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‘Bruingate’ defendants get slap on wrists

black-bear RS

Defense will seek dismissal of misdemeanor convictions

Walter Stancil and Jerry Parker were each convicted of a single charge of conspiracy to violate game laws in connection with the killing of a black bear in north Georgia. Parker’s son, Brock, was found not guilty of any charge.

The three men had been brought to trial on multiple felony conspiracy charges carrying mandatory prison sentences and heavy fines. The jury acquitted the defendants of those charges and instead opted for the lightest sentences possible short of outright acquittal. Defense attorneys hailed the jury’s verdicts as moral victories and vowed to file motions to have the charges dismissed altogether, on grounds that many law enforcement officers resorted to perjury, false arrest, evidence planting and entrapment in carrying out the mission known as “Operation Something Bruin.”

Further, defense testimony charged, the officers broke game laws themselves, killing six of the ten bears killed during the so-called sting, as well as taking several deer out-of-season.

The jury’s rejection of felony charges was seen by followers of the events as a body blow to the cases that are still pending as a result of the operation which, as the result of the controversy surrounding officers’ tactics, has become known as “Bruingate.”

The Official Back Story

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.

Beginning in 2009, according to official documents, the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, the U. S. Forest Service and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources spent three years “infiltrating poaching circles” and becoming “imbedded” in “the bear hunting community” in southwestern North Carolina and Northeast Georgia.

On consecutive nights in February, 2013, officers of the multi-agency task force raided the homes of dozens of suspected poachers, arresting a total of 81 suspects and charging them with felony game law violations. Official details of the raids, which authorities said cost $2 million in planning and execution, appeared on an elaborate website,

But in the months that followed, state charges against most of those arrested in the sting operation were dropped for lack of evidence. Other defendants, who claimed they were guilty of no wrongdoing, actually opted to plead guilty to various misdemeanor charges because they felt they could not afford legal counsel. 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 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.”

Several defendants, however, were promptly recharged under federal law, resulting in the cases heard this past week and which court officials will be hearing this October and November.

Meanwhile, Sgt. Chad Arnold, a Charlotte-based officer of the Special Investigations Unit of the N.C. Wildlife Commission. was named “Wildlife Enforcement Officer of the Year”, and the Commission itself was named the “Natural Resources Agency of the Year” by the U.S. Forest Service.

The Other Back Story

Almost immediately after the raids took place, defendants, their families and friends began flooding media outlets and legislators’ offices with calls and e-mails describing “Gestapo tactics,” illegal search and seizure and even simple assault, on the part of arresting officers. Contacted by reporters, officials presented a united what-did-you-expect-them-to-say front.

On January 18, 2014, the Southeastern Hunters and Sportsmen’s Alliance held a public format the Swain County Center for the Arts in Bryson City, at which people who had been caught up in the sting 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.

The 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. Crisp, whose husband and son were arrested, 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.” Regardless, Crisp said, her home was raided and she was forced to sit under armed guard while agents ransacked her house.

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.

Perhaps the most bizarre story to emerge from the raids’ aftermath was that of agents storming the home of one former defendant whose case had been thrown out of court for lack of evidence. The officers said they were acting on a tip that a live bear cub was being kept at the home.

There was no live bear cub; the tipster had overheard the man’s six-year-old daughter telling friends at school about her teddy bear.

The Operation Something Bruin website subsequently disappeared.

Harassment testimony allowed

A preponderance of testimony along these lines emerged at this past week’s trial, and a major defense victory occurred when the court announced, in charging the jury, that it would allow consideration of the harassment and entrapment testimony.

Trial dates for the remaining sting-related cases have not yet been set but will likely occur within the next several weeks.

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