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Legal fallout begins in ‘Bruingate’

Wildlife federation awardsRS

Park Service Col. Dale Caveny (center) accepting the Wildlife Officer of the Year award on behalf of Sgt. Chad Arnold, flanked by State Wildlife Federation Chair Carol Buie-Jackson and Chief Deputy Director Malory Martin (NC Wildlife Federation photo)

First two plaintiffs prepare suits against agencies involved in “sting”

By Roger McCredie- Ed. Note: This is the third in s series of articles about “Operation Something Bruin,” a multi-agency law enforcement sweep through WNC and north Georgia designed to ensnare hunters and guides engaged primarily in bear poaching and the black market sale of bear organs and body parts. The sting took four years to organize and execute, cost two million dollars, resulted in 81 arrests and was hailed by state officials and the media as a brilliant success and an outstanding example of interagency coordination. The plaudits began to sour, however, as trial testimony and sworn statements revealed numerous cases of law enforcement abuse – including false arrest, false imprisonment, entrapment, illegally obtained information, illegal search and seizure and perjury. Officers also admitted to having resorted to numerous instances of breaking the law themselves – including killing wildlife and planting evidence – in order to carry out their mission. Now, it seems, the shoe is on the other foot: state and federal investigations are being called for, and several former defendants and their families are preparing lawsuits.

“The N.C.Wildlife Federation named Sgt. Chad Arnold with the Commission’s Special Investigations Unit as Wildlife Enforcement Officer of the Year, while the Commission was named Natural Resources Agency of the Year for its participation in “Operation Something Bruin” — a multi-agency infiltration into bear poaching circles that led to multiple arrests in North Carolina and Georgia. Arnold played a major role during the 4-year undercover operation. The honors came earlier this year at the annual Governor’s Conservation Achievement Awards banquet, held at Embassy Suites RTP, Cary. The ceremony recognizes those who have an unwavering commitment to conservation and an uncommon determination to safeguard the state’s natural resources. By publicizing and honoring these conservation leaders — young and old, professional and volunteer — the Wildlife Federation hopes to inspire everyone to take a more active role in protecting natural resources.”

(From a North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission press release, October 15, 2013)

Well, not exactly. By the time the NCWF awards ceremony rolled around, the fabric of “Operation Something Bruin” had already begun to unravel. The first cases of those arrested in the February, 2013, series of raids that climaxed Operation Something Bruin began to be heard the following June – and, like dominoes, one case after another began to fold. Nearly all state charges against the 81 defendants were dropped for lack of evidence, or for violation of evidentiary procedures. Other charges, mostly having nothing to do with bears, were misdemeanors involving nominal fines and were dealt with accordingly.

Eventually, ten defendants whose state cases had been dropped were recharged under federal statutes, but federal prosecutors have proceeded warily in light of a steady stream of emerging information that began to turn public perception of Operation Something Bruin from a resounding success into a farce.

On January 18, defendants, members of their families and others who had been affected by the tactics of Operation Something Bruin held a public meeting in Bryson City. They told of armed and armored tactical teams storming into houses, of frightened children later diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder, 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.

Five days later Operation Something Bruin’s elaborate website disappeared from the Internet.

Three political figures, State Sen. Jim Davis, Rep. Joe Sam Queen and Principal Cherokee Chief Michele Hicks – attended the meeting, sitting at a table together like a review panel hearing testimony. All agreed that the matter deserved looking into.

But following the meeting, Davis, responding to an e-mail from the Tribune, said, “It is not appropriate for me to investigate … I have neither the authority nor the expertise … It is appropriate for the agencies to evaluate their tactics … I attended the so called public hearing to listen to the concerns of the people involved.”

Queen never replied.

Calling in the cavalry

Russell (Rusty) McLean’s office is down the hill from his substantial Tudor-style house overlooking Hazelwood, just west of Waynesville. It features dark wood, many books and overstuffed leather chairs covered with animal-hide throws, for McLean himself is a hunter. And it’s here that McLean is preparing to do battle on behalf of two former defendants in Operation Something Bruin cases.

McLean himself bears a striking resemblance to old tintype photos of Buffalo Bill Cody: florid face, wavy silver-white hair, handlebar moustache and imperial goatee. For office wear he favors Orvis cavalry twill trousers and hand tooled boots. He radiates cheerful combativeness. And he has a cross-referenced memory that rivals Google.

“Jenny Davis,” he says of a wildlife officer who helped direct a 25-agent raid on the home of one of his clients, Tony Smith. “She went over to Tuscola [high school] some years ago, pulled a kid out of class and interrogated him without his parents present. Confiscated the kid’s grandfather’s shotgun as evidence. Whatever she was pursuing, the statute of limitations on it ran out a long time ago. Nothing happened to the kid. Last I heard, the grandfather never has gotten his shotgun back.”

Or: “Oh, yeah. Chad Arnold. Wildlife officer of the year [the award Arnold received for his part in OSB]. Went down to Georgia, killed a deer and brought the carcass back across the state line – in violation of the Lacey Act – and took it to a meat processing plant in Bryson City.”

At a jurisdictional hearing to be held March 24, McLean will seek to have federal charges against two of his clients, David Crisp and Jerry “Jinx” Parker, dropped. Both men’s state cases were dismissed. “We’re challenging whether it’s even proper for the [federal] government to prosecute these cases. It’s a question of who is even properly a party,” he said. “Once we deal with that, it will be our turn.”

 

McLean called the tactics used in OSB “egregious” and said they were “an appalling abuse of power.”

“If the supervisors of the operation didn’t know about these abuses, why didn’t they? If they did, why did they approve?” he asked. McLean said he is scheduled to meet with Rep. Mark Meadows this week to discuss pursuing that line of inquiry.

“Besides the harm done to innocent people, this way the operation was carried out is extremely damaging to several state and federal agencies. It impacts people’s respect for the rule of law,” he said.

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