1. #1
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    Post Palm Harbor Fla--2 Fires @ Primate Sanctuary called suspicious

    St. Petersburg Times--North Pinellas

    Fire at former Chimp Farm is called suspicious
    With volunteers' help, however, animals at the Suncoast Primate Sanctuary are kept safe and calm.
    By RICHARD DANIELSON, Times Staff Writer
    St. Petersburg Times
    published April 13, 2003


    PALM HARBOR -- A fire Friday night that destroyed several old travel trailers just a few yards from animal cages at the Suncoast Primate Sanctuary was intentionally set, a state Fire Marshal's investigator said Saturday.

    With no electricity to the five vacant trailers and one semitrailer container that burned, someone started the fire, state investigator Randy St. Clair said. "Stuff just doesn't burst into flames by itself."

    The fire was the second suspicious blaze in four days on the grounds of the sanctuary, known for decades as Noell's Ark Chimp Farm. Early Tuesday evening, a small fire burned through a storage shed stuffed with old magazines, gas grills, furniture, toys and other junk.

    Friday's fire started shortly before 9:30 p.m. and quickly turned into a much bigger and more intense conflagration.

    When firefighters arrived, flames from the old trailers, which had been connected under a common roof on the southern part of the property shot 30 to 50 feet into the air.

    The burning mobile homes sat within 25 feet of the nearest animal cages, but officials and managers of the facility said none of the 60 animals on the property was injured. Firefighters contained the fire quickly and then spent the better part of 90 minutes extinguishing flames fed by junk stored in the sheet-metal structures.

    There was so much gas and other flammable liquids stored in the trailers that on Saturday investigators couldn't use an accelerant-sniffing dog to search the debris, St. Clair said.

    "It was pretty much a defensive operation from the very beginning," said Palm Harbor Fire Rescue Lt. Charlie Anderson, an acting district chief who was the incident commander. Eventually, about 30 firefighters from Palm Harbor, East Lake, Tarpon Springs, Dunedin and Safety Harbor were called in to help work the fire. No one was injured.

    Alt. U.S. 19 south of Klosterman Road was closed for more than 2 hours because of the fire. Smoke drifted to U.S. 19, about 1 1/2 miles to the east.

    Along with emergency personnel, a half-dozen or more sanctuary volunteers rushed to the property to comfort animals they care for every day. As a result, the animals remained remarkably calm and quiet as firefighters worked to knock down flames a few yards away.

    Several times, water from fire hoses sprayed over the travel trailers and into side-by-side cages occupied by Mrs. Bear, a grizzly/brown bear hybrid that is about 40 years old, and Laverne, a 9-year-old macaque monkey. Both paced a bit, but neither made any noise.

    The same was true of a nearby pair of goats named Pie and T.C., as well as Otto, a 37-year-old, 550-pound lowland gorilla in a cage another 20 or so feet away.

    "That's because the caregivers are here, and that's because they see the people helping," said Debbie Cobb, 43, the granddaughter of the facility's founders and a director of the nonprofit organization that now manages the facility.

    Throughout the fire, she walked around the facility, comforting animals and talking to volunteers sitting or standing near cages.

    "I'll be back, Otto," she told the gorilla before leaving on a quick tour of the property. When a volunteer asked why the animals were so quiet, she said, "because we're all here. That's a good thing.

    "I'm thankful" the animals were not hurt, Cobb said. "I'm just concerned for whoever did it, because they need help."

    As of Saturday afternoon, officials had no suspects in Friday's fire. The state Fire Marshal planned to offer a $2,500 reward for information leading to an arrest in the case, St. Clair said. He didn't know yet whether the two fires were related, "but we're looking into it."

    Four juveniles were detained or questioned by sheriff's deputies after the first fire last week, St. Clair said. Cobb said she spoke to one of the boys that night and recognized him as one of many juveniles who come to help maintain the facility as part of community service. The boy was back on the property Saturday as part of the program, which Cobb said the sanctuary's board has decided to shut down.

    "I'm really trying not to focus on that one individual or that person until I really know what happened," she said.

