CSAO: Statement of the State's Attorney for the Judicial District of Stamford/Norwalk

Statement of David I. Cohen, State’s Attorney for the Judicial District of Stamford/Norwalk, in reference to the February 16, 2009, attack on Charla Nash by the chimpanzee named Travis:

Following an investigation by the Stamford Police Department, the above matter was referred to me to determine whether this office would undertake any criminal prosecution.

I have reviewed the entire Stamford Police Department file, including all interviews that were conducted and the results of the necropsy performed on the chimpanzee. At my request, further investigation was conducted by the police, including obtaining materials from the files of the State Department of Environmental Protection. I further requested that the Police attempt to obtain a statement from the victim Charla Nash, but they were unable to do so.

The facts as determined by the investigation are uncontroverted. Sandra Herold, 71, and her late husband kept the chimpanzee named Travis as a pet for 14 years. The chimpanzee was kept both at the Herold residence and at the family business, an auto towing company. Prior to February 16, 2009, the only incident involving the chimpanzee involving Stamford police action occurred on October 19, 2003, where the chimpanzee left a vehicle in which it was riding in downtown Stamford and eluded capture for a period of time. At that time, the incident was treated by most people, including the local media, as more of a nuisance than a seriously dangerous situation.

On February 16, 2009, a short time before 3:45 p.m., while Mrs. Herold was talking on the telephone with the victim, Sandra Nash, the chimpanzee let himself out of the house. Ms. Nash offered to come over and assist Mrs. Herold in getting the chimpanzee back inside. Prior to the victim's arrival, Mrs. Herold was able to get the chimpanzee back in the house where he was given a cup of tea which contained “several” pills of Xanax, an anti-anxiety medication. This was confirmed by the results of the toxicology testing which showed traces of the drug in the chimpanzee's stomach and liver.

Moments later, Ms. Nash arrived. As soon as she drove into the driveway and exited her vehicle, she was attacked by the chimpanzee and severely mauled. Mrs. Herold attempted to stop the attack by first hitting the animal with a shovel and then stabbing him with a butcher knife. She also called 911. Police officers responded at 3:46 p.m. When the chimpanzee attempted to enter the driver's side door of an occupied police vehicle, it was shot by a police officer. The chimpanzee returned to the house, entered its enclosure and died.

The necropsy performed by the Connecticut Veterinary Medical Diagnostic Laboratory at the University of Connecticut Department of Pathobiology and Veterinary Science on the chimpanzee did not disclose any disease process that would explain this vicious attack. Although Xanax was detected, it is impossible to state whether that had any effect, and, if so, what that might be.

In determining whether any criminal prosecution is warranted in this case, it is important to note a number of things: (1) there is no record of this chimpanzee having attacked previously; (2) the chimpanzee was very familiar with the victim and they had interacted numerous times in the past; and (3) there is no record of the State Department of Environmental Protection having had any contact with Mrs. Herold.

The standard to be used in assessing whether criminal prosecution is warranted is one of “recklessness”. While Connecticut criminal statutes do have a concept of “criminal negligence”, that standard is only applicable in cases of homicide or assault using a deadly weapon or dangerous instrument, neither of which is applicable in this case.

To be found to have acted recklessly under our statutes, the State would have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the person was aware of and consciously disregarded a substantial and unjustifiable risk that the result forbidden by the statute would occur. That risk must be of such a nature and degree that disregarding that risk would be a gross deviation from the standard of conduct that a reasonable person would observe in that situation. Thus, the State would have to prove that Mrs. Herold was aware of the risk that the chimpanzee would attack and cause serious injuries to another person, that the risk was substantial and unjustifiable and that she consciously disregarded the risk of such an attack. This standard would apply as to all degrees of Assault and Reckless Endangerment.

The investigation has not discovered any evidence that Mrs. Herold was aware of the risk that the chimpanzee posed and disregarded it. The animal had not previously exhibited violent behavior, especially toward the victim, Ms. Nash, with whom he interacted regularly, and who was present that day specifically because it was thought that she could help in controlling the chimpanzee. Additionally, there is no record of the State Department of Environmental Protection warning Mrs. Herold in any way that the animal could be dangerous and pose a threat to people. Although the Department was aware of the chimpanzee living at the Herold residence, and although the Department staff was concerned about the possible danger posed, and discussed various ways of dealing with Mrs. Herold and the chimpanzee, there is no evidence that these concerns were actually conveyed to Mrs. Herold. She was, thus, never made aware of the danger posed by keeping the chimpanzee in a residential area.

Furthermore, although since May 2004, it would appear that a permit was necessary for Mrs. Herold to continue to possess the chimpanzee, there was no enforcement action taken by DEP, even though they were aware of the chimpanzee. (There could have been some confusion as to the applicability of the permit requirement. Legislation in 2003 exempted primates possessed prior to October 1, 2003 which would include this chimpanzee, but legislation in 2004 limited the previous exemption to primates weighing no more than fifty pounds. So as of May 2004, Mrs. Herold was no longer exempt from the permit requirement. I am making no judgment as to the actions of DEP. I am mentioning the lack of enforcement on the part of DEP only to illustrate that no one made Mrs. Herold aware in any way of the risk entailed in keeping the chimpanzee. If there was confusion and lack of communication by the very agency tasked with enforcing the laws concerning the possession of wild mammals, it would be difficult to prove that Mrs. Herold possessed the requisite knowledge of the risk posed and that she consciously chose to disregard it.)

It is, therefore, my determination, based on the evidence presented at this time, that no criminal prosecution is warranted in this case. This does not in any way minimize the horror that we all feel with what occurred and with the horrendous injuries suffered by Ms. Nash. Our prayers go out to her and her family. Nor does this decision mean that no one is responsible for this tragedy, whether it be Mrs. Herold or State authorities. However, I feel that, based on the criminal statutes of Connecticut , that determination will have to be made in the civil courts of this State.

I would personally like to acknowledge the investigation conducted by members of the Stamford Police Department, specifically Capt. Richard Conklin, Lt. Tim Shaw, Sgt. Anthony Lupinacci and his detective squad. Their professionalism and willingness to fulfill the requests that I made during the course of this investigation were invaluable. I would also like to acknowledge the assistance of members of the State’s Attorney’s Office for this judicial district, specifically Supervisory Assistant State’s Attorney James Bernardi and Senior Assistant State’s Attorney Maureen Ornousky.



Content Last Modified on 6/1/2010 2:54:09 PM