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Couple Arrested in Tiger's Escape

The Moorpark animal sanctuary owners denied the cat belonged to them while it roamed suburban areas. Trackers killed it Feb. 23.

March 17, 2005|Amanda Covarrubias and Hugo Martin | Times Staff Writers

The owners of a Moorpark animal sanctuary were arrested Wednesday for allegedly allowing a 352-pound Siberian tiger to escape and prowl suburban neighborhoods for four weeks while denying the cat was theirs.

Gert "Abby" Hedengran, 56, and his wife, Roena "Emma" Hedengran, 52, were taken from their rented ranch in Moorpark about 10 a.m. Wednesday and transported in a government van to U.S. District Court in Los Angeles.

Abby Hedengran was charged with making false statements to federal officials, submitting false records, destroying evidence in a federal investigation, obstructing justice, witness tampering, and violating the federal Animal Welfare Act. Emma Hedengran was charged with obstructing justice and witness tampering.

The couple were expected to be released on $25,000 bail each, but Assistant U.S. Atty. Joseph Johns said he planned to ask for a psychiatric evaluation of Emma Hedengran because she is suspected of attempting to shoot her husband Feb. 17 during an argument at their home.

The Hedengrans, who were rousted from bed early Wednesday by agents serving a search warrant, had not yet hired an attorney and were not available for comment.

Authorities also were looking into the possibility the tiger had spooked two horses the morning of Feb. 12 in the Santa Rosa Valley. According to police records, the horses broke through the rail of their corral and ran onto Santa Rosa Road, where a passing car hit one of the horses.

The male driver bled to death before he could be extricated.

Meanwhile, another car hit the wreckage, causing her vehicle to roll over.

The female driver of that car was hospitalized.

Officials from the state Department of Fish and Game said detectives are investigating whether the tiger played a role in the accidents, but said they have not made a direct link yet.

The Hedengrans' arrests brought an end to a monthlong investigation as state and federal authorities tried to determine who owned the tiger and how it escaped.

The tiger was fatally shot Feb. 23 when it was found roaming near a school in Moorpark.

During the probe, the Hedengrans repeatedly denied owning the escaped tiger, saying their 5-year-old male, named Tuffy, had died.

"Abby said that the male tiger had died 1 1/2 to two years before because someone from [People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals] had poisoned it," U.S. Department of Agriculture Special Agent Manny Flores wrote in the affidavit.

The Hedengrans, however, could not produce records or police reports related to the tiger's death, and former neighbors told authorities they had seen Tuffy as recently as January, according to the criminal complaint filed against Abby Hedengran.

The Hedengrans originally held a permit to keep their animals in Temecula but failed to notify federal and state authorities when they moved to Moorpark in January, said Mike Wintemute, a spokesman for Fish and Game.

Authorities did not learn of the couple's move until Jan. 31 when an escaped lynx was found 1/8 of a mile away from the couple's property on a neighbor's front porch. Fish and Game wardens tranquilized the lynx and took it to a state-run animal-holding center.

Authorities believe Tuffy had escaped at the same time the lynx did because tiger tracks were photographed Jan. 31 near California 23 near Simi Valley by researchers on a mountain lion tracking project.

About three days after the lynx was trapped, Abby Hedengran showed up to claim the 90-pound cat, which triggered an inspection of the property he and his wife rented in Moorpark, Wintemute said.

Authorities found three lions, two tigers, a snow leopard and 16 smaller cats, including bobcats and lynx, in a barn or running free inside the Hedengrans' mobile home. The animals were not in permanent cages, as required by law, nor was the ramshackle barn structure up to code, Wintemute said.

Authorities gave the couple 72 hours to find homes for the cats, which were transferred to various sites in California and Nevada.

Most of the larger animals were sent to a sanctuary in Las Vegas.

On Feb. 15, a caretaker at Day Creek Ranch in Moorpark reported seeing a "large cat" darting into the brush and called local animal control, which alerted state officials.

The next day, Fish and Game investigators found tiger tracks just east of California 23 near the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library near Simi Valley. Tracks also were found west of the highway and at a nursery in the neighboring Santa Rosa Valley.

Finally, on Feb. 23, the tiger was spotted by Moorpark residents who woke up to find the tiger pacing in their backyard.

Trackers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture shot the tiger dead in a steep ravine near a housing development and a city park, causing an uproar among animal rights activists.

Investigators said they linked the Hedengrans to the tiger by comparing pictures and videos seized from the couple with the dead cat.

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Tiger's trail

The tale of a Siberian tiger in Ventura County:

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