Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Monkey Island's owner sues the woman who kidnapped three simians from his sanctuary

The case of the three stolen simians from Monkey Island.

Posted By on Wed, Jun 13, 2012 at 7:28 AM

Dana Savorelli still wants his missing monkey back.

Catherine Montes killed the lights on her Ford Explorer as she approached the Monkey Island Rescue and Zoological Sanctuary the night of October 6, 2007. On Harris Road, near Greenwood, the sanctuary was shrouded in darkness.

Montes, who had volunteered at Monkey Island for a few years, pulled her SUV up to the sanctuary building that housed dozens of monkeys. She let herself in with her own set of keys. Inside, a security camera taped Montes as she fed two pigtail macaques: Nicholas and Abbey. She gave them grapes spiked with the animal anti-anxiety drug acepromazine and later injected them with ketamine, a knockout agent. Out of the camera's view, she picked up a third monkey, Melissa. She put Nicholas and Abbey into animal crates, which she loaded into her Explorer, and left the property with her SUV's lights still off. Eleven months later, Abbey and Nicholas were returned home. Melissa never was.

In a civil trial at the Jackson County Courthouse Annex in Independence last week, Montes' actions weren't in question. She didn't deny taking the monkeys, which weigh 30 - 35 pounds each. At the scene of the abduction, she had even left a letter for Dana Savorelli, the nonprofit's owner, to explain why she took them. What was debated during the three-day trial was whether Montes and her two co-defendants should have to pay damages to Savorelli for taking the monkeys.

Montes and her attorney, Donald Petty, claimed that this was not a theft. They assured the jury that Montes had permission to take the animals. On the stand, Montes recalled a dinner with co-defendant Joe Shinkle, the president of Monkey Island. The two met to talk at the Alamo Mexican restaurant in North Kansas City in August 2007. There, both Shinkle and Montes asserted, he gave her his blessing to take the monkeys.

Shinkle, dressed in black jeans and a crisp shirt and tie, his long, black, wavy hair slicked back in a Kenny Powers mullet, testified that Montes told him: "I want to take the monkeys." And he agreed that she should take them. Neither defendant told Savorelli about the arrangement.

Savorelli and his attorney, David Wylie, argued that Shinkle didn't have the authority to give away the trio of simians. Over the course of the trial, Shinkle and Savorelli repeatedly testified that Shinkle did nothing as the president of the nonprofit. Shinkle even admitted that he saw the paperwork registering Monkey Island with the Secretary of State only once - when he signed it. Savorelli called it "a paper corporation" that has never had meetings and holds zero assets. Shinkle and Montes claimed, however, that the president was entitled to give away the monkeys.
Savorelli met Shinkle and his two brothers when the Shinkles were children in the 1980s. Savorelli described their relationship as "real tight." He testified that he tried to shield Joe Shinkle from his mother, Lisa, another co-defendant who served 20 days in jail in 2009 for hiding Abbey and Nicholas in her basement after Montes took them. Lisa Shinkle did not make an appearance or hire a lawyer.

"I didn't like what I seen," Savorelli said when describing his first encounter with Lisa. Savorelli recalled taking Joe and his brothers to the movies for the first time when Joe was 10 or 12. "They had never been or seen anything like it," he said.

In the early 2000s, Joe and his brothers lived rent-free on Monkey Island. "It was like a bachelor pad," Savorelli recalled, saying they rode four-wheelers and cared for the animals together.

Eventually, Joe Shinkle began working for Savorelli's business, making tongs for snake handling. Their close relationship is what led Savorelli in 2005 to ask Shinkle to be the president of the Monkey Island nonprofit.

Wylie repeatedly contended that Shinkle had never done any work as president of the nonprofit. He asked Shinkle for proof of his responsibilities or minutes from a board meeting, but Shinkle couldn't provide them. Shinkle, who appeared uncomfortable and occasionally stubborn, murmured many answers. He said he didn't remember things. To get answers, Wylie had to show Shinkle transcripts of his previous testimony and depositions.

