Tiger Rescue owner gets 2 years' jail plus probation
By Jessica Keating, Staff Writer
RIVERSIDE - One by one, John Weinhart's supporters stood up Tuesday and asked a Superior Court judge to spare the tiger sanctuary owner further time behind bars.
"Don't lock him up like an animal. ... The man don't deserve it,' Weinhart's longtime friend, Ray Jamison, pleaded, echoing the requests of seven others who spoke to Judge Ronald Taylor during the three-hour hearing. In the end, Taylor ordered the 62-year-old Weinhart to serve five years'formal probation, including two years in a Riverside County jail, as punishment for his February conviction on 56 counts, including felony animal cruelty and child endangerment charges.
Taylor also ordered the defendant to stay at least 50 yards away from animals and refrain from working for or volunteering in any animal organizations during the term of his probation. Weinhart, who appeared in court in a rumpled orange, jail-issued pantsuit, has been in custody since March.
In a brief statement to the court, Weinhart said his conviction was the result of his failure to recognize that he was physically unable to care for the dozens of tigers and leopards he took into his Glen Avon home. He also operated the Tiger Rescue sanctuary in Colton. "I was stressed with more tasks than I could handle,' Weinhart said. "I never intended any harm to anyone.' At trial, Riverside County animal control officers and state fish and game officials testified they found the carcasses of 90 tiger cubs stuffed in freezers during a search of Weinhart's home in April 2003. Several tiger and leopard cubs were found dehydrated and suffering from hypothermia in an attic near a bedroom where Weinhart's then 8-year-old son stayed. Weinhart's son testified that one tiger lunged at him 100 times.
Weinhart's longtime companion, Marla Smith, who was also implicated in the case, pleaded guilty to animal cruelty charges in January. She was sentenced to three years' probation and 120 days in jail. In court Tuesday, Weinhart's supporters defended his care of the animals at his home and the Colton sanctuary.
Linda Adams, an attorney who represented Weinhart in a code enforcement case, said she had visited his properties many times and saw that he was a loving father and hardworking animal caretaker. Since Weinhart's arrest, his relationship with Smith, the mother of his son, has dissolved, and his sanctuary has been closed. He faces criminal proceedings in San Bernardino County in connection with the Colton operation.
"He's been devastated by this,' Adams said. "He's lost everything. ... He deserves no more punishment.' With time served, Weinhart faces another 18 months in jail. But the sentence could have been worse. Prosecutor Stephanie Weissman urged the court to send Weinhart to prison for six years, saying the recommendation was not a "rash decision' but a reflection of the seriousness of the case. "These baby cubs were suffering,' she said outside court. "This is an expert in tiger care and yet he treated animals in this way.' Taylor set aside the prosecution's request, noting that Weinhart has no criminal record and seems willing to cooperate with the terms of his probation.
Defense attorney R. Addison Steele said he remained convinced the case was not worth jail time, noting Weinhart had no intention of hurting the animals in his care. "This is a man who loved animals,' Steele said. "He was doing what he could and he got overwhelmed.' That explanation fell flat with two animal-rights activists who sat through the court hearing wearing red pins imprinted with "Abuse an animal, go to jail!' "It doesn't explain so much of the evidence ... like tiger cubs in the freezer,' said Alison Stanley, co-director of the California Lobby for Animal Welfare. Taylor noted in court that the case had generated widespread national and international interest. He said he received about 100 letters before the hearing Tuesday. Michael Markarian, executive director of The Humane Society of the United States, said in a phone interview that he is pleased Weinhart will be prevented from working with animals during his probation. "We need to protect animals,' Markarian said. "We don't simply need to punish people who abuse animals. We need to prevent these crimes from happening.'