rounds. Thompson’s farm was a firing range. The fields were littered with brass.
Blake remembers one kill especially. The memory of it still slips into the front of his brain at the strangest times, without warning. He closes his eyes, and it’s right there in front of him again. Night was falling fast, and there was a tiger trapped in the edge of his headlights, up and to the right. The beams were just spilling onto its fur. The men in the back hollered for Blake to stop. He had learned by then to sink his ears under his raised shoulders in a mostly vain effort to stop the ringing, but he hadn’t yet learned to look away from the intended target. He stared at the tiger — “They’re just such beautiful animals,” he says — and then the shots rang out. Blake watched a patch of fur, like a leaf of paper caught in the wind, blow clean off the tiger’s back. One moment that patch of fur was there, thick and orange, and then it was gone, grabbed by the coming storm and scattered across the grass like seeds. Now his headlights caught a flash of the tiger’s disrobed spine instead, a thick column of white stripped down to its core. Blake saw the architecture of a tiger in the instant before it collapsed. “I just never seen anything like it in my life,” he says. Ugh. That’s all I’ve got. I got this with maybe 15 minutes to go in my last interview, and it’s the essential scene of the whole piece, the anchor. It tells you everything you need to know about how awful it was, and about what it was like for these men to see it unfold in front of them. When Blake told me this story, I finally felt like I had the whole thing. I could write with the confidence that a story like this one requires.
And then it got dark.
Down on the shoulder of I-70, Deputy Merry looked through a thermal-imaging camera, scanning the blackness between the trees. It was closing in on eight o’clock. Not long before, he had been joined by some firefighters who had brought their trucks to try to light up the roadside woods; they had also brought the camera. In the fading light Merry and another deputy had already shot several animals that had made it off the farm: another wolf, two lions, a tiger. In that stretch along the highway, the fence was broken down, held together with fraying twine. Great details – how’d you get? I can assure you that I would never admit to criminal trespass in the pursuit of a story such as, say, this one. In one spot it had been pushed within inches of the ground. Night fell across the gap like a curtain.
Now Merry saw a shape in the camera. At first, he couldn’t tell what it was; it was just a large mass, red hot, coming down the slope, out through the trees. Whatever it was, it wasn’t fast like a cat. It was lumbering. But it was big and it was relentless, inching closer, step by step. Eventually, Merry realized it was a bear — a huge bear, a grizzly. He and the other deputy took aim at the red target on their camera. They fired, and they watched the bear crash to the ground. They watched it through their camera for a long time after. It finally began turning orange, then yellow, on its way to disappearing altogether, as cold as the leaves. More great details, and I like this one because it (a) conveys the passage of time; (b) reminds us that these are living creatures. One of those moments that remind me that being a reporter is a blessing masquerading as a job. Merry talking about the colors changing. … That’s what a devil like me lives for.
Back over the ridge, up on the farm, Kanavel heard the shots and worried about their own ability to see. The lights on their rifles sucked back serious juice. He radioed down to Captain LeCocq and asked for more batteries as well as more ammunition. Sheriff Lutz had considered calling off the hunt just then, around eight o’clock, now that it was pitch black. He feared crossfire. But the rain was holding off even while the wind began to kick up, and the snipers felt as though they could continue safely. Lutz decided to allow them to keep picking their way across the farm. Night even worked in their favor in a strange way: Two small, unblinking lights would appear floating in the dark in front of them, and Angelo could aim for a spot in between.
Lutz sent two more teams up the driveway: some support officers as well as detectives, hoping to retrieve Terry Thompson’s body. The coroner had been called, but he had declined the invitation to the farm. He’d asked the men to take photographs of the scene and to collect blood samples. The body, or at least what was left of it, would also help. Better that he not be delivered a bag of bones.
Because the body had been dragged down into a kind of swale, behind the pens and a row of scrap cars, the snipers decided that they would have to make their approach on foot. They climbed out of the truck and formed a quadrant, a diamond pattern, with the unarmed detectives at its center, and together they went down the hill. A few minutes after the detectives had started their work, they could hear movement inside the crumbling wooden barn nearby. Soon, roaring came out of the dark, too.
“We can’t do this right now,” Kanavel said.
