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The Muskingum County Sheriff's Department conducted a lengthy and thorough investigation that officially ruled Thompson's death a suicide. The reports — and they are extensive — are available on the department's website for anyone who's interested. Sheriff Matthew Lutz has overseen the whole process, and he is more than a little perturbed at Schreibvogel's bombast and conspiracies.
"I'm aware of him and his theories, yes. And I'm aware of the video on YouTube where his Barbie ringtone phone goes off," says Lutz. "His theories are totally bogus. For somebody that wasn't at the scene to go public like that and comment on what's based on his evidently wild imagination, I think it's not very professional. And to include me in a conspiracy theory frustrates me. I understand people have passion about exotic animals, but he needs to worry about his situation in Oklahoma instead of worrying about what he does out here."
The "situation in Oklahoma" is a report this month from the U.S. Humane Society alleging that G.W. Exotics has problems with sick animals, dead tigers, and unsafe conditions — "a ticking time bomb" that could be 10 times worse than Zanesville, Humane Society President Wayne Pacelle told CBS News. It was that phrasing that prompted Joe Exotic's Waco reference.
G.W. Exotics was previously cited by the U.S.D.A. and fined for violations in 2004. Exotic Joe's very organization is a polarizing presence on the animal advocacy landscape.
"U.S.Z.A. was formed by Joe Schreibvogel apparently so he could claim his facility was accredited, since G.W. Exotic Animal Park would never qualify for accreditation from the two legitimate accrediting organizations: the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and the Global Federal Animal Sanctuaries," says Debbie Leahy, captive wildlife regulatory specialist at the Humane Society. "The U.S.Z.A. is not taken seriously as an organization that upholds proper standards of animal care and public safety."
Schreibvogel claims some 467 members in the U.S.Z.A., ranging from pet store owners to hog farmers to tiger breeders. The organization's purpose, he says, is to stand up for its members and help them abide by the U.S.D.A.'s laws.
"A lot of sanctuaries are full," he says. "So if anyone wants to confiscate the animals, there are a couple problems. If we can help them clean up and educate them and help them keep their animals, it's better for everyone."
His supporters not only appreciate his support, but double down in vocally backing Schreibvogel's theories about what happened in Ohio. Comment sections linking to his press conference video are littered with sentiments like, "You don't know Joe. He knows what he is talking about. Exotic animal owners are being prosecuted because of the Zanesville incident, which is suspicious to all that can put two and two together." Or, "Better to tell the truth and be called names than lie and be believed. All of the evidence points toward some kind of attack on Terry Thompson."
State Senator Troy Balderson, whose hometown is Zanesville, sponsored Ohio Senate Bill 310 to ban exotic animals and listened to Schreibvogel's testimony. He appreciates the interest, but he's not buying the balderdash.
"He's been an advocate. That's what our government is about," says Balderson. "My conversations with him have not involved any theories, but I've heard things like that before. Matt Lutz and his agency did a thorough investigation, and they found the complete opposite."
Schreibvogel isn't the only one holding the conspiracy candle. Type "Terry Thompson" into Google, and the first search suggestion you'll get is "Terry Thompson Murdered."
Terry Wilkins, owner and operator of Captive Born Reptiles in Columbus, also testified before the Senate committee in opposition to Senate Bill 310, which he called unconstitutional and unethical. Wilkins also said that the state murdered Thompson, a man who was the "perfect patsy" to get the movement needed on exotic animal bans.
"SB 310 is not going to stop someone from murdering Ohioans and turning their animals loose," he said near the conclusion of his Senate speech.
Like any group, those who object to exotic animal bans are a mixed bag. Though it's all under one roof of impassioned advocacy, not all groups agree or even like each other, and the fringe elements can help steer the conversation away from policy initiatives toward, well, conspiracy theories. All of which takes the focus away from legitimate criticisms and concerns about the state's efforts to severely limit exotic animals, and undermines the side's credibility. The rhetoric coming from the opposing flank — "ticking time bomb," and "10 times" worse than Zanesville — is no less inflammatory or reductionist, but has the important credential in the world of public opinion of not mentioning state-sponsored covert murders.
"I think Sam Mazzola is part of this too," says Schreibvogel, referring to the Lorain County man whose exotic animal menagerie became a lightning rod for controversy in Northeast Ohio, especially after a handler was mauled to death by a bear in 2010. Mazzola himself died in July 2011, in what the coroner called a consensual sex act gone wrong. He was found handcuffed to his bed with a hood over his head and a sex toy in his mouth.
"Why's there no investigation to find out what happened?" Joe Exotic asks today. "I don't think [the state] made a big enough thing of it."
Schreibvogel adamantly refutes all of the Humane Society's claims against his roadside zoo. An itemized fax details his objections to the report, the majority of which consists of one repeated phrase: "This is an outright lie."
He says, "The USDA, sheriffs office and all have cleared me off all these allegations. I am sick of being a marketing target for animal rights organizations to raise money for their own pockets."