    The sanctuary -- an assemblage of old buildings, outdoor cages and a large new facility under construction -- has a colorful and sometimes controversial history.

    It was founded in 1954 by Robert and Mae Noell, each of whom was born to families that performed in medicine shows along the Atlantic seaboard. In 1939, they had spent $300 to buy a chimpanzee named Snookie, the first in a series of chimps that boxed and wrestled with male volunteers in town after town.

    The Noells gave up the show circuit and settled permanently on their property south of Tarpon Springs in 1971. After they retired, they developed a reputation for taking in abandoned, old and sick animals, mostly apes and monkeys.

    But the facility could not keep up with changing government regulations that required larger cages for exotic animals. The U.S. Department of Agriculture revoked the license for the decades-old roadside attraction in 1999 and forced it to close its doors to the public because of its rusty, small and dirty cages and poor record keeping.

    Since then, volunteers have worked to reopen the facility as a nonprofit sanctuary -- formally known as Suncoast Primate Sanctuary & Wildlife Rehabilitation Center -- that complies with government regulations. In December, the sanctuary's managers estimated they needed about $250,000 to complete its 19,000-square-foot Great Ape Habitat, which has bigger and cleaner enclosures and has been built with donated services.

    On Saturday, Cobb appealed for the donated services of a bulldozer or other heavy equipment that could help clean up the blackened debris. Volunteers can contact the facility at (727) 943-5897 or e-mail it through its Web site, www.chimpfarm.org, she said.

    "This is the last thing we needed," she said of the fires. "We need help and we need to stay focused on what . . . our agenda is, and this isn't it."

    Cobb said the fires will not deter the organization from pushing ahead to complete the sanctuary and get the approvals it needs to reopen as an educational and rehabilitation center. The place is home to 24 chimps now, she said, and aging or sick animals need someone to care for them just as older and infirm people need hospitals and nursing homes. That, she adds, is the role that the sanctuary intends to fulfill.

    "God is good, and the animals are safe," Cobb said. "That's all I care about."

    -- Richard Danielson can be reached at (727) 445-4194 or danielson@sptimes.com .
    09-11 .. 343 "All Gave Some..Some Gave ALL" God Bless..R.I.P.
    ------------------------------
    IACOJ Minister of Southern Comfort
    "Purple Hydrant" Recipient (3 Times)
    BMI Investigator
    ------------------------------
    The comments, opinions, and positions expressed here are mine. They are expressed respectfully, in the spirit of safety and progress. They do not reflect the opinions or positions of my employer or my department.

  2. #2
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    Post Follow Up Story

    St. Petersburg Times...North Pinellas

    Animal sanctuary fire yields another suspect
    A man investigated in other fires is a suspect, in addition to youths questioned after the old Chimp Farm arson last week.

    By MEGAN SCOTT and RICHARD DANIELSON
    St. Petersburg Times
    published April 15, 2003


    PALM HARBOR -- Along with juveniles interviewed after a first fire last week, investigators are looking at another suspect in an arson Friday night at the former Chimp Farm, a state Fire Marshal's official said Monday.

    The suspect is a man who has been investigated in other fires in the area, Fire Marshal spokesman Mike Douglas said.

    "At this point, nobody's been cleared in this case," Douglas said.

    Friday night's fire did an estimated $20,000 in damage, he said. It destroyed several old trailers a few yards away from animal cages at the Suncoast Primate Sanctuary, a former roadside tourist attraction known for nearly half a century as Noell's Ark Chimp Farm. Investigators said the fire was intentionally set and there were multiple points of origin.

    It was the second suspicious blaze in four days at the sanctuary. On Tuesday night, a fire in a small, junk-filled storage shed was quickly put out. Friday night's fire was bigger and more intense. It turned a semitrailer container and five old travel trailers that had been connected under one roof into a pile of blackened rubble.

    None of the 30 firefighters who spent several hours extinguishing the blaze was hurt -- nor were any of the 60 chimps, monkeys and other animals at the facility. At its closest, the fire was about 25 feet from several outdoor pens and cages occupied by a bear, a monkey and two goats. Closed to the public for several years, the sanctuary now is a nonprofit facility undergoing an extensive renovation and expansion.

