February 28, 2013 8:33:13 AM
BUCHAREST, Romania -- A man known as Nutzu the Pawnbroker has been indicted for leading a fearsome criminal gang, but the public seems to be more interested in his pets: four lions and two bears.
Ion Balint -- his real name -- had long been known to have an affinity for wild beasts in his home.
"You said I fed men to the lions?" Balint was recorded saying on a videotape as he rode away from prison on a black stallion in 2010. "Why don't you come over and I'll give you some lions!"
Authorities won't confirm that the lions and bears were used to intimidate rivals at his high-walled and heavily guarded estate in the poorest part of Bucharest. The compound also contained less fearsome beasts, including thoroughbred horses and canaries.
Balint, 48, a stocky man with a mustache and a receding hairline, often appears dressed in T-shirts and tracksuits.
The Romanian news media were awash in unconfirmed reports about Balint's excesses, reporting that he used the lions and bears to intimidate rivals and that his house contained a torture chamber.
His son-in-law, Marius Vlad, told The Associated Press on Wednesday that the reports were false.
"Many untruths are being reported," he said.
Bystanders and relatives who gathered near the gates of the estate described Balint as a good neighbor and an animal lover, and said they weren't bothered by roaring lions.
"We can hear them every day, but only when they're hungry or the female is in heat," said Gabriela Ionescu, 36, clutching her toddler daughter's hand. "They don't disturb us at all."
Authorities allege that Balint and his brother Vasile headed a criminal network which controlled much of the underworld activity in Bucharest, a city of 2 million. Some 400 police and detectives were involved in the investigation which led to the arrest last week of 67 suspects, including the Balint brothers.
In 2009, Balint was convicted of human trafficking, violence and pimping, and sentenced to 13 years in prison. That was reduced to six years, but Balint was free after a year.
On Wednesday, the four lions and two bears were sedated, put in cages and removed by environmental authorities and the Vier Pfoten animal welfare charity. The animals, which generally appeared in good condition, will be temporarily housed in a zoo and may eventually be relocated in South Africa, animal welfare officers said.
Mircea Pupaza, commissioner of the National Environment Guard, told The Associated Press that Balint had no documentation or health records for the animals, which he's kept illegally for 10 years. He could face a year in prison and a hefty fine for illegally keeping wild animals.
"The lions are a status symbol for him," said Livia Cimpoeru, a Vier Pfoten spokeswoman. She declined to speculate whether they had a more sinister purpose.