By Emily Le Coz, Chris Kieffer and JB Clark/NEMS Daily Journal
UPDATE 5 p.m. Thursday
Tupelo Police on Thursday arrested a fourth teen in connection with the vandalism of the Tupelo Buffalo Park & Zoo. The teen is 17 years old and is being held at the Juvenile Detention Center on charges of felony malicious mischief. The Daily Journal has learned he also is a Tupelo High School senior.
UPDATE: 9:30 a.m. Thursday
The Daily Journal has learned that all three suspects in the Tupelo Buffalo Park & Zoo vandalism are seniors at Tupelo High School.
Tate Johnson, 18, and two 17-year-old suspects whom police declined to name because they’re minors, were still being held as of this morning on felony charges of malicious mischief.
The Lee County Sheriff’s Department, which oversees the jail, released Johnson’s mug shot.
TUPELO – Three teens were jailed Wednesday and accused of vandalizing the Tupelo Buffalo Park & Zoo in what appears to be a high school senior prank.
The culprits on Tuesday spray-painted vulgar words and the year “2013” throughout the sprawling complex, as well as on the side of a horse.
Three males were detained Wednesday and charged with felony malicious mischief. Two of those arrested are 17-year-old juveniles. The third is 18-year-old Tate Johnson of Meadow Ridge Drive in Tupelo.
According to the Tupelo Police Department, other arrests are pending. Capt. Rusty Haynes said the case is being treated as a felony, but the charges could be reduced depending on the circumstances.
Schools throughout the region returned from summer vacation Tuesday, and “2013” represents this year’s graduating class of seniors.
Tupelo High School Principal Jason Harris said Wednesday afternoon he was aware of the situation but didn’t know if any THS students were involved.
Video footage from one of the park’s cameras also shows the vandals trying to spray-paint Kiki the lion through the bars of her cage. Although the large cat was able to avoid the spray, she vomited the next morning likely due to stress, said park Manager Lindsay Bullock.
Another animal, a male Eland, suffered cuts while jumping a fence during the incident, Bullock said.
The video shows three white males, shirts off, faces obscured. But park officials say others might be involved.
Suspects entered the park by crashing a vehicle through one of the gates leading to the buffalo grazing area, Bullock said. It appears they crossed the terrain on foot to access the rest of the park. In doing so, they put themselves at risk of being trampled or gored by the large animals who inhabit the grazing area.
Numerous bison, a family of giraffes protecting a young calf, and a yak whom park officials called “crazy” could have seriously hurt or killed the vandals, said park owner Sheila Franklin. Each animal weighs between 700 and 3,500 pounds.
“That’s very dangerous,” said Franklin. “We don’t even do that.”
Park officials noticed some of the damage while on morning rounds and were able to begin repairs before opening to the public. But the most vulgar graffiti wasn’t discovered until later – during a trolley tour packed with young children.
Bullock said she apologized to several visitors for what they saw. Zoo break-ins and vandalisms are rare, said Steve Feldman, spokesman for the Association of Zoos & Aquariums, of which the Tupelo park is not a member.
“AZA-accredited zoos are required to have security in place to prevent unauthorized contact between the public and the animals – day and night,” Feldman told the Daily Journal. “Of course, no security system is foolproof.”
In the past year alone, vandals have hit zoos in Honolulu, St. Paul, Minn., Chippewa Falls, Wis., Australia and Poland, according to news reports. Some animals died in those incidents.
Tupelo staff spent most of Tuesday cleaning and repairing after the attack and resumed the work again Wednesday.
It’s unclear at this point how much it will cost to fully restore the park, but Franklin said even a small amount poses problems to the privately owned park.
“We don’t make money, we do this because we love to do it,” Franklin said. “And this hurts us.”
The park on Wednesday said they were offering a $1,000 reward for any tip leading to arrests. Franklin said she wants to see justice served, but when asked about a proper punishment, she hesitated.
“Part of me wants them to work it off in the park for a month,” she said. “But part of me doesn’t want them in here at all.”
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