CHICAGO — See how much of this sounds familiar.
A man develops a loosely organized roadside zoo. It becomes an area attraction for the likes of visiting Brownie troops and curious journalists, and at the same time, it draws the ire of animal-rights activists.
Yes, the man has tigers. Yes, he allows himself to be photographed with a big one climbing up on his shoulders.
But along the way, it all starts to go south for the man, ending in his conviction for hiring someone to murder a rival.
There has been no documentary yet about Lorin Womack, whose Land O;Lorin Exotic Wildlife Haven was at least a Batavia curiosity and in some eyes an attraction in the waning years of the 20th century.
But the parallels between the story of Womack and of Joe Exotic, the contemporary Oklahoma zookeeper chronicled in the current hit Netflix documentary series "Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness," are in so many other ways remarkable.
"I have not seen 'Tiger King.' My kids have, and they tell me I should watch," said Tony Brasel, the Kankakee lawyer who defended Womack in his two trials.
"Sure, it sounds similar to a certain extent," he said. "Eerily similar, actually."
Womack's story has its own peculiarities: He never ran for Illinois governor, for one thing. And when authorities dug up his zoo property, they weren't searching for adult tigers killed because they had grown too costly to feed, but for a human body they thought Womack may have buried there.
But there is so much in common that if you lived through the Lorin Womack saga, you couldn't help but be reminded of it in recent weeks as Joe Exotic became an antihero for a nation trapped indoors during coronavirus-imposed social isolation.
"My wife and I binge-watched 'Tiger King,' " said Ted Gregory, the former Chicago Tribune reporter who covered much of Womack's downfall, from the federal government shutting down Land O'Lorin in 1997 to news that Womack had faked a bloody attack to impress a woman, to the two murder-for-hire trials.
"I think he is a backwoods-Illinois version of Tiger King," Gregory said. "I remember him as being an eccentric character, not anywhere near as colorful as Joe Exotic. And nowhere nearly as well groomed or tattooed."
Early on, though, Land O'Lorin — like Joe Exotic's G.W. Zoo in Wynnewood, Okla. — was more an oddity.
Womack's 10-acre backyard farm featuring some 130 animals was open to the public Sunday afternoons, and folks could pay what they wanted to visit "one of the most popular places around," noted a Tribune feature story from 1990, a year after Womack began inviting the public in.
"When I was a kid, I always had whatever animals you could have — monkeys and snakes, you know — without special permits. But I always wanted more," said Womack, then 39 and a self-employed tree-trimmer.
The menagerie, writer Christi Parsons noted, included African pygmy goats, bison, Asian mountain sheep, silver foxes, llamas, hairless pigs and porcupines.
But that wasn't all. There was a black bear he had raised from infancy, and a caption that ran with a photo that same day placed big cats in the tale: "Lorin Womack cheerfully wrestles with a Bengal tiger and two African lions at his exotic animal farm in west suburban Batavia," it said.
The allure of Womack was strong. A year later, the Tribune published what is known — fittingly, in this case — as "wild art," pictures that stand on their own, with no accompanying story. They showed Womack with an unspecified "monkey" in his lap as he rode a motorcycle and a shot of the diaper-clad animal — which certainly looks like a young chimpanzee — holding Womack's hand.
In 1994, Womack was in the paper again. He said he drove 8,400 miles round trip to the Yukon to buy a reindeer that had starred in the 1989 movie "Prancer." Admission to see him at Christmastime was $3 for adults, $1 for children.
A different story that year noted that he let a baby cougar and a river otter "have the run" of the first floor of his farmhouse. "I would like to find a wife," he told the reporter of that story, presaging the romantic woes that would land him in court and, ultimately, prison.
When Chicago animal-control personnel found a mountain lion being kept in a South Side auto garage in 1995, they removed it and passed it along to Womack for its care, in part, they said, because they wanted to be able to visit the cougar.
Womack's "collection" also caught the attention of tougher-minded authorities and animal-rights activists. Beginning in the mid-'90s, the U.S. Department of Agriculture flagged Womack's unaccredited zoo for violations of the Animal Welfare Act, including inadequate nourishment of his charges.