The detectives were taken back to the relative safety of the truck and its headlights. The snipers went back down toward the body on foot. They came across several cats still in their cages, even though the doors were swinging wide open. They couldn’t believe their luck. While the snipers covered him, one of the support officers reached inside each of the pens to latch its gate. The men worked their way down four or five cages, following the same routine: lights and rifles on the cat, a hand into the cage. Most of them held lions. The tigers were solitary animals, found almost always alone, waiting in ambush. Even in the chaos, the lions had tried to maintain their pride.
At the last cage, the support officer reached in for the latch. Just then, Lawhorne and Kanavel both caught sight of something in their lights: a large hole, cut into the side of the cage. Seconds later, a lioness pounced halfway out of the hole. Lawhorne clearly remembers her shoulder blades, like pyramids, pointing toward the night sky. She screamed in their faces, four feet away from them. They opened fire, the support officer pulling out his hand and falling back. That’s when they turned with their lights and realized all the cages had been cut. The only thing between them and all those lions was air.
The snipers heard shouts behind them. A tiger had spooked out of the barn and disappeared in some tall grass, digging down into the weeds beside them. Kanavel scanned the grass with his lights. He caught the smallest movement — the flip of an ear, he thought. “I think I’ve got it,” he whispered to the others. He dropped the muzzle of his AR-15 below where he thought he’d seen the ear, and he fired.
The tiger jumped, straight up and out. That’s what separated the tigers: It was the ground they could cover, even after they had been shot dozens of times. “They thrashed,” Lawhorne says, searching for the right words. “They somersaulted.” The other animals, even the lions, went down when they were shot; the tigers went up. Bullets turned them into birds. They flew.
Kanavel’s tiger, caught in his lights, vaulted five yards into the air before it landed on its feet on a clear patch of ground, ready to leap up again. “That was a little unnerving,” he says. The men turned on it at once and opened fire. The tiger fell back into the grass.
Back at the relative safety of the truck, Blake stood in the headlights with the detectives, listening to bullets pouring into the dark. There was more shouting, and this time it was a lion that had bolted out of the barn. One of the detectives, K. C. Jones, had happened to pick up a shotgun. He lowered its barrel and unloaded into the lion. He caught it in its hindquarters and it skidded across the grass. Now other men fired into it. The muzzle blast was close and strong enough to blow out a lens from one of the detective’s glasses. That’s how fine the line was on that farm that night. “It’s amazing that none of us got killed,” Blake says.
It was past nine o’clock before the farm was relatively quiet again, and they made a second approach to Thompson’s body, back inside the center of the diamond. This time, the detectives were able to finish their grisly work. One took photographs; another took blood samples from pools on the ground. Blake picked up the revolver and pushed out its cylinder. It was full except for a single spent casing. Nearby, the men found the pair of blue bolt cutters lying in the grass. They had their working theory: Thompson had released nearly all of his animals, cutting the sides of their cages as well as opening their doors. They would never be caged again. Then he had set his trash fire, burning secrets. And then he had stood next to his driveway, watching his animals run free, before he had put his gun in his mouth and blown off the top of his head.
Now the rain finally began to fall. Blake and the detectives bagged up the body. An ambulance eased its way up the driveway, and they lifted Thompson into the back. Blake climbed into the back with him. The rain and the relative quiet ended the night for the others. “It would have been suicide to go into those woods,” Kanavel says. The snipers jumped back into their truck, and the support officers dropped into their cruisers, and they snaked their way back down the driveway.
It was shortly after ten o’clock. The rain began falling harder. Sheriff Lutz cleared most of his men. He also sent home Wolfe and Beetem, who had spent their evening at the roadblock on Kopchak Road, waiting for a break in the bullets that never came. This is all so heavily detailed – how long did you work on this piece? Can you break down the pre-reporting time, the reporting time, and the writing time? How many drafts did you do? I know your opening was always your opening because I made you send it to me at one point – what about the kicker? Not long enough. Yeah, that week, plus a week. Long days and not a lot of sleep in between them, especially when you factor in The Chris Heath Effect. It took me several weeks to recover physically from this story. That pneumonia turned into a wicked case of c.diff, or whatever that bacterial invasion is called. I’ll be blunt, Paige: This story made me shit blood. How’s that for a kicker?
