Suspect's family has questions in monkey killing

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Associated Press

Posted on November 20, 2012 at 1:30 PM

Updated Tuesday, Nov 20 at 4:07 PM

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A 22-year-old man who police say killed a monkey after breaking into the Boise zoo has encountered run-ins with the law in the last three years that include a pair of drug arrests and a conviction for driving drunk.

A day after Michael J. Watkins' arrest, authorities attempted to answer what may have prompted the once-promising wrestler from western Idaho to enter the facility early Saturday and what he planned to do with the animal, officials said.

Members of the community and Watkins' family also were trying to determine what could have led to the attack and why someone would do such a thing. His mother, Susan Watkins, said in a brief interview Tuesday from her home in McCall that as much as the public is perplexed by what happened, "I am too. That's all I can say."

She declined further comment. Other family members didn't return phone calls.

Authorities allege the suspect entered Zoo Boise, took a patas monkey from its cage and beat it so severely it later died of head and neck injuries. He faces an arraignment hearing Wednesday in 4th District Court, where authorities say they'll charge him with at least two felonies: burglary, for allegedly breaking into Zoo Boise, and grand theft, for taking and killing the monkey.

Arrested Monday, Michael J. Watkins is to be moved from a county jail in Washington county to a detention facility in Ada County in Boise on Tuesday.

Idaho law allows prosecutors to bring a grand theft charge against someone accused of killing livestock or other animals valued at more than $150 dollars.

Police don't plan to charge a second man who was with Watkins Saturday morning, but apparently never entered the zoo.

A tip from a citizen led police to Watkins after identifying a hat found in the monkey's enclosure as similar to one Watkins was wearing the night two intruders were spotted at Zoo Boise, one inside and one outside the fence.

A security guard frightened away the intruders, and then discovered the gravely injured patas monkey. Zoo officials and police were able to get the animal into a crate and to the zoo's animal hospital, but the monkey died of blunt-force trauma to its head and neck just a few minutes later.

No other animals were harmed.

Boise Police Chief Michael Masterson said at a news conference Monday evening that Watkins sought care at a hospital for injuries to his upper torso sometime after the early Saturday incident. The story he gave to hospital staff "did not seem to mesh up with the injuries," Masterson said.

The monkey's death has left zoo workers shocked and devastated, zoo director Steve Burns said.

Investigators had not had a chance to question Watkins extensively and have not revealed whether they think the zoo break-in was a prank that turned violent or something done with more sinister intent. But the police department and community are "angered and outraged over this senseless crime," Masterson said.

"The loss of this patas monkey has touched many lives, including our officers and investigators," he said.

Police say Watkins was visiting Boise with friends over the weekend from his home in Fruitland, about 60 miles away near the Oregon-Idaho border.

In 2008, Watkins finished in third place in the state championship wrestling tournament for small schools like his, Fruitland High School. He competed in the 130-pound division.

Julia Stroebel, who said she went to high school with Watkins in Fruitland, told The Associated Press that she is aware people who know the suspect are upset about the attack. However, she believes others also agree with her that level of outrage over the monkey's death is unfounded.

"We've had a couple murders happen in the area, brutal murders, in fact," Stroebel said. "They didn't get as much attention as a monkey dying. It seems sort of ridiculous."

"It's definitely wrong and messed up. I just think some people are getting too upset about it," she said.

Stroebel said Watkins had recently become a father.

Court records show Watkins has been in trouble with the law several times since graduating from high school in 2008, including separate drug-related arrests in 2009 and 2010 and a conviction for driving under the influence in 2009.

Police said they do not know whether Watkins may have been under the influence of alcohol or drugs at the time of the break-in.

Officers have spoken with the other man spotted outside the zoo but do not expect charges to be filed against him, Masterson said.

Crimes at the zoo are rare, said Burns, who has been at the zoo 15 years. He doesn't recall another incident in those years in which a visitor harmed an animal.

Burns said it will take a few weeks before he can decide if the remaining patas monkey will be sent to another zoo or if another patas monkey will be brought in as a companion. The animals are social and need to be around members of their own species.

The monkey exhibit remains open to the public, although zoo workers were keeping some of the larger garage-sized doors to the exhibit closed to keep down noise, and keepers were giving the remaining patas monkey a little more attention, Burns said. The zoo kicked off a fundraiser to build a new exhibit house for the primates in September.

For now, he said, zoo workers are just focusing on caring for the remaining 300 animals at the zoo.

There won't be a memorial organized for the monkey, but the animal is in the community's thoughts, Burns said.

"We're going to grieve for the animal and make sure the community's OK. But we're going to move on with the plans that we have and continue to take care of the animals. Boise's a really nice place to live, and usually this kind of stuff doesn't happen in Boise," he said.

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