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Nine-year-old: ‘I was scared.’

Teddy Bear RS

Teddy Bear caused raid on home. Children were isolated during “Bruin” sting

By Roger McCredie-Second in a series

Ed. Note: Since the Tribune ran its first installment of this series (“Complaints of False Arrest,” Jan. 30) more victims of “Operation Something Bruin” have come forward with their stories and supporting documents. Here are two of them.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013, had been a teacher workday for Haywood County schools, so Tony Smith’s nine-year-old daughter was at home with her dad, on Medford Cove Road in Clyde. Her mom, Sharon, was at work and received a call from a neighbor saying she should come home immediately because there were “many official-looking cars” at her house.

Puzzled and frightened, Sharon Smith left work and was driving home when the neighbor called again. She had retrieved Sharon’s daughter, she said, but warned that there were still ”approximately ten carloads of [law enforcement] officers” at her home. When Sharon reached the neighbor’s house her distraught nine-year-old told her that her father had been taken outside and put in a car, and that men with guns were inside, searching the house.

In a handwritten statement, the little girl offered the following account of what had been happening before her mother arrived:

So on 2-20-13 [she wrote] my dad said “Be quiet.” So I was quiet. I looked outside and saw about 10 trucks or cars … I saw a Police guy with a big gun walking outside our house. When three guys came up to me I saw one of them had a big gun walking in, going to my room, dads room, Kara’s room and mom’s room … one guy said to another guy to come and sit next to me. I was scared.

What was going on?

The Smith family had been caught up in “Operation Something Bruin”, a wide- ranging, multi-agency sting operation supposedly designed to capture bear poachers in western North Carolina and northern Georgia. The mission led to scores of arrests and was hailed by state government and law enforcement, as well as by the mainstream media, as a significant victory in an allegedly ongoing war against bootleg trafficking in bear parts. Many of those arrested or affected by the sting protested their innocence and testified to the use of screamingly illegal tactics by officers, including – but not limited to – illegal search and seizure, intimidation, damage to property, false arrest, false imprisonment, lawbreaking on the part of undercover agents themselves, and perjury. As a result, state charges against nearly all of the 81 persons arrested were eventually dropped for lack of admissible evidence, though ten of those acquitted were rearrested on federal charges and some of their cases are still pending.

Tony Smith is a deer hunter. “I don’t even have anything to do with bears,” he told the Tribune. He was curious but not concerned when he received word that a convoy of state and federal wildlife agents was in his neighborhood. Whatever they were up to, Smith figured, had nothing to do with him. So he sat calmly in his living room while his daughter, nearby, watched “The Princess and the Frog.” There came a knock at the door and Smith answered it to find himself staring at an assault rifle.

“They pulled me out of the house,” he recalled. Two of them grabbed my arms and two more grabbed my feet. While they were taking more were coming in [the house]. [My daughter] was scared to death. They cuffed me threw me in the back of a squad car. They didn’t say I was under arrest, let alone for what.” Aware that his nine-year-old daughter was alone in the house with three armed and armored male deputies, an anguished Smith begged to be allowed to communicate with her. His captors ignored his pleas. They did, however, offer him a carrot.

“They took me out of the car, took the cuffs off and then she [an officer identified by Smith as veteran U.S. Forest Service agent Jennie G. Davis] asked me if there was anybody I’d like to tell on,” Smith said. I saw where she was headed and I said, ‘You’ll have to talk to my lawyer.’ That’s when she said, ‘All you bear hunters are such a tight-knit group.’ Then she said, “Okay, now you’re under arrest.’ They recuffed me and put me back in the car and took me to jail.”

(Records show that Agent Davis was an interrogator in a 2008 Tennessee case in which a confession she helped extract from an alleged arsonist was thrown out of court because it was obtained under coercion. In 1999 Davis figured in a Buncombe County drug case in which her identification of a suspect by videotape was deemed inconclusive.)

In a written statement, Sharon Smith said she and her older daughter, Kara, arrived to find their home aswarm with officers, who told them Tony Smith had been arrested. The agents demanded computer passwords, photographed family banking and medical records, and caused damage to several items in the house as well as to Tony Smith’s truck, which they also searched. At no time during the three-hour search, Sharon Smith stated, did the officers say what they were looking for, or produce a warrant listing such items.

In September, 2013, a state superior court judge threw Smith’s case out of court for lack of evidence. Smith told the Tribune that a month later, his daughter Kara, a duly licensed bear hunter, felled a bear during legal season on family property and was promptly accosted by warrantless agents who had been hiding in the woods. They detained Kara for more than two hours before allowing her to tag her bear. Meanwhile they searched the property and seized some odds and ends, including a case of custom-smoked deer jerky sticks. “I got some of them back,” Smith said. “I guess they ate the rest. It’s pretty good.” The agents also dismantled and confiscated one of Smith’s deer stands, he said.

As the agents departed, Smith told the Tribune, one officer passed him in a pickup truck at a high rate of speed. Smith identified the driver as State Wildlife Commission Special Agent Chad Arnold, the principal architect of Operation Somethin’ Bruin. Last summer, Arnold, who used the undercover name Chad Bryan, received the wildlife law enforcement Officer of the Year award from Gov. Pat McCrory.

And then there was “Bear”

There is a resident bear at Randy Cunningham’s house. The bear is owned by Cunningham’s six-year-old daughter and is called, with supreme logic, “Bear.” Bear’s hide is plush. His eyes are buttons. He has no gall bladder, only stuffing. He is a toy. Cunningham, who says his little girl has “a big imagination,” had told friends and teachers all about the pet bear at her house whom she fed, had tea parties with, and tucked in at night. Her descriptions at school of Bear and her attentions to him fell on listening ears in early 2013.

At least that’s the only explanation Cunningham said he could think of when his phone rang one evening and a caller asked him point-blank if he had a pet bear at his house. In a written statement, Cunningham said he laughed, said no, and asked the caller, “Why?”

Cunningham’s caller told him he had been working out at a local gym when he overheard local game warden Mark Ray tell a fellow exerciser – also a game warden – that Cunningham was keeping and feeding a baby bear at his home.

Shortly afterwards, Cunningham said, things started getting “weird” in his neighborhood. Armed men in “ghillie suits” – camouflage netting – appeared on the property of his neighbor, Jonathan Key. Convinced they were intruders, Key turned loose his bulldog. The men fired two shots but no one was injured. Key called local law enforcement. Shortly thereafter Cunningham received a visit from one federal and two state game wardens. Cunningham asked if they had been the men in the ghillie suits. The wardens did not answer, but instead demanded to know if there was a baby bear at the house.

Cunningham, connecting the dots, showed them Bear. “They kind of laughed,” he said, but searched the premises anyway, taking as evidence a photo of the Cunninghams and their daughter petting a baby grizzly bear at Cherokee Bear Park.

Cunningham stated his daughter, when told about the agents’ visit, became very frightened and upset, thinking the agents would return and arrest her father because of something she might have said. “She was like that all day long,” Cunningham said.

Bear had no comment.

Coming Feb. 27: Law Enforcement deals with the fallout

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