    Four juveniles were detained or questioned by authorities after the first fire last week. Officials have not said whether the two fires were related.

    The Florida Advisory Committee on Prevention of Arson is offering a reward of up to $2,500 for information leading to an arrest in the case. Anyone with information can call 1-800-638-3473.
    09-11 .. 343 "All Gave Some..Some Gave ALL" God Bless..R.I.P.
    ------------------------------
    IACOJ Minister of Southern Comfort
    "Purple Hydrant" Recipient (3 Times)
    BMI Investigator
    ------------------------------
    The comments, opinions, and positions expressed here are mine. They are expressed respectfully, in the spirit of safety and progress. They do not reflect the opinions or positions of my employer or my department.

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    Post Follow Up....Teens Identified as Suspects

    3 boys suspected in fire at chimp farm
    After getting caught trespassing, one of the 9-year-olds told officers he and two friends had set the blazes.
    By CANDACE RONDEAUX, Times Staff Writer
    St. Petersburg Times
    published May 3, 2003

    --------------------------------------------------------------------------------


    TARPON SPRINGS - They were just going to snatch some flares.

    It was a little after 5 p.m. Thursday when the three boys began scaling the 6-foot fence at Pinellas Marine Salvage.

    They'd done it before.

    The first time, they hit up a boat stored at the salvage yard made off with a few fishing poles and busted open a case full of 12-gauge flares. The second time, they broke into another boat and hopped back over the fence again, more flares in hand.

    But when they went back Thursday night they got caught. Now, say authorities, the three 9-year-olds have more to worry about than a few handfuls of stolen flares.

    State fire marshals said Friday they will recommend that prosecutors charge the three Tarpon Springs fourth-graders with second-degree arson in a raging fire last month at a former roadside tourist attraction known for almost half a century as Noell's Ark Chimp Farm.

    "If it wasn't for the Tarpon Springs police picking them up we wouldn't have had anything," state Fire Marshal investigator Randy St. Clair said Friday.

    It was the second suspicious blaze in less than week at the animal sanctuary. A fire in a small, junk-filled storage shed on April 8 was quickly put out. The second fire on April 11 was more intense, resulting in an estimated $20,000 in damages. It turned a semitrailer container and five old travel trailers that had been connected under one roof into a pile of blackened rubble.

    St. Clair and colleagues questioned several people in the arson, including four teenagers who had been seen in the area the night the fire broke out on April 11. Authorities also made contact with a man who has been investigated in other fires in the area.

    But none of that turned up any solid leads and the investigation appeared to have hit a dead end, St. Clair said.

    That changed Thursday evening when Tarpon Springs police officers received a call about a burglary in progress at the Pinellas Marine Salvage at E Oakwood and Safford Avenue.

    About an hour after Pinellas Marine Salvage general manager Nick Mavrogiannis caught one of the three boys, whose names were not released, trespassing on his property and police took one of the boys into custody, the 9-year old told officers he and his two friends had set two fires at the Chimp Farm.

    "When I heard burglary in progress and came in and didn't see anyone I thought they had this big guy tied up," said Tarpon Springs Police Sgt. Mike Trill. "Instead here's this 9-year-old kid sitting there."

    Bare-chested and sporting a silver chain around his neck, the boy barely looked up when Trill confronted him about trespassing. Asked if he knew why he was in trouble, the boy only nodded and his hands, caked with grease and dirt, began to shake.

    "He was really scared," Mavrogiannis said. "I felt sorry for him, to tell you the truth."

    Within an hour the boy had surprised police by volunteering that he set the fire at the Chimp Farm.

    St. Clair said he and another fire marshal interviewed one of two boys brought to the police station for almost 90 minutes while his mother stood by Thursday night. Authorities planned to question on Friday a third boy involved in the incident.

    "Everything they said matches up," St. Clair said.

    The first fire broke out on April 8, after a can of aerosol and a lighter was used to try to break open a lock on one of the semitrailers stored on the Chimp Farm's lot. Shortly after the conflagration erupted, someone called 911, St. Clair said.

