Going Ape

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

Coats was bonded out by 3:30 Saturday morning, thanks to Clinton Wright, an attorney with the Clayton law firm of Scott Rosenblum and Associates. Coats could go home to the modest little wood-frame house on Highway CC that he shared with his mom, Pat, and he could get some shut-eye. But when he woke at noon, he had become famous, and his name and face were all over the media. Not that most folks around Festus and Crystal City didn't already know he had shot and killed Suzy the chimp in his own front yard.

Mike and Connie Casey had seen to that.

Just down the road, maybe 125 yards from the Coats' home, is a 15-acre USDA-licensed facility, home to Mike and Connie Casey, 25 monkeys and 23 chimpanzees -- well, 22 now. Through their business, Chimparty, the Caseys provide the younger chimps as entertainment for parties, nursing homes, school assemblies and TV commercials. The chimps, retired performers and former pets, are particularly popular at children's birthday parties. The Caseys also run the Missouri Primate Foundation, essentially a sanctuary for unwanted chimpanzees.

Greg Gambill (left) and Mark Lahmann, who came armed with tranquilizer guns. "I didn't actually ever think [Coats] would shoot," says Lahmann.
Jennifer Silverberg
Greg Gambill (left) and Mark Lahmann, who came armed with tranquilizer guns. "I didn't actually ever think [Coats] would shoot," says Lahmann.
Mike and Connie Casey with one of their 22 surviving chimps. "We will not let this die," says Connie, vowing to pursue additional felony charges against Jason Coats.
Jennifer Silverberg
Mike and Connie Casey with one of their 22 surviving chimps. "We will not let this die," says Connie, vowing to pursue additional felony charges against Jason Coats.

A tall chain-link fence topped with barbed wire contains the menagerie within -- most of the time, at least. Soon after Suzy was killed, the section of fence facing Highway CC began to collect stuff. Neighbors and friends placed banners, wreaths, ribbons, crosses, notes and toy monkeys on and near the fence. Inside the fence, the Caseys erected a large sign. "In Loving Memory of Suzy," it reads. "Senselessly Murdered." It names Coats as the murderer -- "maliciously killing with no justification" -- and gives his full name and address. At the bottom is the parenthetical statement "He shot our dog in the leg 3 years ago." To make sure the sign is visible at all times, floodlights have been installed.

"First time I seen that sign down there, oh man, I wanted to go down and kick them lights out, rip the sign up," Coats declares. "Then I started thinking about it: 'Man, that's exactly what they want me to do. They're just trying to make me mad, trying to make me go down there and do something I normally wouldn't do.' Well, they can put up anything they want. I'll just laugh it off. Like these newspaper ads -- at first I got so mad, I couldn't even read them. Now I just laugh. What else can you do?"

During the month when Wilkins was making up his mind about whether to prosecute Coats, the Caseys carried out their own vendetta against the teenager, buying space in two local papers, promulgating much the same message as the sign in their yard, but with a photo of Suzy. The last ad announced a reward for information leading to the conviction of Suzy's killer -- an odd request, considering that the only question before the courts is whether Coats maliciously killed the chimp or acted in self-defense. They're also selling "Suzy the Chimp" T-shirts and keeping interested parties updated on the "Suzy Case File" with daily e-mails, sometimes several a day. Presumed sympathizers with e-monikers such as "spunkymunky," "circus lady" and "monkeymom" are treated to information on standard operating procedure in animal escapes as prescribed by the federal Animal Welfare Act, to the genetic closeness of apes and human beings and to baseless predictions that Coats' next victims will be humans.

When Coats was arrested, the Caseys felt vindicated but sorely disappointed in the charges. "This is a start," says Connie Casey, "but we are not satisfied with anything less than felony assault and felony animal abuse." They also want federal charges filed because the chimps are federally protected animals. "We will not let this die," she says.

Not surprisingly, Wright, Coats' attorney, thinks the Caseys aren't being very rational. "Jason's barely old enough to drive," says Wright, "and yet the Caseys and others expect him to behave with the responsibility of a 50-year-old, to know what to do when attacked by an animal that is far stronger and more lethal than your wildest dog."

The day Suzy was shot was "an average day," says Coats. "I wasn't in a bad mood or anything. We had just come from the Dairy Queen -- I work there, got some friends that work there. They gave me some food and a ride home." It was around 6 that evening when the four teens -- Coats, Kenny Wright, Steven Cluff and Amanda McCullough, who was driving -- arrived at Coats' home with music blaring from the Chevy Cavalier. They got a surprise. "We pull in my driveway, and there's monkeys," says Coats. "We were, like, 'Wow! There's monkeys in the driveway!' And one of them came up. He was all wiggling his arms, and it sounds kind of dumb, but his balls were all hanging out and we thought it was funny."

It wasn't funny for long.

It's unclear what set off the chimps. The teens may have teased or taunted the animals, or the chimps may have felt giddy or rambunctious in their state of freedom. Nevertheless, something about the loud music, the car or its occupants really excited the chimps, especially the big male, Coco. "We were laughing at him," says Coats, "and he came up to the window, started banging and screaming and baring his teeth. I don't know, it scared us." And Coats was well aware of the chimp fracas seven years earlier in the Mercers' trailer, behind his house.

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