A Bengal tiger is still at large somewhere in the Houston area, police say, but the man last seen with the big cat is now behind bars.
Victor Hugo Cuevas was taken into custody Friday after a Fort Bend County judge revoked his bond on a pending, unrelated murder charge from 2017.
The judge set a new bond for $300,000 and asked the state and defense teams to figure out a trial date on the murder case.
What was supposed to be a short bond revocation hearing turned into a dramatic, day-long examination into what happened Sunday night when prosecutors say Cuevas was spotted with the tiger in a residential neighborhood.
The defense attorney and prosecutor interviewed five witnesses, showed multiple videos and presented closing arguments that lasted nearly an hour.
When Cuevas was allegedly seen with the tiger Sunday night in a West Houston neighborhood he was already out on bond on the murder charge in Fort Bend County and on a separate charge of evading arrest earlier this year in nearby Austin County.
He was arrested Monday — though the tiger was not with him — for evading police in Harris County and posted a $50,000 bond on Wednesday.
At the hearing on Friday, the state argued Cuevas had violated bond conditions multiple times over the years, including Sunday night when he was spotted with the tiger.
As to the current whereabouts of the tiger named India, Cuevas’s lawyer said after the hearing that his client returned the cat to its owner Sunday night.
But he didn’t identify the owner or say where the tiger is now.
“I think the owner is hiding under a rock right now because of the worldwide attention looking for him and India,” lawyer Michael Elliott said.
He said the cat would visit Cuevas a couple times a month. The cat was “treated very, very well,” like a pet dog, and Cuevas “loves this cat tremendously” and spoke to it in Spanish, Elliott said.
Elliott said Cuevas has already released information about the alleged owner, but police have not verified any specific individuals of interest.
Police think the tiger is still in Houston
Houston police said Friday they still have not located the tiger. After fielding hundreds of calls with tips from the public and following leads, investigators believe the tiger has been moved to as many as eight different locations in Houston this week.
“We’ve gone to a few locations here in Houston and we have not had any luck finding the tiger yet,” said Houston Police Commander Ron Borza.
Borza said that Cuevas may have bought the tiger from a female in the Houston area who police have dealt with before with exotic animals.
“I don’t know if he was just looking after the tiger or actually purchased it, because a lot of times when we’re going after people dealing in exotic animals, they start passing the animal from house to house with people that are involved in this trade,” Borza said.
‘That is my tiger’
One witness on Friday was Wes Manion, an off-duty deputy from Waller County who lives in the west Houston neighborhood where the tiger incident happened.
Manion said he was outside with the tiger for about 10 minutes, trying to keep the tiger focused on him while waiting for police.
The deputy said he had his weapon trained on the animal as it backed him into a yard. He said Cuevas came out and pleaded with him not to kill the tiger. Cuevas told the deputy, “That is my tiger,” approached the tiger, grabbed it by the collar, kissed it on the forehead, and took it into the house, Manion testified.
Manion said he watched Cuevas get in a white SUV with the tiger on board. He gave Cuevas numerous commands to stop, but Cuevas drove off.
Cuevas’ attorney argued that the off-duty deputy in plain clothing had no legal authority to attempt to arrest or detain Cuevas.
Houston police officer Justin Nguien testified that he arrived at the scene but that Cuevas fled in his presence before he could give him any commands. Nguien said he initiated a chase when the deputy told him that there was a tiger in the SUV, but Nguien did not catch up to the vehicle.
Cuevas’ wife, Georgie, 22, testified that she was at home Sunday night when the tiger incident happened. She said Cuevas was an occasional caretaker of the tiger, and that she told Cuevas to leave and take the animal to safety that night after the confrontation with the deputy in the street.
Carol Baskin offers $5,000 reward
Carole Baskin, founder of Big Cat Rescue and star of the Netflix series “Tiger King,” is offering a $5,000 reward in connection with the tiger, according to a video posted on her verified Instagram account.
Baskin is offering the money to whoever has the big cat, provided that person will release the animal to a sanctuary that is accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries, and will work with the authorities to convict the people involved in the buying and selling of the tiger, Baskin says in the video.
In an interview with CNN on Wednesday, Baskin praised the off-duty deputy for his response when confronting the tiger.
“I was so impressed with the deputy that showed up on the scene because he did exactly the right thing, and he showed amazing restraint in not shooting that tiger,” Baskin said.
How agencies are responding
The unique dilemma regarding a missing tiger has resulted in multiple government services and animal groups coordinating on what to do if the tiger is found.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service told CNN the agency is consulting with Houston Police and offering expert advice to make sure the Endangered Species Act is not violated when detaining the tiger.
A spokesperson for BARC — the city’s animal shelter and adoption facility — said animal control officers are assisting Houston police with the investigation. Per city rules, it is illegal to keep any wild animals that are dangerous to humans in any facility other than an accredited zoo or shelter.
“In the event any such animals are found in Houston, Animal Control Officers will impound the animals and transport them to a secure location — either BARC, another shelter, or regional wildlife facility — to protect the safety of the public as well as the animals’ health,” spokesperson Lara Cottingham said in a statement.