Missouri man’s record finally clean, 20 years after shooting escaped chimp

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FESTUS, Mo. (KTVI) – The closing of a chimpanzee compound in Missouri has a unique meaning for a man who says he’s been plagued by the place for 20 years.

Jason Coats, of Festus, has had a felony conviction on his record after a chimp escape at the facility decades ago.

“It’s a good thing that justice has finally played out even though it’s taken 20 years,” Coats said.

Coats was just 17 years old when he says he was confronted with the unimaginable: an escaped chimp trying to attack his family.

In 2001, Coats and two friends arrived back at his home from a trip to Dairy Queen. He lived with his parents at the time, next door to Connie Casey’s chimpanzee complex. He says three escaped chimps came onto his family’s property and he felt forced to shoot one named Suzie.

“It was absolutely self-defense,” Coats said. “Three chimpanzees were trying to attack us. They threw my dog across the backyard and I tried to scare them off. They ran up, chased us back to the car, did $1200 damage to the car trying to get into it after us.”

His experience came rushing back in July 2020 when another chimp escape from the same compound was caught on a grainy cell phone video.

Then there was another chimp escape last summer — at least the third time the animals got out.

Coats, meanwhile, fought for his name back.

“Also a lot of other people wrote letters in for me, which was overwhelming. I can’t thank them enough for that and, you know, the judge finally just let common sense and reasoning take the day 20 years later and granted me my expungement,” he said.

Coats’ newly clean record came right before animal-rights group PETA successfully won a court order to have the Festus chimps moved to an accredited animal sanctuary in Florida.

Six chimpanzees were seized Thursday under U.S. Marshal oversight. Coats watched it all unfold on TV.

“I think it’s kind of poetic justice it happened back-to-back within days,” he said.

PETA’s lawyer, Jared Goodman, spoke about Coats’ dilemma with KTVI.

“It’s a difficult situation, but it just goes to show you the importance of ensuring that these chimpanzees are held in an adequate environment and don’t have the opportunity to escape,” Goodman said.

“Frankly, we’re very lucky about Mikayla and the other two chimpanzees who escaped their enclosures last year didn’t end up the same way that Suzie did.”

Coats added, “Being a felon holds you back in a lot of different ways, and you know, I just always had to put a mark on an application. It keeps you from doing government jobs and lots of different things.

“Now I’m free as a bird, man, and I love it.”

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