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Attorney denies victims provoked tiger's attack

S.F. Zoo officials dispute his assertion that employees didn't want to aid the men during the assault.

January 03, 2008|Steve Chawkins | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — A high-profile attorney hired by the two brothers injured in a Christmas Day tiger attack at the zoo here said Wednesday that neither his clients nor the young man who died had provoked the 300-pound Siberian tiger to vault from her enclosure.

Mark Geragos, who represents brothers Paul Dhaliwal, 19, and Kulbir Dhaliwal, 23, said that neither they nor their 20-year-old friend Carlos Sousa Jr., who was killed in the incident, had taunted Tatiana before she escaped from the outdoor enclosure.

Authorities have not yet determined conclusively how the animal escaped, but she may have crossed a dry moat and either leaped or scaled a wall that separated the enclosure from visitors.

Geragos has denied contentions that the three victims fired objects at the tiger with slingshots.

He said such rumors were being spread by zoo representatives as part of a "campaign of disinformation and misinformation."

At a news conference Wednesday, the zoo's director, Manuel Mollinedo, would not respond directly to Geragos' assertions, saying that whatever triggered the 4-year-old tiger's attack would be uncovered by the police investigation.

"All I know is that something prompted our tiger to jump out of her enclosure," said Mollinedo, who left the Los Angeles Zoo in 2004.

Mollinedo also declined to comment on Geragos' charge that zoo employees failed to act when his clients -- bloody from the attack -- told them that a tiger was loose.

A zoo security guard "was completely disinterested in helping," Geragos contended in a telephone interview.

He said the brothers were refused shelter in the zoo's Terrace Cafe by employees.

With the zoo set to reopen today, officials tried to reassure the public that visitors would be safe. The 12 1/2 -foot wall around the tigers' enclosure will be raised to 19 feet, mostly with glass panels, Mollinedo said. The barrier around the 1940s-vintage grotto was more than 3 feet below the height recommended by a national zoological group.

The lions and tigers will be off-limits to the public until the expected completion of the fence in 30 days.

In addition, a public-address system will be activated throughout the zoo to alert visitors to emergencies. Mollinedo said such a system was in place until about 15 years ago, but was removed for unknown reasons.

Finally, signs will be posted reminding visitors that they are "guests" in the animals' home and should behave accordingly. The signs will warn against tapping on glass walls, throwing things at animals, making loud noises and calling out to them. "Please remember they are sensitive and have feelings," the signs will say.

Asked whether the three young men, all from San Jose, behaved improperly on Christmas Day, Mollinedo said he would have no conclusion until police completed their investigation. A department spokesman said Wednesday that he did not know when that would be.

Though the zoo has not yet been sued in the attack, Geragos said he was "exploring any and all action."

A Los Angeles lawyer whose clients have included pop star Michael Jackson and convicted killer Scott Peterson, Geragos said that at least 35 minutes passed between the tiger's initial attack and the first call to 911 at 5:07 p.m.

Police, who released 17 pages of dispatch notes on the incident last week, said they did not know exactly how much time elapsed between the initial attack and the first 911 call.

Geragos insisted that the tiger attack was unprovoked. The three men had "bought food at the cafe, gone to see the tigers, and Carlos and Paul were talking," Geragos said. "The next thing you know, the tiger is mauling Paul."

When Sousa tried to intercede, the animal attacked him and then turned on both brothers when they tried to help, Geragos said.

They ran in terror to the cafe about 300 yards away, but were not allowed in, according to Geragos. The tiger followed, mauling the older brother outside the cafe, where it was finally shot by police.

A zoo representative disputed Geragos' description of events.

"Nothing could be further from the truth," said Sam Singer, a zoo public relations consultant who specializes in crisis management. Zoo employees exerted a "heroic effort" in trying to aid the men, he said.

As for Geragos' charges of "disinformation," Singer said the word of a criminal defense attorney should be taken "not just with a grain of salt but with a ton."

Investigators have declined to comment on specific assertions until their investigation is completed.

When visitors arrive today, they will be able to leave mementos at two shrines -- one for Sousa, the other for Tatiana.

Despite a rainstorm in the forecast, a large crowd was predicted.

"The outpouring of support for the zoo has been huge," zoo spokeswoman Lora LaMarca said.

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steve.chawkins@latimes.com

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