Trouble ‘bruin’ for organizers of last year’s bear parts sting?
By Roger McCredie-A year after it first made headlines, “Operation Something Bruin” is back in the spotlight. And this time the kind of attention it’s getting is far different from the praise and congratulations it garnered the first time around.
The combination state and federal operation swept across southwestern North Carolina and northern Georgia in February, 2013, netting a total of 81 arrests of hunters and hunting guides for black bear poaching and conspiracy to sell bear parts. (There is a thriving black market for items such as bear claws, meat and hides, and also for bear organs, especially in China, where bear gall bladders are believed to have powerful aphrodisiac properties.)
Media and lawmakers praised the sting, which took three years to organize, plan and execute. One principal participant was named “officer of the year” and Operation Something Bruin even erected its own elaborate website telling the story of the sting operation in self-congratulatory detail.
But at a Jan. 18 public forum, sponsored by the Southeastern Hunters and Sportsmen’s alliance and held at the Swain County Center for the Arts in Bryson City, people who had been caught up in the sting – hunters, guides and their family members – painted a very different picture of the way Operation Something Bruin was carried out and how it affected them. They told of armed and armored tactical teams storming into houses, of frightened children hiding under beds, of watching helplessly as their homes were ransacked and of the warrantless seizure of personal property, family heirlooms and even boats and construction equipment that, they said, could not possibly have had any bearing on such an investigation.
Hunters arrested or approached during the sting recalled being pestered by undercover agents to be taken on bear hunts out of season, agents planting evidence, and agents actually killing six of the 10 bears taken during the operation, as well as several deer – also out of season and/or under circumstances that would be illegal for “civilians.”
How it all started
According to operationsomethinbruin.org, the sting’s official website, preparation for the operation began in 2009, when a task force of agents from the U.S. Forest Service, the National Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and wildlife agencies in North Carolina and Georgia began planning a sweep they said would specifically target bear poachers, but would also encompass the illegal taking of deer “and other wildlife,” illegal use of dogs, and the guiding of hunts on national forest lands without required permits.
To this end, the website said, officers of the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, the Forest Service and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources spent their three years “infiltrating poaching circles” and becoming “imbedded” in hunting circles in far western North Carolina and adjacent northern Georgia. The trap was finally sprung in mid-February, 2013, when coordinated raids were executed on suspects’ properties, warrants were served and arrests were made, according to the website.
(The website itself disappeared suddenly from the Internet on Jan. 23, five days after the Bryson City forum, and is listed as “expired, pending renewal or deletion.”)
The Jan. 18 Bryson City forum was presided over by retired teacher Linda Crisp who, together with her husband, David, owns and operates Crisp Boat Dock, a popular fishing outfitting spot on Fontana Lake. She told the audience, “My husband and I have been married 37 years and I can tell you that he has never even killed a bear; if you’re going to sell bear parts, there has to be a bear somewhere.”
However, Crisp said, she was home alone on the night of February 19, 2013, and answered a knock at her door, thinking it was her husband. Instead, she said, eight armed men stepped into her house. “I asked them why they were here,” Crisp said, “and they said ‘We’re here to search your house.’ When I asked ‘What for?’ they didn’t answer.” (Crisp later told the Tribune one officer “Waved what looked like the front page of a warrant at me,” but said the paper appeared to be only a cover sheet and contained no information. When Crisp said she thought she should call her lawyer, “they made me put the phone down and sit in a room with three of them while the rest searched the house. I could hear them upstairs opening drawers and throwing things around.” Officers removed Crisp’s computer, her camera and “a picture of my husband’s father, who has been dead 20 years.”
Meanwhile, another raiding party descended on the home of Crisp’s son, where her husband was visiting, handcuffed both men and her son’s wife and made them stand outside while they searched the house. Inside, Crisp said, her grandchildren were unattended and terrified. “They hid under the bed,” Crisp said. No social worker accompanied the raiders to insure the children’s protection, and Crisp said that as of Feb. 27 she had still received no explanation for this breach of protocol from Social Services.
The agents also confiscated boats and a skid loader used for road maintenance from the Crisps’ boat dock. “They took our livelihood,” Crisp told the Tribune. “They never said why and we haven’t gotten those things back. We had a real hard time this past summer trying to operate without our equipment.”
Crisp’s daughter-in-law presented her five-year-old son and three-year-old daughter, the children who had hidden under their beds, and told the forum, “I want you to meet the youngest victims” of Operation Something Bruin.” She tearfully related standing handcuffed outside, “for two hours, in the freezing winter,” pleading to be allowed to speak to her children. “The response was, ‘They’ll be okay’,” she said.
Celia Stansel, the wife of another accused poacher, described a similar visit from “about twenty” members of the sting team. “They came into our house, demanded our cell phones and refused to let us answer our phone calls,” she said. “Two female wildlife agents took me aside and patted me down. They went through my purse. They took some old family picture albums from about 30 years ago.”
In the months that followed, state charges against most of those arrested in the sting operation were dropped for lack of evidence. A number of those defendants, however, were promptly recharged under federal law.
On June 10, 2013, ten defendants – seven from Robbinsville, N.C., one from Morganton, N.C. and one each from Alabama and Texas — pleaded guilty in a U.S. magistrate’s court to a variety of misdemeanor charges ranging from hunting feral pigs at night to lacking proper permits for certain types of hunting. Sentences ranged from 30 days in jail (for the wild pig hunting) to a fine of $1,500 for “driving on a closed U.S. Forest Service road” and a like amount for “using the National Forest Service for commercial purposes.”
Only two of the June cases actually dealt with bears: one defendant was sentenced to 30 days’ jail time for aiding and abetting the illegal taking of a black bear; another was actually charged with killing a bear and remanded for trial.
Cost of Operation Something Bruin was estimated at two million dollars.
In November, 2013, Sgt. Chad Arnold, an officer of the Charlotte special investigative unit of North Carolina Wildlife Commission, was named Wildlife Enforcement Officer of the Year for his part in the sting operation, during which he had used the alias “Chad Ryan.”
Asked to comment on the allegations raised during the Bryson City meeting, public information officer Geoff Cantrell of the state Wildlife Resource Commission’s law enforcement division declined comment saying that not all cases have yet been settled. “We are aware of the criticism,” he said, “but until those arrested are given a verdict in a court of law we will not debate Operation Something Bruin in the court of public opinion.”
But some of those affected by the sting say that dog won’t hunt, and they’re talking about courts other than public opinion.
Coming Feb. 14: What law enforcement has to say about the sting a year later, how elected officials see the situation, and what may be the next chapter in an unfinished story.