By MARK WAITE
Pahrump residents Gert Einar “Abby” Hedengran, 58, and his wife Roena “Emma” Hedengran, 54, pleaded guilty in federal court last week to various charges after the escape of an exotic cat when they lived in suburban Ventura County, Calif., prior to moving to Pahrump in mid-2005.
The couple was moving their exotic cats from San Diego County to their new residence in Moorpark, Calif., in early 2005 when a Siberian tiger escaped and roamed eastern Ventura County for almost four weeks until it was shot and killed.
Gert Hedengran pleaded guilty to felony counts of making false statements to agents with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and obstruction of justice. Additionally he pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor counts of failing to maintain proper records for the exotic felines.
Roena Hedengran pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor count of failing to maintain records of exotic felines.
The Hedengrans pleaded guilty before U.S. District Judge George H. King in Los Angeles. King scheduled sentencing on April 9.
A plea agreement between Gert Hedengran and the federal government calls for a 14-month prison sentence, although this isn’t binding on Judge King. The parties have agreed that Roena Hedengran should receive a sentence of four months of home detention, three years probation and a $2,000 fine, which is also not binding on the judge at sentencing.
From March 1998, through March 2005 the Hedengrans operated a non-profit animal sanctuary and exhibition featuring exotic felines, including lions and tigers. In January 2005 they transferred their cats from a Temecula, Calif. facility to Moorpark. At some point during the move a Siberian lynx and an adult male Siberian tiger escaped from the new facility in Moorpark. The lynx was tranquilized and captured. After approximately four weeks on the loose, the tiger, known as “Tuffy,” was shot and killed Feb 23, 2005, in a Moorpark residential neighborhood near an elementary school and a public park.
Gert Hedengran admitted Monday he misled and obstructed state and federal law enforcement officers who were attempting to track down and capture the escaped tiger. For example, he told investigators that he was not missing a tiger, when in fact he knew that “Tuffy” had escaped.
The investigation was conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Office of the Inspector General, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service-Animal Care, the California Department of Fish and Game and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Nye County Animal Control Officer Debbie Pemberton said the Hedengrans still have a collection of exotic animals at their Pahrump home, including six Siberian lynx, three servals, a lion, four tigers, a snow leopard, three Canadian lynxes and three caracals.
“They do still have the animals here in Pahrump,” Pemberton said. “We have been on the premises where the cats are housing. He has complied with all our regulations, he’s in compliance with the USDA.”
Pemberton wasn’t sure what would happen with the animals once the sentence is handed down, though under the plea agreement Roena would be under house arrest.