A search for a missing domesticated mountain lion turned into a criminal investigation on Sunday after law enforcement officials with the Aiken Department of Public Safety determined the report about the animal being stolen was a hoax.
“Obviously, the alarm it caused was significant, so we will be looking into it to see if criminal charges for filing a false police report are appropriate,” said Lt. Jake Mahoney, a Public Safety spokesman.
According to Public Safety, a 55-year-old man identified as Billy Joe Lunsford told an officer around 1 a.m. on Sunday that someone forced entry through the metal side of his building at 1018 Richland Ave. W. and stole his pet mountain lion. A sign outside the structure identifies the business located there as Aquarium Pets.
A Public Safety press release issued later on Sunday described the mountain lion as black in color, three feet tall and weighing approximately 100 pounds. The release also stated the animal was wearing a dog harness when last seen and had been declawed.
“Traps were set, and the S.C. Department of Natural Resources had contacted the appropriate personnel,” Mahoney said “We had a biologist involved, and we were communicating with him to determine the appropriate procedures to follow to capture the animal. Our biggest concern from the get-go was to get this information out to our residents for their protection.”
Late Sunday afternoon, Public Safety sent out another press release stating the report of a missing mountain lion was false.
“After this story went viral, we were contacted by a citizen who provided us further information,” Mahoney said. “We were able to corroborate that information and determine that the story was concocted and fraudulent.”
Mahoney added there had never been a mountain lion at Aquarium Pets and he didn’t know of any domesticated mountain lions being kept in Aiken.
Mahoney also praised local news media and social media for disseminating the information about the mountain lion widely and quickly.
“We probably would not have gotten this information (about the report of a missing mountain lion being a hoax) had not so many people paid attention to the story and shared it,” Mahoney said. “We are thankful for all that involvement and communication.”
On Sunday, a gas leak also was reported at Aquarium Pets. SCE&G personnel responded, located the leak, cut off the gas and cleared the scene.
Dede Biles is a general assignment reporter for the Aiken Standard and has been with the newspaper since January 2013. A native of Concord, N.C., she graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Amy Banton contributed to this story.