COLUMBIA STATION — Controversial exotic animal owner Sam Mazzola, who was found dead Sunday at his North Marks Road compound, died of asphyxia due to an airway obstruction, Deputy Lorain County Coroner Frank Miller said Monday.
“He had an object in his mouth and choked on it,” Miller said.
A teenage employee of Mazzola’s found the 49-year-old handcuffed and chained facedown on his waterbed about 11 a.m. Miller said the chains were attached to the bed and floor.
Mazzola also was wearing a mask when he was discovered, Miller said. Locks, keys and other items were found nearby.
Miller said he has yet to rule on whether Mazzola’s death, which he estimated took place between 1 and 2 a.m., was a suicide or an accident. He said homicide and natural causes have been ruled out.
Sheriff’s Chief Deputy Dennis Cavanaugh said detectives are still trying to determine whether anyone else was at Mazzola’s compound. He said deputies intend to review footage captured on surveillance cameras at the property and stored on computers seized Sunday as part of the investigation.
Meanwhile at Mazzola’s property on Monday, his family and friends cared for the menagerie of animals — all of which deputies have said were caged when Mazzola died — he kept there, including bears, tigers, wolves, an African lion and raccoons.
“Nobody saw this coming, and now we just have a giant thing that we’ve got to clear up and take care of,” said Dave Garnek, Mazzola’s friend and the executor of his estate.
Garnek said some of the animals have already been sent to sanctuaries and the others will be soon. Mazzola had already been taking steps to find new homes for his aging animals before his death, Garnek said.
“They were his family, and he took care of them better than most people take care of their own family,” he said.
Mazzola’s care of his animals has long been a source of criticism by animal rights activists and others. Those complaints only amplified following the Aug. 19 mauling of Brent Kandra by one of the bears Mazzola kept at the compound.
Kandra, who had approximately 600 wounds on his body, died about six hours after he was mauled by Iroquois. The bear was later put down by Mazzola at the request of Kandra’s family, who had pushed Lorain County Prosecutor Dennis Will to charge Mazzola with reckless homicide.
Will said Monday that the investigation into Mazzola — including whether Kandra was a friend of Mazzola’s or an employee — had been ongoing when Mazzola died.
Will said he needs to review the file, but unless there’s someone besides Mazzola who could face charges, the investigation will end now that Mazzola is dead.
Mazzola also had been facing the possibility that a judge could determine he had violated his probation on federal charges he illegally transported bears and sold skunks. Federal probation officers had accused Mazzola of consorting with felons, offering to display his animals and failing to report that he had pleaded no contest to state charges of improper recordkeeping for some of the animals he owned.
Brittany Peet, an attorney for the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which has long expressed concerns about Mazzola, said Monday that her organization remains concerned about the care Mazzola’s animals are receiving in the wake of his death.
Peet said she doesn’t know where the animals are being sent, but wants to make certain they are going to suitable sanctuaries. She said state wildlife officials should step in and seize the animals until suitable new homes can be found.
“They have suffered for years in cramped, barren cages,” Peet said. “It’s gone on long enough.”
Garnek, however, said that PETA and other critics of Mazzola didn’t know the man and how much he cared for the animals. He warned activists to stay off Mazzola’s property.
“He had the heart of a canyon and he was just a hell of a great guy,” Garnek said.
Chief Photographer Bruce Bishop contributed to this story. Contact Brad Dicken at 329-7147