By Lindsay Toler
By Ray Downs
By Lindsay Toler
By Village Voice Writers
By Lindsay Toler
By Lindsay Toler
By Danny Wicentowski
By Lindsay Toler
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.'"
"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 andan 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.'"
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.
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.
The teens drove up the driveway, around to the back of the house. When they got out, says Coats, the chimps went to the car and started rocking it. The teens were no longer amused. They sensed aggression in the animals.
The three adult chimps -- Suzy, Gabby and Coco -- had escaped sometime earlier when Connie Casey, 52, mistakenly thought she had locked their cages after cleaning them. First they wandered to the home of J.C. and Joan Wills, who live between the Caseys and the Coatses. The Willses have lived there since 1968 and are used to the chimps. When Coco and the Willses' son, Skowie, were youngsters, Coco would wait for Skowie at the school-bus stop at the end of the driveway. After Skowie was dropped off, Coco, clad only in shorts, would undress the boy. Nimbly he would take off Skowie's shirt, undo his shoes, take off the shoes and socks, get the boy to where he was dressed just like Coco. It was a ritual they both loved. Those days were long gone. Now Coco was a full-grown 140-pound ape, not allowed to roam the neighborhood. In fact, none of the chimps was. Still, J.C. Wills wasn't surprised when the trio showed up at his door.
"The chimps come up on my front porch," says Wills, 62. "One opened the front door, looked in. I just hollered at him: 'Shoo, get outta here!' He played around the front porch for a while. Right about then, the kids drove up. They had that loud music going. The chimps went over, they pounded on the car like how they hit on stuff, you know. I would say it probably did scare them kids right off the bat, not knowing about the chimps and all that."
Connie Casey was soon on the trail of the wayward chimps. She showed up in the Coatses' yard with Greg Gambill and Mark Lahmann, contractors who happened to be working for her that day, carrying dart-loaded revolverlike tranquilizer guns. "We pulled in the driveway," remarks Lahmann, a hale, ruddy 38. "We seen Coco standing behind their car and these teenagers throwing rocks at him. The teenagers were hollering and cussing at him, just goin' off the wall, and Coco's just standing there, like, 'What're you guys up to?' We told them to either stay inside the car or go in the house. We had it under control."
The Coatses' gravel driveway forms a crescent, winding alongside and behind the house. On a recent afternoon, Jason Coats stands on the drive, about 20 feet from the back door, in the spot where McCullough's Cavalier was parked that day. "Here they came at us," he says excitedly. "We got out of the car, picked up a handful of rocks and tried to get them out of here. The monkeys picked up the rocks and threw them back at us! That blew my mind! I never threw a rock at an animal and then have it thrown back at me." He points to a busted double-pane window on the side of the house. "The big one did that," he notes.
Then Lucky compounded the chaos. Lucky is the Coatses' pooch, a medium-sized black-and-white mutt with maybe some collie in him. "I see all three of them coming at Lucky," says Coats, talking rapid-fire now. "He's a little dog, but he's a fighter. He's barking and nipping at them, and one of them threw Lucky about 10 feet. I thought they'd kill my dog. We stayed close to the car and grabbed some more rocks. I was pissed and scared. Then the big one, the male, charged. I get in the car, and something dark flashed over my shoulder. He was on the car. Then he was next to the car, pounding on the window -- bam, bam, bam! I was face to face with it -- screaming, swingin' his arms, baring his teeth, trying to break the window, it looked like. It was, hands down, the scariest thing of my entire life.
"After that happened, I was, like, 'This is enough. Something's gonna happen -- either we're gonna get hurt or killed. We got to get out of this car,'" he adds. "I told them to let me out, and I bolted for the house."
Gambill, 35, trim and sandy-haired, says he never saw the chimps act aggressively toward the teens, although he, Lahmann and Connie Casey arrived at the scene after the teens were already there. "The only aggression I seen at all was from the boys," says Gambill, "who at first was just cussin' and makin' threats until the point when Jason Coats decided that the dart guns weren't powerful enough to take care of the job -- for him."