The most damaging testimony against Montes and Shinkle's story came from Danny Kolwyck, co-owner of Savanahland, a company that breeds exotic animals and shows them at events. Kolwyck was to testify that the monkeys Montes stole were valued at around $2,000 apiece, not the $5,000 each that Savorelli was hoping to recover. Under cross-examination, Kolwyck conceded that his monkeys, kangaroos and other animals are tallied on a corporate asset list for his company. Because Savorelli's nonprofit didn't keep a similar list, Kolwyck's testimony indicated that Abbey, Nicholas and Melissa were Savorelli's personal property and not property of the nonprofit, as Shinkle claimed.

Montes' defense shaped an image of her as a committed volunteer, who had a falling-out with Savorelli after an accident. Savorelli and Montes first met in 1998 after Montes became interested in owning a primate. Montes contacted Lisa Shinkle, who put her in touch with Savorelli. Montes bought Nicholas for $2,750 shortly after he was born and took him to her Northland home where she had outfitted a bedroom with climbing structures.
In testimony, Savorelli and Montes described different versions of Nicholas' home life. Montes said the monkey slept in her bed with her, and he was well-behaved and happy.

Savorelli painted a picture of an animal that outgrew his bedroom and owner.
"He's like a bodybuilder," Savorelli said of Nicholas. "He's very unique. He's a powerhouse."

Savorelli told jurors that Nicholas once trapped Montes in a room for more than a day before she sneaked out. In 2004, he said, Montes asked him to take the monkey back to Monkey Island, and he agreed. He said they both thought it was a permanent move.

"They knew it was a one-way trip," he said.

Montes said she cared for Nicholas well and returned him to Monkey Island only when she had health problems. And as an army veteran and former amateur bodybuilder, she said she was hardly afraid of a 35-pound macaque. She could remember only one story in which his aggression got the best of her: when he stole her keys to his room.
Both sides agreed that Montes became a fixture at Monkey Island after Nicholas moved back to the sanctuary. She visited several times a week and frequently brought fruit and vegetables for the monkeys. She was known for making them peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches.

But there were problems, Savorelli said, that caused him to sever ties with Montes and which eventually led her to take the animals.

Once, Savorelli recalled, a camera crew was on the compound, to shoot a segment for a Discovery Channel show, when Montes angered a monkey.

"A spider monkey bit her square in the face," he said. In testimony later, Montes clarified that the monkey, Todd, didn't have any teeth.

Another time, Savorelli said, Montes took two teenage girls on a tour of Monkey Island. He found them boating in a pond toward a small island where some monkeys and lemurs spend the warmer months. Todd was in the boat with them. Savorelli panicked about his possible liability if Todd turned violent on the girls.

He could forgive both of those lapses in judgment, Savorelli said. But an accident involving Maggie, a one-armed monkey, led him to banish Montes from Monkey Island.

Being an amputee, Maggie was vulnerable around other monkeys, who didn't let her eat. She also couldn't climb as well and had a hard time defending herself. While volunteering at the sanctuary, Montes bonded with Maggie, and she took the monkey home with her to live. For two years, Montes took Maggie with her to Monkey Island whenever she volunteered. Savorelli and Montes agreed that Maggie had to be on a leash at the sanctuary, so she wouldn't wander over to more aggressive monkeys.

During one trip in late July 2007, somebody dropped Maggie's leash. (Savorelli blames Montes. Montes says it was an unnamed "short, skinny woman" who let the monkey go.)

Telling the story on the stand, Savorelli choked up and stopped talking. He said Maggie had walked over to a cage where a male grabbed her remaining arm and chomped down on it. Some monkeys have teeth the size of a man's pinkie finger. Montes got Maggie free and, holding the bleeding monkey in her arms, sprinted toward Savorelli's house.

"The look on Maggie's face, I knew I'd never see her again," Savorelli said. "I knew that look. It was the look of death." Savorelli broke down crying on the stand. Maggie died a few days later, on August 2. "It was a horrible thing for Cathy," Savorelli continued. "Cathy loved her to death. We all did."

