Couple charged in tiger killings

Friday, November 16, 2001

Two local exotic animal dealers are charged with buying four tigers and bringing them to Cape Girardeau to be killed and sold for meat and pelts.

Todd and Vicki Lantz, of Cape Girardeau, are among five defendants indicted in a case that involved killing and selling at least 11 federally protected leopards and tigers after an undercover investigation by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The couple is well known in the area for their interest in animals, operating the Capetown Safari on County Road 618 and hosting an annual exotic animal auction.

The indictments were filed months ago, and federal prosecutors unsealed them last week.

The indictments allege that in February 1998, Todd Lantz, owner of Lazy L Exotics, bought four tigers from Freddy Wilmoth, operator of a wildlife business in Arkansas. Wilmoth, of Gentry, Ark., operator of Wild Wilderness Safari, also was charged in the indictments.

Lantz reportedly took the tigers to 5-H Ranch in Cape Girardeau, where the animals were killed. Neither 5-H Ranch nor anyone associated with the business was charged.

David Hale, owner of 5-H Ranch and Vicki Lantz's father, adamantly denies involvement with any tigers being killed on his property, which the Lantz's leased from him.

If convicted, the Lantz's each face maximum penalties of five years in prison and fines up to $250,000.

Telephone calls to the Lantz residence were not answered Thursday, but the couple's attorney, Albert Lowes, said his clients were unaware the animals would be killed when they agreed to transport them.

"They got paid to haul them. They do it routinely," Lowes said.

According to the indictment, once the tigers reached Cape Girardeau, another person who hasn't been indicted walked to the trailer, shot and killed them. Another individual helped gut them, and the tigers were transported to Illinois.

"Todd transported the animals, but they had no idea they were going to be put down," Lowes said Thursday.

He said the individual who shot the tigers was to blame.

Vicki Lantz was accused of participating in the crime by accepting $4,000 for the tigers, then preparing a federal form indicating they were donating the animals.

About her charges, Lowes said: "Maybe Vicki messed up on the paperwork. She probably did, but it wasn't intentional."

Scott Flaherty, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman in Minneapolis, said Thursday he expects more indictments.

Flaherty said there is a large market for the hides of tigers, leopards and other big cats. Tiger hides fetch $5,000 to $20,000, depending on their type and condition, he said.

"Any time you're dealing with endangered species, there is going to be money and greed involved," he said. Meat, skulls and other body parts from exotic big cats command high prices, too, he said.

Owning these species of big cats violates no federal law, but killing the animals is prohibited.

Also indicted was Stoney Elam, 55, of Fort Gibson, Okla.,who allegedly sold two tigers and three leopards in violation of federal wildlife laws. Another indictment accuses Timothy Rivers, owner of Animals in Motion in Citra, Fla., of illegally selling two leopards in 1998.

The charges filed in St. Louis were the second wave of indictments from the investigation. In January, Woody Thompson of Three Rivers, Mich., pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Detroit of brokering the sale of three tiger skins. The owner of Willow Lake Sportsmen's Club got a sentence of six months of home detention and a $2,000 fine. A judge also ordered him to pay $28,000 to a Fish and Wildlife Service education fund.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

abuchanan@semissourian.com

3335-6611, extension 160

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