Details of former Vinton Township fiscal officer’s theft of public funds for his roadside zoo are released

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COLUMBUS, Ohio (WOUB) — A former Vinton Township fiscal officer used public funds to buy things for his roadside zoo and adjacent properties that include a wildebeest, two owls, windows for a primate exhibit, hot tubs, a snow cone machine and other personal purchases.

Details of the investigation into Cyril Vierstra, of Wilkesville, who legally changed his name to “Cy” in 2017, were released Tuesday as part of a special audit by the Auditor of State’s Special Investigations Unit (SIU), which served as special prosecutor in the case.

Vierstra was sentenced in February to spend 4 years and 11 months in prison after pleading guilty last October to felony counts of engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity, theft in office and tampering with records, plus a misdemeanor count of dereliction of duty.

“This was an abuse of the public trust at its worst,” Auditor of State Keith Faber said. “Public funds that were supposed to be used for roads and bridges and needed services instead were stolen to buy kayaks, a popcorn cart, a swimming pool, a drum set, gazebos – the list goes on and on.”

SIU began its investigation after receiving a complaint from Vinton County Auditor Cindy Owings Waugh with allegations that Vierstra was misusing township debit and credit cards.

A subsequent review of bank records uncovered a number of questionable transactions between January 2016 and July 2020 to fund renovations to his residence and for expenses at the Union Ridge Wildlife Center, a nonprofit wildlife refuge he operated.

The Union Ridge Wildlife Center was a private roadside zoo and a short-term rental property in Wilkesville.

Other than the wildebeest and owls, social media posts from the zoo indicate chimpanzees, spider monkeys, tigers, camels and cranes were among the exotic animals housed there at one point or another.

PETA, an animal rights organization, announced earlier this week it had helped four chimpanzees from the property relocate to the accredited Save the Chimps chimpanzee sanctuary in Florida.

Asked about the fate of the other animals, the Ohio Department of Agriculture told WOUB Tuesday it “cannot comment as the investigation is still open.”

Chimpanzees in an enclosure at the Union Ridge Wildlife Center [Ohio Auditor]
[Ohio Auditor]
An ape enclosure at the Union Ridge Wildlife Center sits empty. [Ohio Auditor]
A list of the animals in the Union Ridge Wildlife Center at the time. [Ohio Auditor]

SIU determined Vierstra created fake invoices, billing slips and other fraudulent documents to hide his activities.

He made 812 debit card transactions totaling $127,204 on an online auction website, including purchases of generators, bicycles, a video game system, tricycles, telescopes, a drone and other items not related to the operations of the township.

Other significant improper purchases included the wildebeest, two snow owls from England, animal food, custom-built enclosures for his residence and wildlife refuge, indoor and outdoor furniture and a dishwasher.

Vierstra was ordered by the Vinton County Common Pleas Court to pay $339,717.86 in restitution, which included funds he stole and audit costs.

The special audit released Tuesday included $345,049 in findings for recovery, including improper debit and credit card transactions, non-payroll disbursements, Internal Revenue Service penalties and interest, improper health care reimbursements and audit costs.

A copy of the full report is available online.

According to a release from the auditor’s office, the Special Investigations Unit has assisted in 108 convictions resulting in more than $5 million in restitution since 2019.

Tips can be submitted anonymously online or via SIU’s fraud hotline at 866-FRAUD-OH (866-372-8364).