Blake went back to his substation and began typing a report that even he had trouble believing. Merry had already volunteered to work an extra night shift. He collected his soaked notepad off the Kopchaks’ front step, drove back into Zanesville, and caught a burglar. Before Lutz went home to snatch a bit of sleep, he assigned perimeter patrols. He put Tony Angelo on Kopchak Road, and he asked Lawhorne and another deputy, Adam Swope, to keep an eye on the farm. Fred Polk had loaned them his six-wheeled mule to navigate the mud. It was only after Lawhorne had hopped up into it that he felt a lump behind his lip and spat out his bone-dry plug. A question students always ask: What about Sam? DOES HE EVER GET OUT OF THE BARN? In retrospect I should have made more of the moment, but it’s in the paragraph above the tiger’s spine. Sam just decided to make a run for it. He made it.
At around eleven o’clock that night, five young friends were playing poker in Cambridge, Ohio, about twenty-five miles east of Zanesville, when they heard about the events unfolding at the farm. They bundled into a Jeep Cherokee with vague ideas. They said later that they were hoping, perhaps, to take some photographs of that night’s carnage, but they hadn’t really thought things through. They were just drawn to the lights.
Not long after they had thrown down their cards, they pulled into the bottom of Terry Thompson’s driveway and found a dead lion, bleeding from its mouth. Thinking that they might make a rug out of the lion or get it stuffed, they wrestled the carcass into the back of their Jeep. It took them several minutes. A news crew stumbled on the poker buddies and their prize, and they filmed the lion through the Jeep’s open back. Its head was hanging out over the dropped gate.
Some distance up the driveway, Lawhorne and Swope saw the glare of lights; suspicious, they began to work their way down toward them. Before they made it to the bottom of First Hill, they saw the Jeep reverse out of the driveway and turn south down Kopchak Road. Lawhorne radioed the deputies who were out on patrol, and they stopped the Jeep just a few hundred yards away. The lion in the back was hard to miss.
The five friends, who were later charged with misdemeanor theft, were told to return their stolen lion to the farm. A deputy followed them in his cruiser, and he radioed Lawhorne and Swope, asking them to meet him at the bottom of the driveway. They lashed ropes around the lion and dragged it out of the Jeep, leaving a bloodstain in the back. After, Lawhorne and Swope talked about what would have happened had the lion theft gone uninterrupted: Most important, there would have been a lion missing from the count. For weeks or months or even years after, there would have been calls about the phantom lion of Zanesville, a knife-toothed ghost that would appear in nighttime imaginations until it finally became legend, when all the while it was just a skin spread out on the floor of a house in Cambridge, warming the feet of five friends playing cards.
Lawhorne and Swope decided they needed to get to work. They climbed into the mule with their guns and some lengths of rope, and they began their hunt for carcasses. The two deputies would take turns through the night, through the continued rain. One would splash down from the mule and rope the dead animal they’d found in their lights; the other would provide cover for the man tying knots. It was a jumpy night. Lawhorne tried to replay his time in the back of Kanavel’s truck, and he’d guessed that they’d shot maybe thirty animals. That left something like twenty still out there, and with each given so many places to hide. Horses snorted; dogs barked. But the men kept at it. One by one, Lawhorne and Swope left another fresh drag track in the mud: They hauled dead lions and tigers and bears up to the curve in the driveway, not far from the wooden barn, and laid them out in the grass.
The deputies took breaks only to piss or to have a bite to eat. On those rare occasions, they pulled the mule alongside a cruiser, leaving a two-foot gap between the vehicles. Then Lawhorne and Swope would stand back-to-back in the gap, their rifles at the ready on their chests, each man pissing in the opposite direction. Another great detail – how’d it come up? Volunteered information. Would never have thought to ask about how they went pee-pee. But I’ll tell you what: I will always ask about that from now on. “Everything had to come at us straightforward,” Lawhorne says.