Womack acknowledged his woes in the concluding paragraph of Steve Mills' 1997 Tribune look at his and other roadside zoos: "If I could afford a bigger cage, I'd do it," he said, standing in front of a "zonkey" — half zebra and half donkey. "I would love to make this place better. I can only do so much. Really, I'm just doing the best I can."
By mid-1997, Womack had been fined more than $50,000 in the previous two years and agreed to turn the zoo over to a nonprofit board.
"I went out to his place after they closed it and walked around with Lorin," said Gregory, the longtime Tribune reporter, whose coverage of Womack began then and would grow more intense as criminal authorities became interested, too. "And I remember that — of course, it was closed — I remember thinking of it as something akin to a ragged roadside zoo, not anywhere near as well kept as what I could see in 'Tiger King.' "
"He was an eccentric fellow, colorful, liked to talk," he continued. "He didn't always follow a train of thought that well, but was surprisingly willing to show me around."
Womack didn't seem to have the kind of rivalry with animal-rights activists that Joe Exotic had in the Netflix documentary with Carole Baskin, the big-cat advocate Exotic was convicted of trying to have killed.
But they were definitely on his case. Debbie Leahy, president of Illinois Animal Action Inc., called the agreement to turn over the zoo a "joke" and said she planned to go ahead with a protest of the zoo. By the end of 1997, the new board had planned to move some of the 70 remaining animals to the Detroit Zoo and renamed it Deerpath Animal Haven & Zoological Society.
And that might have been that.
Not so harmless
"Former zoo owner charged in murder plot," read the December 1998 headline, "charged with hiring a man to kill the husband of his new girlfriend," the story explained. Later, it would be revealed that the hit man was a cop, and the woman had lived with Womack for about a month before reconciling with her husband.
"Initially, he sort of strikes you as harmless," Gregory recalled. "But the incident in Elgin from a few years before was really kind of unsettling. He walks in to the Elgin police department and he's kind of blood-smeared, claiming that he had somehow or other vanquished two knife-wielding men who tried to attack some women. It wound up being a complete hoax he orchestrated to impress a girlfriend, and he was fined for that."
A few months after Womack was charged for allegedly hiring a killer, a Kane County Sheriff's Department investigator acted on his belief that Womack had something to do with the disappearance, a decade earlier, of Kenneth King, of Wayne, who shortly before he disappeared began dating a woman who was living with Womack, the investigator said.
" 'Three backhoes, a bulldozer, six sheriff's investigators, a deputy coroner and seven dogs excavated 12 sites on the 10-acre zoo and one spot just northwest of the establishment,' said Kane County Sheriff's Capt. Michael Anderson, who called for the dig," Gregory wrote in the Tribune. But none of the holes produced a body.
Womack's first solicitation-of-murder trial, in 2000, resulted in a hung jury.
"The type of defense that we used was entrapment," remembered Brasel, the lawyer. "I just didn't think Loren was the type of person that would really go out and seriously want to hire somebody to murder somebody."
Two jurors agreed in the first trial.
"I like to think we had a fairly good presentation," Brasel said. "It was enough to get a hung jury on a guy who had been taped basically admitting to the crime."
But in the retrial, he said, prosecutors had the advantage of having seen Womack's defense. Brasel said he also thought the first jury just liked Womack more than the second one did.
"The first jury liked Lorin, and I think they kind of thought like me,” Brasel said. "But still, he was on the tape … They had him on tape attempting to have a policeman go out and murder what he thought was his girlfriend's husband."
In one last sour note for Womack, it came out in the trial that the woman was not actually that into him.
On Feb. 20, 2001, Gregory, who had covered both trials, got to write the kind of first paragraph reporters dream about: "Lorin Womack, the exotic zoo owner whose love for another man's wife led him to hatch an ill-conceived murder-for-hire scheme, was sentenced to 26 years in prison Tuesday."
It was remarkably similar to the 22-year sentence Joseph Maldonado-Passage, aka Joe Exotic, received in January for hiring somebody to murder Baskin, a solicitation that he had also been caught on tape making.
Maybe it's time to watch "Tiger King," Brasel said. "We started watching. My wife didn't like it, so — I'll just watch it by myself."