'It was so sad'
It's a place known for up close and personal experiences with animals - where families made memories. But Deer Forest in Coloma is now under federal investigation. It's still open, but not what it used to be. Just last year, authorities confiscated 150 malnourished deer from the property. And there are a lot of questions about the man who took over Deer Forest shortly after that.
WSBT looked into all of it - including his animal cruelty conviction and trouble with the law in three states. We also saw the park, saw the animals and sat down face-to-face to hear his side of the story.
It's a little piece of nostalgia, an icon in Southwest Michigan.
Animals were magical. As the park's catchy jingle goes, one could literally "feed the deer" and "ride the pony."
Today, it's a shadow of that.
"There's no way to even justify what we saw there," said Kimberly Peters, who's visited the park since she was a girl.
She grew up in Sodus and went to Deer Forest several times each summer with her family. She then took her own kids and last summer, her grandson.
"When he saw the horse, he was like,'Grandma, that pony got owies!'" Peters recalled. "And he was so upset he just started crying. How do I explain to a 2-year-old it's ok?"
Peters took pictures of a horse on the property that was so thin she could count its ribs. Another appeared to have open wounds.
"They should have been somewhere healing and quiet, not having people touching and poking them all the time," she said. "It was sad. It was so sad."
A troubled past
The man whose job it is to turn the park around admits - it's bad.
"The whole thing's in bad shape," said Jon Stolarz.
Stolarz and his wife, Amie Gadberry, moved to Coloma about a year ago. He says his wife is running the place, he does the marketing.
"This place has really turned off the local community," he said. "They've rubbed a lot of people wrong, they've seen a lot of things they didn't like."
And they're still seeing it. A quick look through Facebook shows all the dirt on Stolarz' past - allegations he didn't follow through on business deals, the Better Business Bureau giving him an "F" rating for not resolving complaints with customers in his dog training business, using his wife's last name then switching back and Deer Forest's USDA license being cancelled.
When asked what caused a Google search to pull up nasty comments about Stolarz as a person and a dog trainer, he said it's based on a bad marriage.
"I was in the process of getting a divorce from my second wife at the time," he said. "I absolutely blame that for the fallout that's happened in the last two years."
Call it bad luck or fallout, Stolarz has a history with the law, spanning from Missouri to Illinois and Indiana.
In 2008 in Lewis Co., Missouri, he pleaded guilty to writing a bad check and in 2009 to defrauding secured creditors. Both are misdemeanors. Court records also show he pleaded guilty to felony non support in 2013 - not paying child support. According to court records, he currently owes more than $40,000 in back child support.
In 2012, the Missouri Attorney General convicted him for transporting infectious waste without a license, dumping and storing that waste at two houses then abandoning it. A judge ordered Stolarz to pay more than $26,000 in fines.
Also in 2012 in Cass County, Illinois, Stolarz left nearly a dozen dogs in kennels, going out of town for about a week. The state's attorney there charged him with 12 misdemeanors. He just pleaded guilty to 3 of those charges in March 2013, including animal cruelty.
"My ex wife found out I was out of town and went to Indiana," he told WSBT. "She started making all these phone calls saying, 'Jon abandoned the animals, I don't know what to do.'"
Stolarz claims he hired two 16-year-old boys to take care of the dogs. But conditions were so bad a vet had to put down a German Shepherd.
"I pled guilty," Stolarz told WSBT. "It was cheaper and easier. $250 fine, thank you."
When asked whether he accepts responsibility for what happened to the dogs he left in the kennels, he replied, "Ah, maybe I should have been a little more proactive."
After being arrested in Illinois, Stolarz moved to Hobart, his hometown, to be with Gadberry who was his girlfriend at the time.
According to an August 2013 Hobart Humane Society report, police called humane officers about two of Stolarz's horses in a road. Humane officers also found '10 thin puppies' in a pen with no food or water, without shade in 90 degree temperatures and several other dogs inside the house.
When officers went back a few days later to check the animals, they and Stolarz were gone.
In Coloma, Berrien County Animal Control recently wrote him a ticket when two donkeys got loose. The USDA and Animal Control both confirm they continue to receive complaints about him - some of which are unfounded.
A Tough Sell
People in the community complain about Stolarz's criminal past and the fact that he's moved so much.
WSBT asked him how he responds to people who call him a 'smooth talker' and a 'con man.'
"I talk very educated, I talk very factual. Am I cocky about what I know? I am. I think that's one of my faults," he said. "There's nothing to con when it's the truth."
According to Stolarz, the truth is he's overwhelmed trying to fix someone else's mess. A mess he says the former managers and current landowner left him last year.
"[I arrived to] a bunch of skinny animals, a bunch of animals that lacked vet care," Stolarz said.
As for the skinny horse that horrified Peters, Stolarz says a woman dropped off "Ruby" and her foal last year, a few days before the park opened. Their owner couldn't take care of them.
"She was on death's doorstep," Stolarz said, describing Ruby's condition.
Now, Ruby's put on weight and looks healthier. Stolarz says she's an example of the direction Deer Forest is headed.
"Our staff and money right now is focused on general animal care and providing them the best environment we possibly can," he said.
He and Gadberry are also making changes.
"It needs a breath of fresh air, that's why we're here," he said.
The couple changed the name to Deer Forest Exotic Animal Sanctuary, turning it into a non-profit. They now lease the land from a Chicago man. Stolarz maintains he and Gadberry want what's best for Deer Forest, including big plans to come back even bigger and better.
"Every building is going to be either re-worked or knocked down," Stolarz said.
He also wants to clear his name - criminal record and all.
"There's no record of me anywhere ever abusing an animal. Did I go out of town at the wrong time with a crazy ex wife? Yeah, I did. Should I have left more responsible adults in charge of my kennel? Absolutely," he told WSBT. "My trouble is probably with women more than it is with the law."
But that's a tough sell in a community that misses the nostalgia and family fun that used to be Deer Forest.
A Tough Sell
The park is still operating without a USDA license. That happened because of a change in who is running Deer Forest. Gadberry and Stolarz can run the place without that license, they just can't have certain animals out for people to see.
It's not clear whether the delay has anything to do with the USDA investigation. The USDA isn't commenting about it.
Stolarz cannot handle any of the animals at the park within 1 year of his animal cruelty conviction, which is why he says he is the park's marketing manager.
He says he also has a part time job as an apprentice plumber and Gadberry works from home in commercial real estate, but the park isn't making money. Stolarz told WSBT Deer Forest was about $50,000 in the red in 2013, but the purpose of making it a non-profit is so the public can see how much money comes in and where it's all going.
Deer forest is already open for the season but is not the place people remember. Some of the changes he wants to make include replacing some of the fence with plexiglass so people can still get close to the animals but not necessarily touch them.
Stolarz said he wants people to visit the park, see the animals and ask him questions.
"I have nothing to hide," he said.