Maggie's preventable death marked the end of Savorelli's friendship with Montes. He wouldn't speak with her or reply to her e-mails. Montes said she had no idea why she was barred from the place where she had spent an average of 20 hours a week for the previous three years.

"I didn't know what was going on," she said. "It was quite obvious that I was getting the cold shoulder." That's when she began planning to take Abbey, Nicholas and Melissa. After her Alamo meet-up with Joe Shinkle, she said she ordered cages and converted her two-car garage into a monkey area. On October 6, she made her move.

In the surveillance footage, Montes wears a bright-pink shirt and spends more than an hour moving around the building. Large brown flies flutter and land intermittently on the camera lens, but never enough to obscure Montes' actions. The climax of the film comes after the acepromazine fails to subdue Nicholas. Montes unlocks the monkey's shared cage with Abbey. Nicholas leaps out, causing Montes to jump back. (The jury gasped at this part.) Nicholas is softened by the drug but far from docile. Montes traps him in a monkey-sized net. Nicholas continues to fight a little before she injects him with ketamine, while Abbey waits in the cage for the same treatment. After loading Abbey and Nicholas into her car, she returns for Melissa. The final striking image of the tape is Montes walking out of the building holding Melissa - Maggie's mom - and kissing her.

In the two-page note that Montes left for Savorelli in his office that night, she explained that without Monkey Island in her life, she had become crestfallen. "I've withdrawn from everyone," she wrote. Nicholas "is my baby boy," and "Abbey is my daughter-in-law," she added. Montes also wrote, "I can't break my promise to Maggie," having sworn to the monkey that she would take care of her mother. So she took Melissa.

Once she had the monkeys in her possession, Montes kept them at her home for a few months. Then, in February or March, she drove them to Maryland, where some friends in the close-knit primate community cared for them for about six months. When authorities told the Maryland friends that they had too many monkeys, Montes returned and brought Nicholas and Abbey back to Kansas City. Melissa stayed in Maryland, and Montes now says she doesn't know the monkey's location.

Abbey and Nicholas then lived in Lisa Shinkle's basement. In September 2008, police were called to the residence on an unrelated matter, but the officers saw the monkeys. Later, officers with a search warrant returned to the house and called Savorelli to come and identify the pair. People at the house told officers that the monkeys were named Booboo and Precious, and they had new ID chips implanted in them. But Savorelli found their original ID chips still inside them, and he took the monkeys home. Joe Shinkle denied knowing that the monkeys were in his mother's basement.

It took the jury a few hours to decide in Savorelli's favor. Montes (who didn't return a call for comment) was found at fault for taking the monkeys and was ordered to pay Savorelli $36,500 in punitive damages and $3,500 in actual damages. Joe Shinkle was ordered to pay $1,000. Lisa Shinkle was hit with a $17,000 judgment.

Savorelli, who originally filed this lawsuit in 2010, said he hopes to salvage his friendship with Joe Shinkle.

"I didn't want Joe hit hard at all," Savorelli said. "He was a pawn. He was played in this." Savorelli does not share the same optimism for his friendship with Montes.

"Cathy thinks she won because she still has the monkey," said a frustrated Savorelli. "We got a judgment and won hands-down, but the flip side of that is that the monkey is still missing."
While waiting for the verdict, Montes told The Pitch that she doesn't know where Melissa is, but she trusts that she is being cared for.

"I was dealing with people in the primate world," Montes said. "These were primate experts. These were people that gave loving homes and everything else. So, within that sector, I don't know for sure where she ended up, but she had to end up in a loving home."

Montes added that she is glad she doesn't know where Maggie's mom ended up. "If ever should a day come that I would be questioned about her whereabouts, I could truthfully say I do not know where she is," she said.
Savorelli isn't hopeful that he'll ever learn Melissa's location, even if Montes knows.

"Oh, that old buzzard will never soften," he said. "I mean, come on, she's watched her friends go to jail for this and didn't come to their rescue. That is pretty pathetic. She's fucking cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs."
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