State Won't Charge Owner In Chimp Attack Case

The Hartford Courant

Charla Nash's family members said they have mixed feelings but were ultimately accepting of a decision by prosecutors not to charge Sandra Herold, owner of the chimpanzee that mauled Nash in February.

Stamford State's Attorney David Cohen said Monday that an investigation did not determine that Herold, Nash's longtime friend and employer, had acted recklessly in her care of the 200-pound chimp, or that she had disregarded information that the chimp, named Travis, was dangerous.

Cohen also said it was unclear whether tablets of the anti-anxiety drug Xanax that Herold had given to the chimp right before the Feb. 6 attack had any role in the chimp's behavior. The prosecutor said that although there were concerns inside the state Department of Environmental Protection about the chimp's presence in the home, those concerns were never conveyed to Herold. In addition, the DEP did not enforce a law that would have required Herold to have a permit for the chimp since 2004, Cohen said.

Bridgeport attorney Charles J. Willinger Jr., who represents Nash and her family, disputed some of Cohen's analysis of the case, especially the conclusion that Herold did not know of the "dangerous propensities" of the chimpanzee.

Nonetheless, he said, the family understands the prosecutor's conclusions.

"Even though we have that difference of opinion, the family really does appreciate the time and effort that the state's attorney's office spent investigating this matter, and they're pretty much at peace with that decision," he said. "It will not in any way impact our civil case."

Willinger said that the family is focusing on Nash's care and rehabilitation. She is currently recovering from her injuries at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio.

In addition to suing Herold, Nash's attorneys have sought to sue the state, an action that requires permission from the state Claims Commissioner. They are seeking $150 million.

Cohen called the incident "a great tragedy," but said that responsibility for the attack "will be determined by the civil courts of Connecticut."

Citing the lawsuit, DEP spokesman Dennis Schain said that the agency would have no comment.

Herold's lawyer, Robert Golger, said that the chimp had been "lawfully owned by Herold and she broke no laws in the care and custody" of the animal. Golger said that "there was no prohibition at the time against owning" the chimp when Herold first got him. The chimp was later exempted from permit requirements, Golger said.

On Monday afternoon, however, Cohen pointed out that the exemption had expired in 2004. Cohen acknowledged that DEP staff members were concerned about the chimp in the months before the attack, and that those concerns were discussed within the DEP. But he said there was no evidence that the concerns were conveyed to Herold.

"I am making no judgment as to the actions of DEP," Cohen said. "I am mentioning the lack of enforcement on the part of DEP only to illustrate that no one made Mrs. Herold aware in any way of the risk entailed in keeping the chimpanzee."

Cohen said that a minimal amount of Xanax was found in the chimp's body during a necropsy, but that there was very little scientific information about what effect, if any, Xanax has on large animals. Asked if there would be any criminality in Herold's giving Xanax, he said there was none. Cohen said he could not speculate why she might have given him the drug.

The attack occurred outside Herold's house after she had called Nash to help her lure the chimp inside. Before Nash came over, Herold got the chimp back inside and gave him a cup of tea with Xanax tablets mixed in. Moments after Nash arrived, the chimp lunged at her and tore at her face and hands. Herold struck the chimp with a shovel, stabbed him with a butcher knife and called police. The chimp tried to get into an occupied Stamford police car and was shot by an officer.

"He went back into the house, went into his enclosure and died," Cohen said.

The chimpanzee was familiar with Nash, and Herold has said she did not know why he attacked her, but speculated that the chimp did not recognize Nash that day because she had a different hairstyle and was driving a different car. Nash lost her eyelids, nose, lips and hands in the attack. Doctors at the Cleveland Clinic had to remove her eyes, and they grafted a piece of her leg to create a nose. Nash has a hole in her face through which she can eat and drink using a straw. Doctors were able to reattach one of her thumbs.

Nash's family filed notice last month seeking to sue the state, saying that the attack could have been prevented had state officials heeded earlier warnings that the chimp could be dangerous if he felt threatened.

Nash appeared on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" on Nov. 11, revealing her face to the public for the first time since the attack. Nash told Winfrey that she had always feared the chimp.

Golger said in a statement to Winfrey's show: "All of Sandy's hopes and prayers are with Charla and her daughter in this challenging time. Sandy has always tried to help Charla and wishes her the best. When Charla lost her job, it was Sandy who provided her with employment and a place to live. Sandy hopes and prays for a full and speedy recovery."

The legislature in June added gorillas, chimpanzees and orangutans to the list of animals that may not be privately owned in Connecticut.

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