Going Ape

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

As for the Missouri Primate Foundation, the shelter arm of the Caseys' operation, Mike says many of the animals -- including Suzy -- came from private zoos. "Connie paid for Suzy," he says. "She got her out of that situation and into this situation. For 17 years Suzy lived here peacefully with the other chimps. These animals live 50, 60 years in captivity. This is not a waystation. Once they come here, it's for good."

Although the Caseys seem compassionate when it comes to their animals, they show no mercy for Jason Coats. What they want is for Coats to have the book thrown at him. The goal consumes them. Their answering machine has a new greeting: They can't answer the phone right now because they're too busy trying to bring Coats to justice. And not just him. They want charges brought against his three friends for "acting in concert," as well as Coats' mother for "lack of supervision" in allowing the young man access to firearms. They went to the Coatses' landlady and asked her to evict the family. "The landlady told them to forget it," says Pat Coats, 46. "She doesn't approve of those monkeys anyway. What is it with those people? Are they just so driven with hate? I feel sorry for them."

The Caseys have vilified the Coatses, especially Jason. The question was put to Mike Casey: Is Jason Coats a closet psychopath or a relatively normal teen who made an error in judgment?

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!"

Mike Casey, 38, a burly fellow with short, dark hair and a T-shirt emblazoned with a picture of a chimp, ponders this for a moment: "I think that's he's a prime candidate for what the Humane Society of the United States calls their 'first-strike candidate,' which deals specifically with people that cross the line from animal abuse to school shootings," he says. "All of them started out with animal abuse. You know, a guy stopped by here and said taking Jason's shotgun away won't matter because he has a whole closet full of guns. So does that fit the profile of another school shooter? Yeah, I think, absolutely. I mean, he shot a chimp. How much closer to a human can you get?"

The Caseys like to play up the genetic similarity between man and ape. One of their e-mails, devoted to grousing about what they consider slap-on-the-wrist charges for the incident, argues that because chimpanzees share 98 percent of human DNA makeup, what Coats did amounted to 98 percent murder.

Hearing this, Coats wags his head in astonishment. "If that's 98 percent murder," he quips, "then what they're doing over there is 98 percent slavery."

Coats has had a rough couple of years. His dad moved out last summer, when Jason was 17; the divorce was final in January. Coats is the youngest of five -- his three stepbrothers and sister have all left home -- and lives with his mom. At 16, he missed a year of school fighting testicular cancer. "The operations were hell," he says, pointing to an 8-inch Frankenstein scar running down his belly, "but the chemo was worse. They wanted me to keep going on it, but it seemed like the cure was worse than the sickness. I told them, 'Take me off it,' that I'd put my faith in God." The cancer is gone, and Coats, who turned 18 in April, is one of the oldest sophomores at De Soto High School.

Still, in between trials, life hasn't been too bad. The Coatses have rented the two-story cream-colored home since 1994. Pat has a good job in sales, and Jason has friends around the area. He remembers that in his younger days he would go into the back yard and watch the apes in their cages. "I've watched them many times," he says. "The only time they ever got on my nerves is, like, in mating season; around this time of year, they start making a lot of noise. I never had nothin' against them. I just thought it was cool: I'm living next door to monkeys. Who lives next door to monkeys?"

The first time Coats met the Caseys, he recalls, was four years ago, when they accused him of shooting their dog. The dog did sustain a graze wound on one paw, but Coats says he didn't do it. "My friend's cousin had brought over a .22 with a new scope, and he was trying it out when their rottweiler got loose," he says. "I was inside when it all happened. This kid wasn't shooting at the dog, but the shot ricocheted and hit the dog in the paw. It went home yelping and they came over here yelling at me, but it ended up being all right. The dog was OK."

It's not uncommon for teenage boys to tote .22 rifles and shotguns in this semirural portion of southern Jefferson County. In fact, this stretch of Highway CC sits on the crest of a long, sloping valley. Find the right vantage point and look to the east; all that's visible is greenery and trees. This forest has the squirrels and rabbits Coats and his friends hunt. "I've been shooting since I was a little kid," he says. "BB guns at first, and I got my first .22 since we lived here. I took riflery in Boy Scouts, hunter education, the whole nine yards. Hunting is not a real big part of my life. Deer season comes around, I take a week off, go hunting with my friends."

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