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Tiger Haven neighbor Toby Rhynehart has retained the services of Harriman attorney Donice Butler in his reckless endangerment case.
Roane County Sheriff’s Deputy Michael Self charged Rhynehart on May 14 after rounds from his SKS rifle allegedly went onto the property of Tiger Haven, a big-cat sanctuary in East Roane County.
“I heard both the weapon fire, as well as the round travel above my head,” Self reported. “Myself and several others nearby began to search for cover as the rounds continued to fly overhead.”
A preliminary hearing was held in the case earlier this month.
Butler said there’s no proof to support Self’s allegations.
“When asked on cross-examination by me whether or not he collected any shell casings or took any photographs of damage caused on Tiger Haven property, he responded in the negative,” Butler said.
“It may be that his perception was that bullets were flying over his head, but there was no physical evidence collected that any bullets or shell casings landed onto the Tiger Haven property.”
The preliminary hearing resulted in the case getting bound over to the grand jury, but Butler said that doesn’t mean the state has a strong case.
“The preliminary hearing is a probable cause hearing,” she said. “The burden of proof is very, very low. It’s not the burden of proof that we get in a criminal trial where the state has to meet the burden beyond a reasonable doubt. I would venture to say that 95 percent of all cases that originate in general sessions court do get bound over.”
District Attorney General Russell Johnson said the Rhynehart case will be presented to the October grand jury.
Butler said there’s no guarantee the grand jury will choose to indict Rhynehart, but they are prepared for a
vigorous defense if that happens.
“Mr. Rhynehart did nothing illegal that day whatsoever,” she said. “We don’t even know for certain the case is going to continue on pass the general sessions level.”
She added, “If it does we will absolutely demand a jury of 12 of Mr. Rhynehart’s peers to determine his innocence or guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Self confiscated Rhynehart’s SKS rifle. Butler said they plan to try and get the rifle back at some point.
“This is not the appropriate time to do that,” she said. “Mr. Rhynehart has bond conditions which are still in place which prohibit him from using his firearms until there is a disposition in this case, so it would essentially do him no good right now to try to regain possession of a firearm while those conditions are in place.”
Tiger Haven houses tigers, lions, leopards and cougars. Rhynehart’s 114-acre farm abuts the sanctuary.
“Mr. Rhynehart has been very vocal about his opposition to Tiger Haven for many years now,” Butler said. “He complains about the noise, and he worries about his safety as do other neighbors of his.”
Rhynehart has a shooting range on his property. He said he was target shooting the day he was arrested.
“This is not something that just happened one time,” Butler said. “The employees of Tiger Haven know that Mr. Rhynehart occasionally shoots weapons on his own property at a firing range that he built.”
Tiger Haven operator Mary Haven reportedly told Self that Rhynehart intentionally shoots near the fence line to harass her animals.
Butler accused Haven of intentionally putting tigers close to the fence line to frighten Rhynehart.
“There seems to be some antagonism of Mr. Rhynehart by Tiger Haven for being vocally opposed to the activities at Tiger Haven,” she said.
Butler said the public should be worried about Tiger Haven, which houses more than 250 big cats, according to its website.
“It’s stressful enough to live next to this constantly and be in constant fear, but Mr. Rhynehart and his neighbors are not the only people in danger,” Butler said. “Our county is in danger because of this place.”