Going Ape

Suzy the Chimp is dead, her teenage killer faces charges and there's bad blood all around

It was a warm fall day in 1994, and Jennifer and Terry Mercer, who had just received their wedding pictures, were visiting a friend, Paula Lowe, who lived in a trailer on the back of some property on Highway CC near Festus. Four adults and three children were in the trailer, all on a couch, looking at the wedding album, when they heard a loud noise. "We heard this thud up against the trailer," says Jennifer. "We thought it was Paula's dad, bumping around outside, and the next thing we knew, the door swung open and there was this monkey standing there in the doorway, looking at us. I remember looking it right in the eyes. You never expect a monkey to open the damn door and come in the living room. Paula said, 'Oh my God, it's one of them monkeys got loose from the chimpanzee farm.'"

Pandemonium ensued. "The monkey came in," Jennifer continues. "We all jumped up, screaming and hollering." Lowe's niece, 2-year-old Erica, was on her lap. "It grabbed [Erica] by the ponytail, and it was dragging her across the floor. By then, we had all gone into the bedroom, but my husband, he was trying to get that little girl from that monkey."

Terry "started fighting with it," says Lowe. "It was almost funny. If Terry would push that monkey, the monkey would push Terry. If Terry would punch the monkey, the monkey would ball up his fists and punch Terry. Finally, [Terry] said, 'This isn't going to work.'"

Jason Coats: "We were, like, 'Wow! There's monkeys in the driveway!"
Jennifer Silverberg
Jason Coats: "We were, like, 'Wow! There's monkeys in the driveway!"

"He grabbed a skillet," says Jennifer, "and he beat it in the head -- oh, it was nuts."

Someone dialed 911. Meanwhile, Connie Casey, the owner of the "chimpanzee farm," two doors down, came in with a tranquilizer gun. Eventually the police came. Both Terry and Erica, who were scratched and bruised, received tetanus shots at the hospital. Some injuries weren't so apparent at first. Erica "has trouble sometimes going to the zoo to see the monkeys," says Lowe.

"And that thud we heard?" says Jennifer. "That was that monkey throwing Paula's dog up against the trailer."

The Mercers got a lawyer and reached a settlement out of court with the chimpanzee's owners, Mike and Connie Casey. Time went on. Jennifer and Terry got divorced. Lowe moved to Bonne Terre. The Caseys added more chimps to their menagerie.

Now things have gotten ugly again. This time a chimp is dead, the teenage boy who shot it faces prison and there's bad blood in the neighborhood.

"I told that boy," says Jennifer, "I said, 'Nobody knows what it feels like until you're actually in that kind of situation.' It's scary -- it is, because you can go on about 'Them monkeys are so playful,' this and that. They're not. They get mean. I feel sorry for that kid, I really do. Nothing's ever been said about [the chimps] getting out in '94. And Connie Casey, she needs to be more careful and not let them things get out, because there's little kids in that neighborhood, and one day one of them escaped monkeys is gonna hurt them kids."

"You know what it's like to sit in jail from shooting a chimpanzee and watch yourself on the 10 o' clock news? That's something I never thought I'd see, never ever in a thousand years," says 18-year-old Jason Coats, grinning and chuckling at the absurdity of it. "It shows me on the porch of our house, swinging my arms like the monkeys were swinging theirs. It looked kind of dumb, really."

Coats was picked up by detectives who came by his home in southern Jefferson County. It was Friday, May 18, a month after the incident. Because culpability wasn't at all clear, Jefferson County Prosecutor Bob Wilkins ordered an investigation, and at suppertime on a Friday, with Coats about to head out with his friends, the boot came down. The late-Friday arrest is an old prosecutor trick to force a suspect to linger in jail over the weekend before he or she can make bail. Jason's bond was set at $3,500. He was charged with destruction of property over $750 (Suzy), a felony; and animal abuse, a misdemeanor and an understatement. After all, the chimp was dead. If found guilty, Coats faces as much as a year in prison and a $1,000 fine for the misdemeanor and up to five years and a $5,000 fine for the felony.

Coats, a high-school sophomore, is a tall, gangly kid with short peroxide-streaked hair, acne and small earrings. He does not look tough or menacing. When he found himself in the group holding cell with about 20 adults -- drunks, pimps, burglars -- he wasn't afraid. "The other prisoners," he says, still amused about his experience, "they gave me respect, I'll tell you that. I stepped on this guy's cot trying to get to my bunk, and he's, like, 'Man, what you steppin' on my cot for?' And this other guy sitting there, he says, 'Don't mess with him. He's the monkey murderer. Leave him alone -- he's crazy.' I said, 'Yeah, that's right. Leave me alone.'"

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