Tuesday morning UPDATE: The following statement was posted to the official Deer Forest Facebook page Tuesday morning:
"It's with a heavy heart that we are forced to make this announcement. Deer Forest will be closing it's gates possibly for good after the 2014 season. We made it to 65 years, that's a major feat in todays business world. The previous ownership's short comings as well as bad press and a small group of non believers have managed to force the park back into a corner that we can not get out from. There is still a small chance that with some pretty hefty donations or an investor we can go forward, but that would take a miracle at this point. We feel as if we have bent over backward to give this park back to the people of sw michigan by lowering prices and making it an affordable family gathering spot. We have failed. This also has forced us into selling off some of the animals to try to recoup the money that the business has lost this season. If there is something close to your heart, ask me about it and we can work out a price. This is not at all what we wanted , but again our hand was forced. We will remain open as normal until labor day and try to stay open weekends in the fall until halloween. Again I am personally sorry and feel like a true failure and will take this experience with me wherever i may go. Thank you Coloma, thank you Sw michigan. Thank you EVERYBODY! God Bless"
WSBT story posted Monday night: There’s more trouble for the man running Deer Forest in Coloma Township. Police in Cass County, Ill. confirmed Monday they have an active arrest warrant for Jon Stolarz. There’s also new concern that the animal park may be in jeopardy.
In March, an Illinois judge sentenced Stolarz to pay $300 in restitution in that animal cruelty case. According to court documents, he was required to appear before the judge August 6 if he hadn’t paid. When Stolarz didn’t show up, the judge issued the warrant.
A Sunday posting on the “Deer Forest Sanctuary Fans” Facebook page that supports Deer Forest reads: “…If things don’t turn around in the next month… the park may have to close down and will probably be for sale again next year.”
It went on to say “…Some of the animals have been sold… we hope and pray they found great new homes.”
Holly Copen and Don Smith reached out to WSBT Monday, saying they run that page and the information on it comes directly from Stolarz.
“It all comes down to the people that are against [Deer Forest] that are pushing him to do that,” Smith said. “We can’t get anyone there. Everybody reads the negative stuff about it and never sees the good stuff about it.”
Smith went on to say Stolarz had to make a choice about paying bills he owes.
“He sold a few of the animals hoping to keep the park open,” Smith added.
But he and Copen aren’t sure how many animals have been sold or where those animals are now.
“There’s no way to know,” Copen said. “I know he took the animals to an auction and we can only hope that they went to a good home.”
That’s sparking concern from people locally and as far away as Minnesota who are following the Deer Forest saga. They’re concerned the “sold” animals may not really be going to new homes.
“We don’t want them hurt, we don’t want them sold to a meat processor,” said Deer Forest protestor Pamela Genovese. “That’s a bad end result of his game plan.”
Both sides say they’re worried about the park’s future. It’s been in Berrien County since the 1940s. But the disconnect seems to center around the man running it.
“He seems to be getting away with everything. That’s the way it looks,” Genovese said.
“They’re not going after Deer Forest, they’re going after [Stolarz],” Smith said. “But Deer Forest is the one that’s going to pay.”
When WSBT stopped by Deer Forest to speak with Stolarz Monday, he immediately asked the reporter and photographer to leave.
He WSBT asked whether animals are being sent to the slaughter house and he replied, “It’s not true but believe whatever you’re going to believe.”
WSBT also asked about the arrest warrant, which Stolarz said is “a bunch of garbage.”
A sheriff's deputy at the Cass County, Ill. jail told WSBT it’s “highly unlikely” Illinois would extradite Stolarz for the warrant due to the nature of the offense.
In June the USDA filed a federal complaint against Deer Forest but Stolarz has said it involves the park’s owner, a Chicago man. The violations in the complaint were found between May 2011 and July 2013. They include allegations such as failure to provide proper veterinary care, had improper disposal of dead animals and did not give the deer proper shelter.
Stolarz said he and his wife, Amy Gadberry, currently lease the land from a man named Jon Modica. According to USDA spokeswoman Tonya Espinoza, it’s now up to an Administrative Law Judge to decide what happens next in that case.
Espinoza confirmed to WSBT a second, ongoing USDA investigation involves Stolarz and Gadberry. The agency will not release information about the nature of that investigation.