Last week, New Yorkers in impeccable flat-front trousers battled publicly about whose Zanesville animal escape story was better, somewhat harshing the fabulous February suddenly being enjoyed by fans of long-form literary features about unusual massacres. Were you on Team Chris Heath, whose terrific GQ story looked at farm owner Terry Thompson’s odd death and odder last years, with a side tour of Ohio’s exotic animal laws? Were you on Team Chris Jones, with his gripping account in Esquire of the long night some Zanesville men with guns spent trying to kill Thompson’s lions, tigers, bears and monkeys, which he’d released before his suicide?
The contagion soon hopped from the dandysphere to literary bloggers. Jones, speaking to Brandon Sneed, said he’d been aware Heath was in Zanesville at the same time he was, and that he tried to “to salt the earth as I went,” trying to get his sources not to speak to the guy from GQ.
Jones told Sneed that David Granger, Esquire’s editor, told his editor Peter Griffith that his story ”felt like a movie,” adding, “which I suppose it does.”
On the excellent chance that someone in Hollywood feels either men’s magazine story belongs on the big screen, I humbly suggest one more set of rights to snap up: Those to Jonah Ogles’ Cincinnati Magazine piece on the Zanesville animal massacre, which hit the Web last Friday. It’s inside a magazine whose cover features neither a pair of Gen-X Hollywood celebs nor a half-naked British supermodel but rather Cincinnati Mag’s annual restaurant guide: “top 10 restaurants, 4 best new places, 9 great plates, a chef’s survey, and the best damn breakfasts in town,” writes editor Jay Stowe in an email.
Ogles’ piece goes deeper into Thompson’s life than either of his competitors, though maybe that’s not exactly the right term since he started reporting the story two months before they did. While he wasn’t dispatched to the heartland from Gotham, Ogles practically parachuted in himself: Zanesville is a four-hour drive from Cincy, and Ogles spent but one day on site trying to get the feel of the place. He did most of his subsequent reporting by phone. One of the city magazine’s editors is from Zanesville, and Ogles and she mined her feed for sources.
“I think the advantage I had is I grew up in Coldwater, Mich., which is a town much like Zanesville,” Ogles says. “It’s a relatively small town where everybody knows everybody else. I also worked at a newspaper in Whitehall, Mich., which has the same sort of feel.”
Ogles asked everyone he interviewed who he should talk with next. “I tried to interview people in a way not so much where I was trying to mine quotes,” he says. “I was really trying to understand the Terry that they knew.”
Ogles says Thompson’s character “just kind of built up in my mind over time.” A careful read of his story, constructed from interviews, police reports and court documents (“there are a lot of court docs about Terry,” he says) indicates none of the narrative liberties that can sink this kind of after-the-fact reporting. Here’s a taste:
Terry climbs onto his green John Deere and starts it up. The newly freed animals follow behind. They know the tractor means food. He drives it toward another cage and uses the front loader to lift its heavy door. Then he shuts the ignition off with the door held high, climbs down, and cuts a hole in the chain link as grizzly bears wander around him. He keeps moving, cage by cage, releasing two wolves, six black bears, two grizzlies, a baboon, a monkey, three mountain lions, 17 lions, and 18 tigers. The animals linger along the driveway; a few chew on the raw chicken Terry has tossed in the dirt.
Ogles had heard that someone from GQ might have been in Zanesville, a fact he unsuccessfully tried to confirm via a friend who sometimes fact-checks for the magazine. Since the story’s been published, he’s been in touch with both Jones and Heath. He and the latter both found one Thompson friend that they thought no one else had discovered, an old motor-boat-racing buddy named Mike Marshall.
Marshall had posted a little something about Thompson on a boating forum; Ogles tracked him down over some time. Heath hasn’t told him how he found Marshall, but Ogles says, “I assume we had used the same nerdy path.”