Coats recalls his dash from the car to the back door of the house as a scene right out of a horror movie. "Everything was kind of in slow motion, and those monkeys were close and they were mad," he says. "When I got to the door, I was afraid I'd fumble the keys and they'd get me. I got inside and called 911, but I knew it's gonna take them forever to get here and my friends are still out in the car. I ran upstairs, loaded the 20-gauge."
"He come back out with a shotgun, trying to get a shot at them," says Lahmann. "I didn't actually ever think he would shoot. 'He's just goofin' off' was what I kind of thought at the time, because the owner's there and we're there ..."
"It was a bad situation, and they just made it worse," adds Gambill. "The whole time, we was beggin' 'em, 'Please go inside and let us handle it,' and Connie's crying, saying, 'Don't shoot our chimps.'"
At some point, Coats' three friends joined him in the house and then went out on the porch to see whether he was really going to "shoot the goddamn monkeys," as he promised. Connie Casey was trying valiantly to gain control of the situation. Her efforts weren't working too well. The chimps were scampering here and there. At times, they were running out onto the highway. They didn't want to be shot with ketamine hydrochloride from the dart guns the humans were carrying. Connie had already darted Suzy back at the compound, just before she took off. Then Lahmann got her a second time. Suzy ran to the front of the yard and sat there at the crest of a roadside ditch, in the shade of a bush.
"So we all moved toward the front of the house," says Lahmann, "and then Coats came off the porch with his gun there, into his yard there, and his buddies are on the porch, egging him on: 'Shoot the blankety-blank monkey!' And we're in between him and the chimp. He kept waving that gun around, trying to outmaneuver us."
When Casey saw Coats leveling his sights at Suzy, she says, she pleaded with him: "I begged him not to shoot. 'Please don't pull the trigger,' I said."
Jason pulled the trigger three times. The first round was birdshot. It hit the 28-year-old, 115-pound Suzy in the back, causing her to lunge forward, toward the drainage ditch. "It let out a monkey screech," recalls Coats. The second and third rounds were slugs, each a single ball of lead. The second shot hit her on the left side, spinning her around. He then chambered the third round. That one, fired when Suzy was lying on the ground, hit her in the face and took her lower jaw.
"It was hurt," offers Coats. "That's why I fired the other rounds. It's never right for an animal to suffer. I asked Connie Casey -- did she want me to take that animal out of its misery?"
Casey says Coats said nothing of the kind. Instead, she says, he aimed the shotgun at her and told her to get the hell out of the way. "I never pointed the gun at her," insists Coats, "and the safety was on until the moment I pulled the trigger."
J.C. Wills showed up: "I heard the shots, and I said, 'Holy shit!' Then I went over there and asked him what in the hell he's doing. He says, 'Oh, I had to protect my buddies. I had to get them in the house.' I said, 'Hell, you was already in the house. You was all upstairs looking out the window.' He didn't have to shoot that chimp, you know? He was just kind of showing off."
Meanwhile, says Casey, when she tried to move the stricken Suzy to the rear of the pickup, Coats ordered her to leave the chimp there. "I did tell her not to touch it," he affirms. "My dad told me, 'If you shoot something and it dies on your property, that's your evidence.' Then, when police come, they know where it happened and maybe what happened."
But Casey defied Coats' command. Gabby and Coco went to Suzy's side. They were panting on her and licking her, trying to comfort her. The workmen tried to get Suzy into the truck and to shield Coco and Gabby from Coats and his gun. "After shooting the first chimp," says Gambill, "he threatened to kill the rest: 'I'm gonna shoot 'em all,' he's yelling. 'Get out of my way so I can shoot.' We continued to stay between him and the chimps. And at one point he was on the roof with that gun, trying to get a better angle."
Suzy didn't die for another two hours, not until Tom "Butch" Jones, a veterinarian, arrived from his clinic in Crystal City and decided to euthanize her. She had had a baby just three weeks earlier.
The locals call them monkeys, but in fact they are apes -- tail-less primates that include chimps, gorillas and orangutans. The chimpanzee or, as Linneas might say, Pan trogolodytes, hails from the thick rainforests and woodlands of equatorial Africa. They are a sociable species, living in family units, and are considered the closest living relatives of human beings. And they act like humans: A baby chimp laughs when it is tickled. After chimps fight, they kiss and make up. Chimpanzees also are the only animals that make tools, and, like humans, they have the capacity to solve problems and to plan ahead. They are one of the few animals able to recognize themselves in a mirror. Chimps subsist on vegetation, fruit and insects, but sometimes they form hunting parties and prey on other animals for food. An adult male chimpanzee stands 3 to 4 feet tall and weighs up to 140 pounds but is stronger than a muscular 6-foot man.
