By Alison Mutler
A notorious gangster known as Nutzu the Pawnbroker has been indicted for heading a gang charged with attempted murder, kidnapping, blackmail and illegally possessing weapons, but the public seems to be more interested in his pets: four lions and two bears.
Press reports, not confirmed by authorities have claimed that Ion Balint - his real name - use the lions to intimidate rivals and victims.
When he rode away from prison on a black stallion in 2010, Balint played up that fearsome image.
"You said I fed men to the lions?" Balint can be heard saying on a tape heard by The Associated Press. "Why don't you come over and I'll give you some lions!"
Authorities won't speculate about why Balint kept lions and bears, as well as thoroughbred horses and canaries, at his high-walled and heavily guarded estate in the poorest part of Bucharest.
"Many untruths are being reported," Balint's son-in-law Marius Vlad told The Associated Press on Wednesday, referring to other rumours of a torture chamber.
Bystanders and relatives who gathered near the gates of the estate described Balint, 48, as a good neighbour 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, robed in a dressing gown and 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 Wednesday 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 be eventually 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.