Finally, the night began to lift. Somewhere in the world the sun was rising, but on that Wednesday morning in Zanesville, the sun was just another vague idea. The sky went from black to purple to gray. Lawhorne and Swope stood muddy and hunchbacked with their hands on their hips and took stock of their long night’s work. They hadn’t shot any other animals, but they had collected twenty-one of them, “in stacks,” Lawhorne says. They also knew where several other bodies remained: Because the deputies had started with the carcasses closest to the road, many were still laid out within sight of their pile, the rain running off their hides. From that vantage point, Jack Hanna would remember later, it looked as though Noah’s Ark had run aground and wrecked in central Ohio.
Early that morning, Sheriff Lutz spoke to the press in the parking lot of the Moose Lodge, at the top of Kopchak Road, and told the cameras that had arrived overnight what had happened at the farm. Hanna stood grim-faced beside him, the rain dripping off the brim of his hat, and gave the sheriff his unconditional support. Video-footage reporting, I’m guessing. What else did you do, that we haven’t mentioned here? Yes, video footage. Can’t think of much else we haven’t mentioned. Did I mention I shit blood? Because I shit blood. My toilet looked like a crime scene. I didn’t need toilet paper. I needed bandages and yellow police tape.
Lutz then went back to the farm. Wolfe and Beetem from the Wilds had also returned. They had driven up the driveway and surveyed the still-growing pile of carcasses, comparing them with John Moore’s list — since expanded to fifty-six animals — and their own memories. That night had been, by all measures, a massacre. “Oh,” Wolfe says, “it was such a horrible thing to see.” Depending on your proximity to Zanesville, Ohio, and your feelings about the relative value of animal life, what happened at the farm was either one of the worst mass shootings in American history or a miracle. Other than Terry Thompson, no humans had suffered an injury outside of hearing loss. More than forty animals had been shot. One, a monkey, had been torn apart by the big cats, its shredded body sprawled out by the house. Six animals had survived, because Thompson had left them locked away in their pens in the house, for reasons known only to him: the three leopards, the small bear, and the two screaming monkeys. As best as Lutz and his officers could figure, there were only a few animals missing: a bear, a wolf, and a monkey, maybe one or two others. They had to begin a sweep. “Talk about checking over your shoulder,” Beetem says. The rain continued to fall on and off.
Lawhorne, paired again with Angelo and cooked through with adrenaline, had refused to leave the farm. Now they walked lines across the property with Moore, the caretaker. Sometime between nine and ten o’clock that morning, they heard a sound that no bear, wolf, or monkey would make, coming from a stand of trees not far behind the house. “It’s hard to describe,” Lawhorne says. “The lions grunted when you got close: hunh, hunh, hunh. This was different. It was just a wicked, wicked noise.”
Moore spotted it first: There was a tiger hiding in the trees. It was nestled in a thicket, in a tough little pocket of thorns, several yards deep into the brush. It was almost impossible to see the tiger in the undergrowth; the officers could see only the objects it moved — a tree branch, the tallest leaves of grass.
Lawhorne radioed Lutz, who told him to keep his rifle trained on the tiger. Beyond the trees was an open field, and beyond the open field was Zanesville. The tiger could not be allowed out of the thicket. Then Lutz found Wolfe, who had been in the house with Beetem, looking at the surviving animals. They agreed they would try to save this one last tiger.
Wolfe got her tranquilizer gun, a black, bolt-action rifle with a scope. She also had a plastic case, like a tackle box, filled with darts of varying size. Tranquilizing animals is a tricky business. Animals fight artificial sleep, especially panicked ones. Their systems might resist the tranquilizer for ten or fifteen minutes, maybe more. Different animals also require different drugs and different amounts of them, depending on the species, how much they weigh, and whether they’ve eaten recently. Too much tranquilizer and the animal might die; not enough and the animal will only be enraged by it. Trajectory physics also complicate matters. Darts don’t behave like bullets. They are not nearly as consistent in their flight, and it doesn’t take much to knock them off their intended course. They need to find muscle.
Lutz told Wolfe that, besides the tiger, there might still be a bear loose somewhere. She didn’t much like the idea of finding herself facing two animals at once. The tiger was the certainty, so she prepared first for it: She filled a medium-size dart, three cubic centimeters, and loaded it into her gun. She also filled a six-cubic-centimeter dart, the biggest dart in her arsenal, for the invisible bear. She tucked that one into her pocket, hoping she wouldn’t need to use it. Bringing down bears was a bitch.
