The sounds of fireworks and revelry echoed through the warm Oregon night as people throughout Portland celebrated Independence Day. It was July 4th, 1970. And among the crowds were three young men enjoying the triple pleasure of a holiday, a summer evening, and the vigor of youth.
Warning: animals are killed during the course of this story.
And for Roger Adams, Ken Bowers, and Michael Gaskell, this evening was even more special. Roger, at 19 the youngest of the trio, had just finished moving into a house with 21-year old Ken. To commemorate this adolescent day of independence, as Ken later recalled, they set out to do the town, taking advantage of the best Portland has to offer. Their goal? “Getting loaded.” And, one can imagine, meeting members of the opposite sex.
Earlier in the evening at a local dance, they struck out on both counts. They emerged from the mixer alone, unaccompanied by any of Portland’s fair flowers. Even worse, they weren’t any closer to the evening’s stated goal. Ken claimed they hadn’t drank that much; why, Roger barely put away a dozen beers. Frustrated, yet still cheerful, the threesome stepped into the Oregon night, hungry for more excitement.
It was still too early to go home. Having failed to find thrills via sex and drugs, they turned to mankind’s traditional third avenue: adrenaline. Equipped with a jug of wine, the happy trio headed out to the Washington Park Zoo for an illicit after-hours visit.
After easily scaling the fence, they strolled through the zoo, hearts pounding with excitement as they enjoyed the clandestine pleasures of trespass. For an extra rush, young Roger hung from the ledge of the grizzly bear pit. His companions later denied egging him on or encouraging him in any way. No, they urged him to stop that foolishness. But even 45 years later, one can hear the drunken hoots and dares and see the ceremonial passing of the wine bottle after Roger emerged unscathed. Lifelong masculine bonds were forming.
Attracted by the nearby roaring, the young men drifted over to the lion grotto. Again, Roger felt the need to show his mettle, his manhood. Disdainful of the lioness at the bottom of the moat, he gripped the edge of the pit and lowered himself in. Like a matador waving a red cape at an infuriated bull, Roger taunted the lioness with the full length of his dangling body.
As Roger hung from the edge, Sis, the 11-year old lioness, gathered herself and leaped from the bottom of the 16-foot moat. Her outstretched claws, so cruel and sharp, barely missed Roger’s feet. For a brief instant, the precariousness of his position penetrated his alcohol-befuddled mind. He desperately started to pull himself up to safety.
But Sis had her range down. She would not miss again. With a second mighty leap, she caught the terror stricken lad by the ankle. Roger lost his grip and, with a terrible scream, fell down into the lion’s lair.
His two companions frantically tried to scare the lions away with the only weapon at hand: the wine bottle and desperately flung it into the pit. Sis was not discouraged. It would take more than a few shards of glass to drive her off her hard-won prey.
Ken and Michael tried to find help, but returned five minutes later, unsuccessful. Then, they decided that Michael would look for the zoo attendant while Ken remained by the lion pit to comfort Roger in his final moments. Roger was Ken’s “really close friend.”
It was a spectacle Ken would never forget. Sis, with help from her mate Caesar, slowly mauled his friend to death. The two felines weren’t fooled for an instant when Roger, following Ken’s hastily shouted advice, tried to play dead.
When the night guard finally arrived, he could only say “Oh my god” to the blood-drenched scene at the bottom of the moat. Roger had been in the pit for a half hour by the time the lions were driven off. One zoo worker later speculated the lions may have regarded the young man “as a toy.” Toy or not, Ken would always be haunted by his dying words: “Goodbye Kenny.”
He was the first person killed in the zoo’s 50-plus year history. In many ways, Roger’s death was typical of many zoo mishaps, a lethal combination of alcohol and testosterone. But what followed made his death unique in the annals of American wild animal displays.
The Monday morning newspapers duly reported the tragedy as an unfortunate accident, the grisly end of another drunken fool. The only jarring note came from Ken Bowers. He bitterly muttered to reporters that something should be done. Someone should shoot those lions for killing his friend.
Unfortunately for Ken, the days of zoo animals routinely being executed for killing humans were long since gone. But, even as Portlanders digested the tragedy along with their morning coffee and cereal, the two lions were paying the price.
Early that morning, only 30 hours after Roger’s death, an unknown gunman sneaked into the zoo. Armed with a 30.06 rifle, he carefully made his way to the lion grotto. He fired three times, hitting each lion once. His third round misfired.
