UPDATE | Man arrested after mountain lion hoax

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It took officers hours to realize the statement was not true and a mountain lion was never in the business.

Billy Lunsford (WRDW-TV)

Monday, Aug. 11, 2014

AIKEN SC (WRDW)- Aiken Public Safety has arrested Billy Lunsford after officers said he falsely told them a 100 pound mountain lion escaped from the aquarium pet store.

A bizarre call. The first ever for Aiken Public Safety officers. A missing mountain lion on the loose.

"We called in our animal control officers, Aiken County animal control office was also involved, including South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, they're duty captain as well as their state biologist," said Lt. Jake Mahoney.

Aiken Public Safety says Billy Lunsford made the call as part of a reported burglary at Bob's Aquarium, but they say it was a hoax. Hours of work for a made up story with taxpayers footing the bill.

"I came over to the drug store. It was closed yesterday, and saw all the activity and thought what a waste of man power and time," Dale Childers said.

Aiken Public Safety had 8 to 12 officers searching for almost 18 hours. An officer makes about $16 an hour on average.

So, the day one officer spent searching cost $288 or a little more than $3,000 in all.

"I felt that was pretty irresponsible of whoever filed that complaint," said Childers.

Two Aiken animal control officers working on their day off. They make about $14 an hour so the two guys setting traps set the city back about $500.

"Whoever made that statement wasn't thinking of other people at the time," said Childers.

We went back to the store to find out more. One worker told News 12 Billy Lunsford thought a large sized cat was missing and during questioning by police he mistakenly said mountain lion.

Officers are now investigating a new part of the tale. On Sunday, SCE&G came to the business to check out a gas leak.

"It was that strong. It was very scary," said Penny Gaskin, who works next door.

The initial report says 15 screws are missing on the side of the building where the gas leak happened. SCE&G said a cracked valve caused it and officers say it's now a part of their investigation.

"I would like to know how that happened," said Gaskin.

SCE&G says there is no danger in or near the store, but still a lot of questions in this investigation. Aiken Public Safety says if it wasn't for people posting on social media, they wouldn't have realized it was a hoax.

Lunsford is charged with providing false information to police.

Monday, Aug. 11, 2014

AIKEN, S.C. (WRDW) -- An arrest warrant has been issued for the man who gave officers false information leading to a day-long search for a missing mountain lion, the Aiken Department of Public Safety said.

The search for the fictional mountain lion started up on Sunday afternoon when Billy J. Lunsford of North Augusta told officers a three foot, 100 pound, declawed mountain lion escaped from Bob's Aquarium on Richland Avenue. It took officers hours to realize the statement was not true and a mountain lion was never in the business.

Lunsford is believed to be in the Breezy Hill or Graniteville area. Officers said he is "affiliated with the business."

Sunday, Aug. 10, 2014

AIKEN, SC (WRDW) -- It was a story we all couldn't believe when Aiken Public Safety sent a release that a mountain lion was missing from an Aiken County pet store.

Hours later, deputies say the man who reported it was the one "lion."

"We don't know if the cat was stolen or during the burglary if he escaped," said Captain Martin Sawyer.

"Now that it's missing people should be on the alert," Zach Alvera said.

"I've been looking out though after I heard. I'd love to be the one to find it,"Jeffery Toakar said.

It all started with a call for a possible burglary at Bob's Aquarium on Richland Avenue and a report of a $35,000 missing mountain lion that had the community, Aiken Public Safety and Animal Control searching for hours.

The mountain lion was described as being black about three feet high,100 pounds and having a dog style harness, Captain Sawyer said.

Animal control is putting traps out like this one especially at the business because they think the mountain will make its way back here. They're also putting them all over town where anyone reports a sighting.

Little did they know, there was no cat to catch. Just before 6 p.m., deputies realized the whole thing was made up.

"I thought it was a joke," Toakar said.

Turns out he was right, but investigators aren't laughing. Aiken Public Safety say Billy Lungsford is the one who filed the initial report. He claimed someone broke in through the metal side of the building and stole the large cat.

The report says 15 screws were taken out but none were found. Neither was evidence of the animal.

"I was kind of freaked out because everyone was on the lookout and looking for this cat and it comes up to be hoax you have a lot of people involved and a lot of time," Toakar said.

An elaborate hoax that cost time, money and spent a lot of people's patience.

"Had the city waste all that money and I think something should happen," Toakar said.

Now, the investigation is taking a turn. Officers are now pursuing a criminal case against Lungsford for filing a false police report. Neighbors say they're glad they don't have to worry.

"I'm glad it's over with and we found out the truth," Toakar said.

Aiken Public Safety is still trying to figure out what really happened.


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