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One year later, Prosecutor Joe Deters remembers 'absolutely crazy' response to Harambe incident

'Bloody hand' prints, death threats and more
Posted at 7:00 AM, May 21, 2017
and last updated 2017-05-29 04:52:53-04

CINCINNATI -- "It appears that Cincinnati is populated with gross dumb f---ers."

That's just one line from one of the hundreds of letters Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters said his office received after he announced there would be no charges in the death of Harambe last year at the Cincinnati Zoo.

Zoo staff shot and killed Harambe, an endangered western lowland gorilla, on May 28, 2016 after a young boy climbed under a barrier and fell into the gorilla enclosure. Keepers were able to call the other gorillas inside, but Harambe, who weighed about 400 pounds, remained outside. Harambe soon dragged and carried the boy, causing zoo staff to fear for the child's safety.

"If that had been my kid, I would have died that day," Deters said. "Because I would have gone in after him. No way I would have been able to stay there and watch that. And I don't think I could have beaten up Harambe."

RELATED: Remembering Harambe photography gallery by Jeff T. McCurry

Rage about the incident spread across social media and spilled over to the prosecutor's office.

"We started getting letters right away," Deters said. "We got phone calls right out of the gate. They tend to be animal activists that believe the child's life is the same as a gorilla's life. I don't buy that, and the Ohio revised code doesn't buy that either."

A snapshot of some of the letters sent to Deters after Harambe's death.

Most of the letters were not from local residents, according to Deters. He said they received letters from as far away as Europe, Asia and Australia.

"It was absolutely crazy," he said.

Deters said some of the letters written to his office were polite in asking him to prosecute the boy's mother, while others expressed violent and racist sentiments.

"Not only should (the parents) have been arrested, but shot and killed as well," one person wrote.

Other letters were insulting toward officials.

"I wanted to let you know what a coward scum you are," another letter states.

"You are the reason our society is so f---ed up," another person wrote.

Other letters were potentially threatening, Deters said. One came covered by what appeared to be a bloody handprint. Deters' office had the print tested and determined the blood was fake.

A letter to Joe Deters smeared in fake blood. 

"You can hide behind your podium, your office, your desk, your car, your home, but you will surely burn in hell for all eternity for your lack of consciousness in protecting all life in your district ... I can only hope that the 'mother's' life will be short as well," that letter states. "Short, painful, agonizing and devoid of any happiness, joy or any more children."

Deters said he had never seen a response like this before.

"The venom from these letters and the nastiness of these correspondence to this office were off the charts," he said. "I've done serial killers, I've done a variety of different aggravated murder cases. I've never had a case where people were threatening."

The prosecutor wasn't the only person affected. Zoo Director Thayne Maynard's Twitter was hacked, so he shut it down. The zoo itself even temporarily pulled down its account in the onslaught of insults, threats and memes.

Author Peter Shankman is a social media expert. He said the Harambe incident "had everything the internet would go crazy for in one, neat little package."

Harambe became a rallying cry because the country was in the midst of a contentious presidential primary and civil rights issues, Shankman said. He said it was also because Harambe was in his enclosure when he was shot.

"We are a very justice warrior-type society," Shankman said. "We get very angry when things we perceive to have no power tend to get their asses handed to them."

On top of that, Shankman said our social media society takes part in what he calls "clicktivism."

"Clicktivism makes you feel better without fundamentally affecting change," he said. "It's easy to click the 'like' button and 'share if you agree,' but what has that done? Absolutely nothing, but it makes me feel better."

Deters said he was satisfied with how the case ended.

"It was a beautiful animal, everyone agrees with that," Deters said. "But the life of a child was in jeopardy and the zoo had to use force to stop it."

WCPO's James Leggate contributed to this story.