Beetem stayed at the house, where the still-caged animals were being tranquilized. He helped lift the sleeping leopards out of their pen. Eventually they would be taken to the Columbus Zoo. Meanwhile, Lutz, accompanied by two more officers, brought Wolfe down to the trees. Lawhorne and Angelo were waiting there with Moore. Like them, she couldn’t see the tiger very well. She had to get closer. Wolfe is a tiny woman, a few inches over five feet and slender, but she wasn’t scared. “I knew those men wouldn’t let me die out there,” she says. She began to creep through the brush toward the tiger, slipping between the branches, easing her way within fifteen feet of it. The tiger was lying down, but its head was up — in sternal recumbency, to use the language. It did not make eye contact. “That might have been a little different emotionally for me,” Wolfe says. She thought the tiger looked either injured or exhausted or both; Lawhorne remembered someone taking a shot at two lights in those trees during the night. Either way, the tiger had been up for hours, hiding out, waiting for the noise to stop. Now it had given itself away, perhaps by calling out for the others through the silence. Nobody knew it just then, but Wolfe wouldn’t need the big dart in her pocket.
The missing bear was the grizzly that had been betrayed by its body heat, now stretched out down by the highway. The missing wolf was lying dead in that hayfield down Kopchak Road. The missing monkey was inside one or more of the other dead animals, ripped apart and eaten. Of the fifty animals that Terry Thompson had set loose on Tuesday afternoon, forty-nine were dead come Wednesday morning. That tiger was the last animal left.
Wolfe wanted to shoot the dart into the tiger’s flank, but the way it was spread out in the grass made its flank a hard target. She raised her rifle, looked through the scope, and tried to find a patch of orange fur through a tunnel of green. She pulled the trigger.
The tiger flinched. Wolfe didn’t move.
“You hit him, I saw him jump,” somebody said, a little too loudly. Wolfe heard those words, and the tiger did, too, and it let out a roar and jumped to its feet. Then it charged her.
She tried to back away, but she got caught up in tangles of brush, clawing at her shoulders. She was snagged.
“She was stuck in thorns and was trying to pull herself out,” Lawhorne says. “I put several rounds into the tiger.”
It thrashed and somersaulted through the trees, ending up deep inside the brush. Wolfe told the group that they should wait ten minutes before making an approach — if all was quiet after ten minutes, then either the tranquilizer or the bullets had taken effect. The men reloaded their weapons, and they waited, scanning the woods through their scopes. Each minute passed slowly, the only sound the rain falling through the trees.
“Come on,” John Moore said. “He’s dead. I know he’s dead.”
Wolfe shook her head and told the men to wait. After a full ten minutes had passed, she crept back into the woods. And there was the tiger in front of her — still alive and still awake. Its breathing was labored, but its head was raised. Wolfe watched the tiger for a moment. She stood in the rain and watched, the only time in her life she had ever been so close to a living tiger without seeing it through the bars of a cage. The tiger’s head was turned away from her. She never did see its eyes. She could see only the back of its great, beautiful head, still lifted high, while its body settled deep into the soft ground, sinking deeper with each breath. Wolfe stepped back, and the men took her place. Lawhorne raised his M4 to his shoulder, and he pulled the trigger, and the last Zanesville tiger finally fell, the sound of the bullets echoing between the trees. How did you work when you were in Zanesville – report all day and then go back to the hotel room and write? Or report all week and then organize everything once you got home? Or…? Okay, let’s be honest. That blood shitting stuff is gold. That’s the makings of a stand-up bit. God, that e-book could have been good. What were we talking about? Oh, right. I wrote most of those nights at the hotel, scenes that were fresh in my mind. The week at home was mostly finding a way to link all those scenes together. By the time I drove back from Zanesville, I had some of the bricks, like the opening, and the tiger’s spine, and this scene. The second week was mostly mortar.
After the rest of the carcasses were brought down to the curve in the driveway, Sheriff Lutz stood among the bodies and did one last count. In less than twenty-four hours, he had crossed every animal off his list. He ordered a thirty-yard hole dug on the farm, and on that wet Wednesday afternoon, the animals were buried in a mass grave. There have been rumors in Zanesville that someone tried to dig up the animals, but Lutz says that’s not true. The animals remain in their hole in the ground. The animals remain everywhere.
