By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Gene Reitnauer devoted her life and Wise County home to caring for abused and abandoned exotic felines. Now, after a protracted legal battle brought by two wealthy donors, Reitnauer has lost it all--the sanctuary she built, access to the cats she loved, and possibly even the rights to her home.
In addition, more than a dozen volunteers who gave countless hours and financial donations to the sanctuary have been permanently barred from the property.
Early last month, an Austin jury found that the 47-year-old Reitnauer committed fraud and enriched herself unjustly as president of the nonprofit Texas Exotic Feline Foundation (TEFF) she and her ex-husband founded nine years ago.
The court determined that Reitnauer owes TEFF and the state more than $2 million in damages and must deed her 10-acre homestead over to TEFF without compensation because she used donations to build part of the sanctuary on her own property, which arguably increased the value of her land.
Reitnauer plans to appeal the court's decision. She also is in the midst of bankruptcy proceedings that she had hoped would exempt her house from the judgment.
"It's pretty scary," says Dean Fuller, a bankruptcy lawyer who is representing Reitnauer. "The state is arguing that the court judgment deprives Gene of any homestead protection. It's very harsh."
"I am a 47-year-old woman who sacrificed her life and love for these cats," says Reitnauer. "Now they want to throw me out on the street. If they think that is proper, God help us all."
Even Reitnauer's supporters who concede that she made mistakes at the helm of TEFF find the judgment unreasonable. Fred Brodsky, a local real estate investment broker, sums up the feelings of many people who were involved with TEFF over the years.
"While I do believe [Gene Reitnauer] did some things that were not proper, I'm not sure the punishment fits the crime," says Brodsky, who organized a fundraising effort to rescue three lions from a Mexico City Zoo, which was going to kill them because it lacked funds for their care. The lions eventually were placed at TEFF.
"I think the mistakes she made were done out of ignorance, not out of malice," Brodsky adds. "And I think the judgment was onerous."
"Unless they sat in the courtroom and listened to all the evidence, maybe they shouldn't be judging," says Jan Soifer, an Austin lawyer, previously with the attorney general's office, who now represents TEFF.
"The judge and the jury were pretty outraged by Gene Reitnauer's behavior."
Often considered one of the premier facilities of its kind in the country by animal welfare groups, TEFF and its proprietor became embroiled in controversy after Reitnauer aroused the ire of two of her most generous benefactors, Blockbuster Video founder David Cook and real estate investor and wild animal aficionado Louis Dorfman [Cat Fight, January 2].
Gene and Robert Reitnauer began taking in abandoned and abused big cats--lions, tigers, cougars, etc.--in the early 1980s. By the late 1980s, they had rescued so many felines that they formed a nonprofit foundation to solicit donations to care for the animals and expand their facility, built over the 10-acre back yard of their home in Boyd, northwest of Fort Worth.
A former big-game hunter and safari operator in Africa, Robert Reitnauer supported himself and his wife by selling elaborately carved crystal animal figures. With TEFF pretty much a shoestring operation, the Reitnauers, who served with a Fort Worth accountant on the three-member board, never took a salary.
In the early 1990s, David Cook became enchanted with TEFF and became its single largest benefactor, donating an additional 25 acres to the foundation, plus hundreds of thousands of dollars for buildings and infrastructure improvement.
In exchange for Cook's generosity, the Reitnauers allowed him unfettered access to the large cats.
The Reitnauers never hid the fact that the majority of the cages housing TEFF's 64 cats were built on property they owned. Most organizations, including the North Texas Humane Society, which placed 13 cats there, didn't seem to mind. But it bothered Cook, who told the Dallas Observer about it last year. Although Cook did not put anything in writing, he claimed he gave the Reitnauers money to pay off the mortgage on their home, plus an existing tax lien against it, so they could turn the property over to TEFF. Gene Reitnauer, however, claimed the money was to be spent finishing TEFF projects. This became one of several fraud allegations Cook would bring to the state attorney general's office.
Relations between Cook and the Reitnauers grew more strained in the summer of 1996. Robert moved to Belize with a TEFF volunteer with whom he was having an affair. He had used $7,000 in TEFF funds to finance an earlier trip to Belize. Gene Reitnauer sent him $26,000 in TEFF funds in the guise of a grant. On the Reitnauers' divorce decree, these funds were described as a property settlement.
Cook was outraged. In a letter Robert Reitnauer wrote him, he told Cook he shouldn't be angry about the money his wife sent him. TEFF owed it to him, he wrote, because he had worked all these years at TEFF for free.
Cook may have been upset about these issues, but he didn't do anything about them for more than a year--until Gene Reitnauer got into an ugly personality conflict with Louis Dorfman.
Dorfman had bought two exotic felines--a white siberian tiger and a snow leopard cub--and housed them at TEFF. Although using TEFF as a glorified kennel was technically a violation of the sanctuary's mission, the Reitnauers decided to accommodate the wealthy Dorfman, who was given keys that allowed him unfettered access to his cats.
In late summer of 1996, Dorfman and Gene Reitnauer had a series of spats. Dorfman, who found Reitnauer arrogant and abrasive, threatened to sue her if she did not develop an independent board of trustees who would institute tighter fiscal restraints at TEFF. Reitnauer did appoint two new trustees--a former TEFF employee with a bookkeeping background and a woman with a zoology degree who ran her own wildlife rehabilitation facility 150 miles away. But before they could make any changes at TEFF, Reitnauer provoked Dorfman into filing suit by demanding he return the keys to TEFF. He could still visit his cats, but only with a volunteer present.
Dorfman and Cook then brought their case against Reitnauer to the attorney general's office. The attorney general filed suit against her and appointed a receiver to run the operations of TEFF until the litigation was over. For the last several months, she has not been allowed anywhere near the cats, and the receiver had a 10-foot fence covered with an opaque tarp erected between her house and the cat cages.
For the past six months, TEFF has been run by Richard Gilbreath, a former Colorado furniture-store owner who co-founded a Colorado tiger sanctuary in 1994. It closed earlier this year because of financial problems and amid charges of animal cruelty. Gilbreath is being paid $60,000 a year, plus free board in the TEFF guest quarters and use of the TEFF Suburban. David Cook has been financing TEFF since the suit was filed.
The court ruling has left Reitnauer and the former volunteers reeling.
"We know Gene made mistakes," says Per-Ola Selander, a former TEFF volunteer, "but the punishment does not fit the crime. All her time and dedication was given to the animals. She was not a bookkeeper. Why hasn't Robert had to account for anything? He wasn't made to give back the money he took."
It will be up to the newly appointed TEFF board to decide whether to take legal action against Robert Reitnauer, says Soifer. "But the attorney general's office decided the wrongful actions were all done by Gene," Soifer adds.
"Were her mistakes so horrible as to totally ruin her and take everything she's worked for away?" asks Barbara Hescock, another longtime TEFF volunteer.
Bankruptcy lawyer Fuller finds it hard to believe that the jury found that Reitnauer had improved her property by building cat cages on it. "I think you could probably make a case that the cages decreased the value of the property," says Fuller.
For Gene Reitnauer, the hardest thing of all is the realization that she'll never see the cats again. "I cry every day and every night," says Reitnauer, who now supports herself as a substitute teacher. "It breaks my heart. It is like a mother being pulled away from 64 of her children.