    Three days later someone broke into another trailer on the lot and stole knives and other items stored there. Unable to break open the lock there, they used a lighter to create a blowtorch again. The trailer was quickly engulfed in flames 75 feet high, St. Clair said.

    "It just goes to show you how dangerous a 9-year-old can be with a lighter and a can of aerosol," he said.

    "We were devastated from what happened," said Debbie Cobb, 43, the granddaughter of the facility's founders and a director of the nonprofit organization that now manages the facility.

    "That put almost 100 living breathing beings in danger that night," she said.

    None of the 30 firefighters who spent several hours extinguishing the blaze was hurt - nor were any of the farm's staff members, 60 chimps, monkeys and other animals at the center. At its closest, the fire was about 25 feet from several outdoor pens and cages occupied by a bear, a monkey and two goats. Closed to the public for several years, the sanctuary now is a nonprofit center undergoing an extensive renovation and expansion and is known as the Suncoast Primate Sanctuary & Wildlife Rehabilitation Center.

    With no charges filed against them Friday, it was unclear what penalties the boys might face. But St. Clair said the boys could at least be required to attend several weeks of a class sponsored by the county for juvenile arsonists.

    "I'm just glad we got some closure to this," St. Clair said.

    - Candace Rondeaux can be reached at (727) 445-4182 or rondeaux@sptimes.com
    09-11 .. 343 "All Gave Some..Some Gave ALL" God Bless..R.I.P.
    ------------------------------
    IACOJ Minister of Southern Comfort
    "Purple Hydrant" Recipient (3 Times)
    BMI Investigator
    ------------------------------
    The comments, opinions, and positions expressed here are mine. They are expressed respectfully, in the spirit of safety and progress. They do not reflect the opinions or positions of my employer or my department.

  4. #4
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    Post Update--Police Arrest Mother for Driving Children to the Site

    St. Petersburg Times--North Pinellas

    Mother accused of bringing kids to vandalize chimp farm


    Associated Press, May 15, 2003 - 04:53 PM

    --------------------------------------------------------------------------------
    PALM HARBOR, Fla.
    A mother is accused of bringing her children with her when she broke into trailers at a retirement farm for aging chimpanzees, and her 9-year-old son is now facing charges he returned to the farm and set fire to the trailers, authorities said Thursday.

    None of the 60 monkeys or chimps at the Suncoast Primate Sanctuary & Wildlife Rehabilitation Center was injured in two April fires set at the farm, said Randy St. Clair, an investigator with the state fire marshal's office.

    The mother, Susan Ververs, 39, was arrested Tuesday and charged with burglary and grand theft. Items stolen from the trailers were recovered at her home in Tarpon Springs, St. Clair said.

    Her son and a 14-year-old daughter also are facing charges, St. Clair said. They are not being identified because of their ages.

    Ververs, who does not have a listed telephone number, could not be reached and the Pinellas County Public Defenders' Office did not return calls for comment. She is free on a $20,000 bond.

    St. Clair said the family stole dozens of items from the trailers, including two firearms, jewelry and baseball cards from the 1940s.

    The items had belonged to the Noell family, whose traveling great ape show toured Florida a generation ago, settling in Palm Harbor and opening a roadside zoo. The zoo closed several years ago and is in the process of being transformed into an animal retirement farm.

    St. Clair said the family had been looting the storage trailers slowly over a 30-day period.

    On April 8, a fire was set in one trailer by an arsonist using a lighter and spray paint. Three days later, five mobile homes were set ablaze, destroying scores of the farm owner's personal possessions that were being stored there. Investigators think two other boys who were friends with the 9-year-old are also involved in those fires.
    09-11 .. 343 "All Gave Some..Some Gave ALL" God Bless..R.I.P.
    ------------------------------
    IACOJ Minister of Southern Comfort
    "Purple Hydrant" Recipient (3 Times)
    BMI Investigator
    ------------------------------
    The comments, opinions, and positions expressed here are mine. They are expressed respectfully, in the spirit of safety and progress. They do not reflect the opinions or positions of my employer or my department.

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