It was a week before Sam Kopchak went up and collected his green plastic bucket, still waiting in the far corner of his field. Today, walking up there again, he can still see the lion, pressed against the wire fence. Red, he says, has not been the same horse since. He’s become stubborn, unpredictable. He has spent a lot of time pacing the fence.
On the other side of the wire, Terry Thompson’s horses stand together in their pasture, pushing around the hay that John Moore still puts out for them. Marian Thompson does not come by the house much. Through her lawyers she’s announced that she’d like to have her six animals back from the Columbus Zoo; the leopards were always her favorite. For now, they remain in quarantine. Her estranged husband’s body was cremated and placed in an urn emblazoned with the American flag. Today it sits in the kitchen of what used to be his home. His collection of cars still rusts in the fields. His animal pens still line the driveway, empty and clean. Did you get access to the property? Great details about the urn, the kitchen. No comment.
“There hasn’t been a day gone by I haven’t thought about it,” Steve Blake says. “I feel sorry for Terry Thompson. I’m mad at him, but I feel sorry for him at the same time.”
Joleen Kinsel and the other dispatchers spent that Wednesday answering their constantly ringing phones; their phones still ring, but less and less. The calls came from all over the world, people screaming into her ear from England, from Australia. The people said the police should be shot for what they did. They called the dispatchers “slaughter whores.” Through the deluge, one elderly local woman called to report that her checkbook had been stolen. Kinsel almost wept, she was so happy to take a call for help.
Sheriff Lutz says he has never had second thoughts about the decision he made. People say nice things to him in restaurants, but it’s not as though he had a choice, he says, about what he calls “the incident.” He thinks about that night’s other possible ends, the terrible phone calls he did not have to make, and he is at peace.
Merry has had a harder time. “I don’t need to be made to feel worse about something I already feel terrible about,” he says. He shot nine animals, including four lions. He can still see them.
Lawhorne still sees the animals, too. Not long after that night on the farm, he was driving one of his daughters to a soccer game. Trees lined the sides of the road. He caught himself scanning the passing woods, searching each dark socket, watching for shivers in the tallest leaves of grass. Nice kicker. Was there anything you included in an original draft that you wish had made it into the story? No, I think the cuts were all good cuts or at least necessary cuts except, now, thanks to your students, maybe I should have made more about Sam making a run for the house. The kicker was a bitch, though. Normally, I have my ending set in my mind before I start writing, and here I knew I wanted something like the coda of a movie, the calm after the storm. But I could never quite make it stick. Here’s my original ending:
[Blake] hasn’t returned to the farm since he left it in the back of the ambulance. None of the officers has. It’s as though they’ve each tried to put a fold in their mental maps just west of Zanesville, Ohio; they’ve each made a crease at Mile Marker 152. But they know better than most of us, maybe better than anyone: Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not there. They will always see that farm in their scopes and their headlights. There will always be tigers thrashing through those trees.
I don’t mind that ending, reading it again, but Peter felt like it took us away from the immediacy of the piece by turning something specific into something abstract. That’s why we went with the more specific account provided by Lawhorne. His visions were more concrete. His ghosts were more real. That’s what I wanted the whole story to be, really, a kind of spook story that people would tell their kids around campfires. In fact, the title I put on it was The Ghosts of Zanesville. Sometimes my ambitions outstrip my abilities.
By the way, “dark socket” is a partial lift from The Tragically Hip and their great song “Nautical Disaster.” Gord Downie sings about a “rocky socket.” Always loved how that sounded. That’s what so much of this stuff comes down to. All that separates stories sometimes is how they sound. I wanted this story to sound scary, if that makes sense. I wanted it to read the way a horror movie sounds, the way “East Hastings” by Godspeed You Black Emperor sounds, which is the song I listened to on a loop while I wrote it (and is the song I’m listening to on a loop now, writing these notes). This story is my version of that song. That’s how I thought of it then, and that’s how I think of it now. It’s my “East Hastings,” or at least the closest I’ll come to it.
Chris Jones is an Esquire writer at large, the back-page columnist for ESPN The Magazine, and a two-time winner of the National Magazine Award.