"The adult male chimpanzee is five times as strong as a human," says Frans deWaal, 52, a professor of psychology at Emory University and research primatologist with the Yerkes Primate Center in Atlanta. "Long ago in the U.S.," he explains, "experiments were done that compared the chimp male's arm strength -- pulling strengths -- to that of a college football player's, and that was the proven ratio: 5-to-1. There's no way a man -- Arnold Schwarzenegger; you name the man -- there's no way he's going to hold his own against the male chimpanzee.
"It's an extremely unfortunate circumstance," says deWaal after being told the details of Suzy's death. "If the kids had not been there, they would have tranquilized the chimps, and nothing would've happened. But the kids, being kids, they were not able to sit and be patient -- because that's what they should have done, of course, just stayed in the car, turned the music down and waited until things calmed down.
"They could have gotten killed," continues deWaal. "Normally, in a situation like that when they're loose, if familiar people approach them, especially people they like, and they act calmly, then the chimps will also act calmly. And tranquilizing may not even be necessary. But if strangers throw stones at them, yeah, they're going to throw stones back. The dog probably also did not help, because chimps hate dogs in general. And when you agitate them, they become even more dangerous. So the approach to take is to try to calm them down. But, you know, that's hard to expect from a 17-year-old who has never been around a chimp.
"Though I don't sympathize with people carrying guns and shooting at things," deWaal surmises, "it seems unfair to lay all the blame on the boy. I think there's blame on both sides. If these people have 23 chimps over there, they have an obligation to inform the community about what it means when a chimp escapes or to make sure it doesn't happen at all."
Mike Casey hasn't seen the need to educate his neighbors about the chimps: "It happens so rarely and because everybody here has grown up with the chimps."
Like most primate researchers, deWaal disavows the practice of showing chimps for entertainment, such as the events put on by Chimparty. "I think it's degrading for the chimps to be dressed up as clowns, almost," he says. "I don't think that's funny at all."
It's comments such as this one -- along with all the publicity from Suzy's shooting -- that have prompted the Caseys to retool the image of Chimparty. Started in 1992, Chimparty has allowed thousands of kids and adults to get up close and personal with a chimpanzee. No more, says Mike Casey. "Chimparty is no longer going to do chimp parties per se," he says. "We intend to apply for nonprofit status. We're thinking of opening to the public on an appointment basis. We may accept college students who want to do behavioral studies. We're going to reach out to touch a different side of the community.
"Don't get me wrong," he goes on, "everything about Chimparty was great. I mean, it was started because we thought, 'Most people go through their whole life without ever getting to see a chimp, unless it's behind glass or bars at a zoo.' And we thought, 'What better way to create awareness than through hands-on learning, and let people see that this is a special creature that we really do need to be concerned about, rather than just some name on a list?' But Chimparty, even though the name was appealing to the masses, I think you still have some people thinking, 'Oh, chimps on roller skates,' and that kind of thing."
It is a sunny weekday morning in June and, though Suzy is dead, life goes on for the primates in this bucolic enclave. Most of the hirsute inhabitants are in the large indoor-outdoor habitat that connects to the Casey's home. Like the ape house at the St. Louis Zoo, visitors watch the apes through thick glass. Out on the expansive yard are several open-air corn cribs, in which one or two chimps may be seen sunning or exercising. In the midst of it all is a manicured pond whose banks are watched over by life-size sculptures of chimps and a gorilla. The place has the feel of a Club Med for primates.
In the late 1960s, Connie Casey and her first husband, Sylvester Braun, opened a pet shop, Braun's Aqua Barn. There were some primates even back then, and neighbors still recall seeing Braun on his riding lawnmower, cutting the grass with a chimp in his lap. Braun died in 1986, and a few years later Mike Casey stepped into the picture. He had left the U.S. Navy, raised and sold exotic animals to zoos and private collectors, and operated a wholesale tropical-fish warehouse. Before marrying Connie and moving to Festus, he had worked at a private zoo in Florida, where he was drawn to the apes because of, he says, "their level of intelligence. God put these creatures on this earth for a special reason, probably to teach us about ourselves."