Around 5 a.m., an anonymous caller reported the shooting to the police. They promptly notified the zoo, but when the guard checked the lions, they looked OK. Their bullet wounds weren’t noticed until the morning feeding when they refused to eat. Both died before noon.
If the theme of this tragedy’s first act was stupidity and the second vengeance, then the third can only be summarized as hate. The target, inexplicably, was not the gunman but the dead boy’s family. The day before, they were pitied for their loss; the day after, they somehow became villains, deserving targets of abuse for playing some vague, unspecified role in the twin killings.
For days, Roger’s grieving family was bombarded with phone calls. Each time the phone rang, the family approached it with trepidation. It could be a well-wisher, expressing sympathy for their boy’s premature passing. Or it could be an enraged animal lover, cruelly informing Roger’s grief-stricken elders “I’m glad he’s dead,” “He got what’s coming to him,” or, most sadistically, “They should have torn him limb from limb.” The Adams family would receive some 30 or 40 such calls despite the fact that no one ever suggested they had any involvement in the shooting.
This being the good old days when newspapers published everyone’s address (“Roger Adams of 1224 NE 60th Avenue”), there was also mail. One subtle correspondent’s envelope was empty save for photos of two lions. Other writers were more direct. One outraged animal lover wrote, “That drunken bum has caused the death of two innocent lions. I hope he suffered longer than the lions did. I hope he rots in hell.” Another less vitriolic, slightly confused soul, merely pointed out “Now your son can’t ever abuse animals and birds [??] ever [sic] again...”
This torrent of abuse bewildered Roger’s father. “I don’t blame the lions,” the bereaved parent told the newspapers. “But what I don’t understand is how some people can have so much compassion for animals—then turn right around and crucify human beings.” According to Adams, Sr., “The only reason he was handing over that ledge was to show his friends he had guts enough to do it.”
However, there was no doubt about Roger being a chip off the old block. Understandably, the elder Adams admitted his first impulse upon hearing of his son’s gory end was to buy a Magnum and plug the lions himself. “But later,” he thoughtfully told reporters, “I decided Roger was to blame as much as the lions...”
With all this wrath directed at the family, one can imagine public sentiment about the actual gunman. Yet he somehow eluded police. The killer was obviously unfamiliar with guns. He had tried to use 7.65 mm ammunition in the 30.06 rifle. This caused the shells to split in the chamber, and made his third shot misfire. But even with the hospitals on the lookout for people with powder burns, the killer remained at large.
The years passed. The triple killing gradually went from being a hot story to an almost forgotten bit of zoo trivia. The zoo quickly purchased another pair of lions, Brutus and Sheba, from the Mexico City Zoo. The new felines gamboled happily about the bloodstained grotto. The Adams family presumably came to terms with their loss, and the police file on the twin killings gathered dust.
Then, in late 1972, the case was suddenly back in the newspapers. Ken Bowers, now 23, had been arrested on drug charges. Somehow, somewhere during his journey through the justice system, he decided he had to get something off his chest. Yes, he had responded to his own call for direct action. He had shot the lions to avenge Roger’s death.
In January, 1973, Ken pled guilty to a charge of animal destruction and one of criminal activity in drugs. In exchange, the DA dropped the other animal charge, another drug count, and a resisting arrest charge.
At his mitigation hearing prior to sentencing, Ken finally told his story. All of Roger’s friends had been upset by his death, and 11 or 12 said they’d go out to the zoo and do it. But Kenny felt, as Roger was his closest friend, it was his job. He borrowed a gun, loaded it with the wrong ammunition, sneaked into the zoo a second time and did it. He claimed he didn’t have anything against animals in general. With an attitude of “Who hasn’t?,” he told the court he hadn’t killed one since he was eight and “a cat scratched me and I freaked.” Even then, over two years later, he was still haunted by dreams of the two lions playfully mauling Roger to death.
It wasn’t much of a sob story, but it saved him from getting the maximum sentence. Instead of three years of jail, he got off with three years probation, the first of which was to be spent in jail on a work-release program. He was also fined of $1200—the cost of the lions he killed.
The reaction of the local animal lovers to the lightly-publicized resolution of this heavily publicized story went unrecorded.
Top photo by Derek Keats
This article originally appeared in Murder Can Be Fun and has been republished with permission.