A day-long search for a man charged in a 2017 murder ended Monday with Houston police announcing that the suspect, last seen ushering a collared Bengal tiger into a white Jeep one day earlier, had been arrested.
On Tuesday, the manhunt was over, but the big cat was still at large.
Houston police said they are still investigating the tiger’s whereabouts.
Victor Hugo Cuevas was charged Monday with felony evading arrest and fleeing from police. He was already known to authorities: the 26-year-old was charged with murder in 2017 and was out on bond ahead of his upcoming trial.
The tiger appeared to live in a West Houston home Cuevas was renting. But by the time the authorities arrived Sunday to question him about the tiger, Cuevas had loaded the animal into a car and driven away, officials said. A lawyer representing Cuevas in the upcoming murder trial denied that his client owned the animal.
The tiger was seen jumping over a backyard fence and roaming leisurely through the grassy front lawns along the block late Sunday as stunned – and alarmed – neighbors watched.
“I mean, I couldn’t believe it,” neighbor Jose Ramos told KPRC.
Bystanders took pictures and videos of the tiger while an off-duty sheriff’s deputy arrived on the scene with a gun and tried to corral the animal.
Michael Elliott, Cuevas’s attorney, insisted his client doesn’t own the tiger and disputed the police’s claims that he drove away with the animal. Houston police had jumped to conclusions, Elliott claimed.
Cuevas “is not guilty of any crimes, he hasn’t done anything wrong,” Elliott said at a news conference Monday night.
Private ownership of exotic animals in Texas has bedeviled animal welfare advocates for decades. The state is among just a handful of areas that have both lax regulations on exotic animal ownership and a climate hospitable to such animals.
In April, police seized a white Bengal tiger and other exotic animals during a drug raid in Mercedes, on the far southern tip of Texas on the Mexican border. In 2019, police rescued a tiger that was discovered inside a cage in an abandoned home in southeast Houston. The tiger was placed in a sanctuary outside of Dallas, according to law enforcement officials. Other Texas incidents of tigers that were seized or euthanized after an attack date back more than two decades.
Even though municipalities have tightened restrictions locally – a Houston city ordinance bans ownership of tigers and other wild animals – enforcement is still hit-or-miss outside the city and in rural parts of the state, said Patti Mercer, president of the Houston Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
“It’s not just hat enforcement is lax; the owners of those animals make great strides to keep their presence secret,” Mercer told The Washington Post. Police or animal welfare groups most commonly learn an exotic animal is being kept as domestically while investigating an unrelated animal cruelty complaint.
“I’m not a psychiatrist, so I can’t tell you what drives a person to want to keep a dangerous wild animal in their home – which is a risk to their families and their neighbors, as well as an animal-welfare issue,” Mercer added.
Ramos, one of Cuevas’s neighbors, first spotted the tiger about 8 p.m. Sunday, when he noticed it wandering outside a house across the street on Ivy Wall Drive. Ramos took a picture and posted it on a neighborhood blog, warning people to stay home. He then called 911.
“It was very scary because this is a very family-oriented community, and you see lots of kids and [babies] strolling,” he told KHOU. “And people taking their pets, dogs and walking them. So . . . the first thing I thought was to alert the community so everybody would stay home.”
Wes Manion, a Waller County sheriff’s deputy who lives nearby, saw the post and made his way to the street.
“We thought it was fake,” he told KHOU. “You always have to verify.”
Videos taken by neighbors showed Manion holding his gun and trying to get the tiger to back up.
“Last thing I wanted to do was shoot the tiger,” Manion told KHOU. “It didn’t seem super aggressive.”
Soon after, Cuevas exited his front door and approached the tiger, telling neighbors that he’d “get him.”
Manion asked angrily why Cuevas had a tiger in his house.
“We’re with the zoo,” Cuevas said, according to a video recorded by a family sitting in a nearby car.
“Get that tiger back inside,” Manion yelled, his voice booming and echoing down the block.
“I will! I am, I am,” Cuevas responded. He then grabbed the tiger’s collar and walked it to his front door, where a woman stood waiting.
Neighbors then saw Cuevas lead the tiger into a Jeep Cherokee and drive away, said Ronald Borza, a commander with the Houston Police Department’s major offenders division.
“There was a brief pursuit and the man got away with the tiger,” Borza said at news conference on Monday.
Police searched the home, which Cuevas had been renting since late last year, the property owner told KHOU. The owner said that he had no idea a tiger was in the house, but that he suspected something was off when Cuevas wouldn’t let him in to make repairs.
Borza said authorities found an enclosure in the backyard, but evidence showed that the tiger probably spent most of its time indoors.
“Looked like he was living pretty well,” Borza said. “Looks like he’s well taken care of.”
But the police commander said there’s a reason for Houston’s ban.
“You never know when that animal is going to turn on you,” he said.
Borza added that if the big cat had done “some damage yesterday, I’m sure one of these citizens would have shot the tiger. We have plenty of neighbors out here with guns and we don’t want to see that. It’s not the animal’s fault. It’s the breeder’s fault.”
Police also received reports of two monkeys in the home, although they are not illegal in Houston.
Authorities got in touch with Elliott, the lawyer, and the two sides agreed that Cuevas would turn himself in at 8:15 p.m. Monday. But police ended up breaking the deal and arresting Cuevas at 8 p.m., Elliott said.
Elliott said he and his client were working with state and federal authorities on finding the tiger and sharing information about the animal’s owner.
“I thought they were working with us in good faith,” Elliott said. “I thought they were actually interested in solving this case rather than doing a double-cross and running to the house and arresting my client before we can even finish helping them.”
Cuevas’s bail has been revoked and he is being held in Fort Bend County jail. It is unclear when he will appear in court.