Meadows, others to examine discredited WNC bear poaching “sting”
The first hearing is to take place at an as yet unnamed Haywood County location – possibly Haywood Technical College according to one source – with another to follow later in Washington.
Former defendants arrested during the sting, nearly all of whom were acquitted, are expected to testify, along with family members, about “Gestapo tactics” used during a series of coordinated raids conducted by a joint law enforcement task force in February, 2013, against targets suspected of poaching in far western North Carolina and northwest Georgia.
At the time, and ever since, those affected by the operation have charged participating officers with entrapment, false arrest, false imprisonment, warrantless searches, illegal seizure and detention of private property, assault, communicating threats, and a clutch of other unlawful activities.
Additionally, testimony and evidence produced during the trials of several hunters and guides who were arrested during the sting revealed that officers taking part had personally killed more than half the bears taken during the undercover portion of the operation and had coerced or manipulated the defendants into killing others. Discovery also revealed that officers had purchased and used bear bait, illegally transported bear carcasses across state lines and operated out of state beyond their jurisdictions.
The laundry list of illegal tactics allegedly used has earned the operation the nickname “Bruingate.”
The Back Story
“Bruingate” was four years in the planning and cost an estimated $2 million to stage. It 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 put together 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.
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 communities, according to the official narrative of events.
The trap was sprung on the night of Feb. 13, 2013, when dozens of armed and armored agents burst into suspects’ homes and businesses, seizing everything from guns and other hunting equipment to mounted trophies, photographs, as well as boats, road maintenance machinery and a child’s teddy bear. In all, 81 arrests were made.
At the time, law enforcement agencies and mainstream media applauded the operation. In November of 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.” A website was posted detailing how the operation was conceived and executed.
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 misdemeanors. 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 (see below).
Then, on January 18, 2014 – nearly a year after the raids — the Southeastern Hunters and Sportsmen’s Alliance organized a town hall meeting in Bryson City at which 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 said they were pestered by undercover agents to be taken on bear hunts out of season, and/or under circumstances that would be illegal for “civilians.”
The elaborate “Operation Something Bruin” website disappeared from the Internet a few days later.
Waynesville attorney Russell McLean, who has represented several of the Bruingate defendants, says he hopes Meadows’ hearing will call attention to one case in particular.
McLean represents Chad Crisp, the only sting defendant who was sentenced to active jail time. Crisp’s case was first heard is federal district court, where it was dismissed; however, the Something Bruin attorneys promptly had his case revived, this time in local magistrate’s court, the lowest rung on the judicial ladder, usually reserved for misdemeanor cases. The magistrate found Crisp guilty of illegally transporting a bear carcass (which McLean says Crisp was manipulated into doing) and with having an expired hunting license. (“It had expired for one day – 24 hours,” McLean said. “He renewed it as soon as he could get to a licensing agency, but they arrested him anyway.”)
The magistrate sentenced Crisp to 20 months in prison.
“That’s egregious,” McLean said. Magistrates don’t hand out jail time like that. And [Crisp] was denied his right to a jury trial, which is guaranteed him under the Sixth Amendment. Every time these boys [the Bruingate defendants] were tried before a jury they were acquitted or the case was dismissed. This is spite.”
Crisp’s case is pending appeal to the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va.
“Naturally I also hope these hearings will shed further light on these officers’ conduct, which was beyond belief,” McLean said.
Meadows’ office on Tuesday confirmed the June 19 Haywood County hearing date but a staff member said a site has not yet been finalized, nor has who else may accompany Meadows.
Ed. Note: Investigative journalist Roger McCredie has followed the “Operation Something Bruin” story since January of 2014.