Sheriff Matthew J. Lutz
Muskingum County (OH) Sheriff’s Office
Washington, DC—The National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund has announced the selection of Sheriff Matthew J. Lutz of the Muskingum County (OH) Sheriff’s Office as its Officer of the Month for January 2012.
According to Ohio Administrative Code, state residents can apply for and be granted permits to own exotic animals. The Muskingum County Sheriff’s Office was familiar with one such Zanesville resident, Terry Thompson, who owned and kept several dozen exotic animals—including lions, wolves, bears, tigers and leopards—on his 73-acre farm. Occasionally, deputies had responded to calls involving these animals, but none could have prepared them for what took place on October 18, 2011.
At 5:30 p.m. Sheriff Matthew Lutz and his deputies faced circumstances unlike any they had ever encountered: 56 exotic animals were released from their cages, posing potential harm to the central Ohio city of 25,000 located a few miles west of Thompson’s reserve. Little did they know, the decisions made that evening would bring both praise and criticism and would thrust this department of 80 officers into the worldwide media spotlight.
When Sheriff Lutz and his deputies arrived on the scene, they spotted several lions, bears, wolves and tigers roaming outside the property line. After gaining access to the farm, the Sheriff and his deputies approached the animal cages and discovered an even more grisly scene. The cages were all open and the resident/owner of the animals, Thompson, was lying in the driveway with what was determined later to be a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Dozens of animals were running around and appeared out of control so the deputies had to think and act quickly. Should the deputies attempt to corral the animals, the existing livestock fence would not be able to contain the sheer numbers that were loose.
As rain fell and darkness approached, Sheriff Lutz’s objective was to prevent any more animals from escaping the perimeter of the farm and to preserve the safety of the county’s residents. After several attempts to tranquilize the animals failed, he made one of the toughest decisions of his career and ordered his deputies to shoot to kill.
Sheriff Lutz and his deputies worked through the night and the next day to secure the area. In the end, 49 of the 56 animals had to die. Dozens of local agencies were brought in under Sheriff Lutz’s leadership to help combat the horrific situation, including municipal agencies, wildlife specialists, state government officials, as well as the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium’s Director Emeritus, Jack Hanna. Commenting on Thompson’s decision to release the animals, Sheriff Lutz stated, “There was no reason for those animals to have to be killed or my deputies put in the positions they were put in. But that was his decision, and I had to do what was done to protect my people and this community.”
Muskingum County Prosecutor D. Michael Haddox knew Sheriff Lutz’s father, Lieutenant Mike Lutz, also with the Muskingum County Sheriff’s Office, who was shot and killed in the line of duty in 1994. He said Sheriff Lutz’s ability to quickly assess and take charge of the situation is driven in part by growing up in a law enforcement family. “Sheriff Lutz’s parents instilled in him a great set of morals. Matt doesn’t worry about things like politics or appearances; he gets the job done and he gets the job done right.”
Since the incident, the Sheriff’s office, dispatch center, and substation have received hundreds of letters and emails from people deeply saddened and angered by the loss of the animals. However, just as many letters and cards have been received expressing appreciation for Sheriff Lutz and his deputies for the action taken that evening. Sheriff Lutz credits his media training classes and his long-lasting relationship with the local journalists and reporters for preparing him for the onslaught of press the days and weeks following the incident.
Sheriff Lutz was nominated for this award by the Board of Muskingum County Commissioners with letters in support of this nomination from the Muskingum County Emergency Management Agency and the Chief of Police of Reynoldsburg, Ohio. He is a husband and father of two, a 22-year law enforcement veteran, as well as a member of the Buckeye State Sheriff’s Association and the Fraternal Order of Police.
Located in the nation’s capital, the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund is a nonprofit organization dedicated to honoring the service and sacrifice of America’s law enforcement officers. The Memorial Fund Officer of the Month Program began in September 1996 and recognizes federal, state and local officers who distinguish themselves through exemplary law enforcement service and devotion to duty.
Sheriff Lutz, along with the other Officers of the Month for 2012, will be honored at a special awards luncheon in Washington, DC, in May 2013 during National Police Week. In addition, their stories of heroism and service will be featured in the Memorial Fund’s annual calendar.
The Police Unity Tour is the official sponsor of the Memorial Fund’s Officer of the Month Program.