Jason Clay, 42, owner of Franklin Drive Thru Safari in Franklin, TX, and East Texas Zoo and Gator Park in Grand Saline, TX, is under investigation related to a 2019 shooting death that occurred on his property.
The Robertson County Sheriff’s Office confirmed the victim is Terry Darnell, Jr., 35, from Franklin.
Darnell attended a party hosted by Clay on the evening of Feb. 9, 2019. The party took place in a barn Clay owns that is located across the street from his Franklin Drive Thru Safari roadside zoo. Investigators suspect illegal gambling may have been occurring at the property.
Court documents indicate a fight broke out early the next morning. The circumstances surrounding the fight are unclear. Investigators say William Rabe, 48, was severely beaten during the brawl and at some point Rabe opened fire on Darnell, who was killed.
Rabe was arrested and charged with homicide. He is currently free on bond.
Robertson County Sheriff's Office Investigator Bill Ruland said there have been issues related to evidence tampering during their investigation into the homicide that occurred on Clay’s property.
The victim’s wife, Heather Soles, is Clay’s cousin and she is one of several witnesses to the shooting. Ruland said the witnesses have been uncooperative which has hindered the investigation. He said Darnell may not have been involved in Rabe’s beating.
Clay is on felony deferred probation for two prior incidents. In 2017, Clay severely beat a man at a bar. News reports indicate Clay continued beating the man even after he was unconscious. The victim was hospitalized for his injuries. In 2018, Clay stole a disabled individual’s lottery ticket and cashed it in for $180,000. As part of Clay’s felony probation requirements, he is not to break any laws.
The conditions for the animals at both Franklin Drive Thru Safari and East Texas Zoo and Gator Park have been under investigation by the U.S. Department of Agriculture over the past year.
From June-September, Clay was cited with 22 violations of the federal Animal Welfare Act. The USDA documented more than 330 animals that were either acquired or disposed of at the two facilities without records. The agency served Clay with an Official Warning, indicating that if they found evidence of future violations they may pursue civil penalties, criminal prosecution or other sanctions.
Clay has been involved in several suspicious incidents involving giraffes. In March 2020, Clay obtained a giraffe named Jericho from Wisconsin’s now-closed Special Memories Zoo.
Clay temporarily housed Jericho at East Texas Zoo before sending the giraffe to Chalk Bluff Park in Uvalde, TX. Chalk Bluff Park is not licensed as an exhibitor with the USDA. The roadside zoo’s continued operation without a USDA license is a federal violation. Clay's transportation of the giraffe across state lines for the purpose of a sale to an unlicensed facility may have been unlawful.
In October 2020, a one-year-old giraffe named Azizi died at East Texas Zoo and Gator Park, reportedly of a “twisted gut.”
In June 2021, the USDA inspected the Franklin Drive Thru Safari location and found a giraffe and a hippo had died “acutely and suspiciously,” but no veterinarian had been contacted for the animals before or after their death, according to the USDA report.
In September 2021, a giraffe named Loki was removed from East Texas Zoo and Gator Park and he has not been returned to the facility. His current whereabouts are unknown.
Ruland said Clay is also under investigation for a separate incident related to the sale of a giraffe at Franklin Drive Thru Safari. Ruland said the victim in that case claims she paid Clay $40,000 for a giraffe that she never received.
The homicide that occurred on Clay’s property in 2019 is still under investigation.
“Part of the reason it’s under investigation is because Mr. Clay wasn’t telling the truth about the whole thing,” Ruland said. “I don’t want [Terry Darnell’s] death to go unpunished by whoever needs to be punished.”
Anyone with information related to the homicide is asked to contact the Robertson County Sheriff’s Office.