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?
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."
A .22 rifle is propped in the corner, just inside the side door. The shotgun Coats used to kill Suzy is gone, however, confiscated by the sheriff. The Caseys say they've been told that Coats "has a whole closet full of guns." Since Suzy's death, the Caseys have been told a lot of things about Coats by well-meaning busybodies. One man complained that Coats comes over and gets his dog drunk. A teenager said he once saw him kick a kitten like a football. A woman said she knew a man who picked up Coats hitchhiking and the young man asked him whether he had any "tweak," meaning methamphetamine. The Caseys don't have any compunctions about spreading these tales. In fact, they have included these choice anecdotes and "signed statements" -- with the names scratched out -- in the 12-page collection of news clips, reports and commentary faxed to the Riverfront Times.This, in turn, is part of a larger volume, a neatly kept ring binder titled "Suzy's Murder -- Confidential," featuring 8-by-10 full-color necropsy photos of the late Suzy.
Coats' notoriety as a "monkey murderer" has haunted him from the start. He was suspended from school for two days "because I cussed in school. It was in child-development class," he clarifies, "and we had ropes that we were using in practicing playing with little kids. They said, 'The name of the rope is Sally,' or something like that, and a kid said, 'My rope is Suzy. Don't kill it, Jason.' That just kind of made me mad. I was having a bad day anyway, so I called him an asshole."
He ran into a lot of flack like that at first. "The first three days after it happened, all I heard the five minutes between classes was 'monkey murderer' -- I'm talking nonstop, every two steps," he says. "Then one day, this substitute teacher was doing roll call. She comes to 'Jason Coats.' I go, 'Here.' And she looks at me and goes, 'You're the monkey murderer?' I go, 'Yeah, I'm the monkey murderer.' Things like that. Now they put my name and face out there on the news. I'll be walking around and I notice people looking at me, pointing at me."
Even the courts are not a haven from ridicule. When Coats and attorney Wright went to court June 12 for his arraignment, they were met by a small group of Casey supporters wearing Suzy T-shirts. Mike Casey says he hopes to have a much bigger showing for the July 27 preliminary hearing.
After his appearance and while Wright was off on other business, a radio reporter shoved a microphone in Coats' face. The following was broadcast: 'You seem to think this is funny. What's so funny? Do you like guns? Do you have anything to say?' Coats, ambushed, says, 'No comment." The reporter continues with rapid-fire questions. He ends his report with: "Just so you know, we'll be back." Coats, however, says the reporter's last remark, not aired, was: "Are you going to shoot me, too?"
For his part, Coats adopts a fatalistic attitude over the incident.
"It was something that happened," he reflects. "I can't take it back, can't change it. I think they ought to just let it go." It's a weekday afternoon, and Coats, dressed in blue jeans and New York Yankees T-shirt, is sitting at the kitchen table, trying to explain his feelings. "I understand about their loss," he continues. "They've had the monkey for 17 years, whatever, but it was [Connie Casey's] fault they got out in the first place. It was their chimpanzee got loose, came after us. OK, someone shot her chimpanzee. It was either that or I thought I was gonna get hurt. It had to be done. I mean, this is my house. I'm trying to get in my house safely, and I should be able to do that. What if my mom would've come home by herself with a handful of groceries? The kids around the neighborhood, what if one of them got hurt? Or my dog? There's a lot of different scenarios that could've happened where people get hurt, but instead the monkey gets shot and I'm the bad guy."
Presenting his defense, Coats becomes passionate, ebullient. What if the attackers had been pit bulls instead of chimps? he wonders: "Everybody would go, 'Damn right! I'd a shot it, too.' But since it's a chimpanzee and everybody likes chimpanzees -- the ones they see in the zoo -- they're, like, 'Oh, it's a little harmless chimp.'
"Well, it's nothing like that. It's a big, vicious, smart, strong, fast animal that can't be controlled."