Acquittals continue; lawmakers to investigate flawed sting operation
Crisp had been charged with violating various firearms laws, as well as hunting while under the influence. His acquittal was the latest in a series of setbacks suffered by the local U.S. Attorney’s office in attempting to prosecute cases generated by the operation. Because of illegal tactics allegedly used by law enforcement officers themselves, the much-heralded sweep has now become known as “Bruingate.”
And, acquitted defendants say, lawmakers from Western North Carolina are preparing to empanel a special commission to examine the tactics allegedly used by agents during the strike, including false arrest, illegal search and seizure, evidence planting and perjury, plus unlawful killing and transportation of bears and deer by the agents themselves.
Operation Something Bruin, conducted in February of 2013, netted 81 arrests resulting in some 980 charges of violation of hunting laws. Many defendants, claiming innocence, nevertheless pled guilty to various misdemeanor charges, saying to do so was less expensive than hiring attorneys. Many other, more serious, charges were thrown out of state court for lack of evidence. Wildlife officers promptly resurrected a number of those cases and brought them to federal court, where they were dealt a body blow when Judge Martin Reidinger said he would allow entrapment testimony from the defendants.
On September 8, 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 of the charges.
The three men had been brought to trial on multiple felony charges which carried 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 “not guilty” verdicts. Defense attorneys hailed the jury’s verdicts as moral victories and vowed to file motions to have the sentences vacated altogether as soon as all cases connected with the operation have been heard, which will probably be sometime in early November.
Now, according to sources close to the case who spoke on condition of anonymity, the prosecution is attempting to change game plans and to have the remaining cases brought before a lower (magistrate’s) court in hopes of at least salvaging some more misdemeanor convictions in order to help shore up the sagging credibility of an operation that was four years in the planning and cost some $2 million to execute.
The source also said that state Rep. Roger West, who represents Clay, Macon, Graham and Cherokee Counties, is partnering with House Speaker Thom Tillis to organize a 13-member legislative panel that will receive testimony from those affected by the sting at meetings to be held in Raleigh and in Franklin. Details of the meetings are expected to be released by October 8.
Crisp’s own case began on the evening of January 13, 2013, when his home was raided by a task force of wildlife and park service officers. Crisp and his father, David, were taken into custody while agents searched Chad Crisp’s house. His wife said she was handcuffed and made to stand outside in the cold for approximately two hours while her children, who had hidden under their beds, remained inside. She was not permitted to see or communicate with her children during the search proceedings, she said.
Meanwhile, officers had descended on David Crisp’s home and were carrying out their mission in similar fashion. Linda Crisp, wife and mother of David and Chad respectively, said later that agents entered her home, brandishing what appeared to be only the cover page of a search warrant, and ransacked the house, confiscating photographs, family heirlooms and similar items Linda Crisp charged “could have had nothing to do” with the alleged reason for the search. Officers also went to the senior Crisps’ place of business and confiscated more items, including earth moving equipment.
During the home search, Linda Crisp said, she was forced to sit under armed guard.
“My husband has never even shot a bear,” Crisp said.
David Crisp’s case is one of those coming on to be heard in the next few weeks.
Preparation for Operation Something Bruin 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.
According to official documents, the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, the U. S. Forest Service and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources spent the next three years “infiltrating poaching circles” and becoming “imbedded” in “the bear hunting community” in southwestern North Carolina and Northeast Georgia. Bear hunting guides later told of being “pestered to death” by hunters, who later turned out to be undercover agents, to be escorted on bear hunts.
In the weeks immediately following the raids, Operation Something Bruin was hailed by senior law enforcement officers, agency heads and the media as a resounding success that would “send a message” to would-be poachers. 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.
Meanwhile, 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. On January 18, 2014 – nearly a year after the sweep — the Southeastern Hunters and Sportsmen’s alliance held a public forum at 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 the armed and armored tactical teams storming into houses, of the frightened children hiding under beds, of watching helplessly as their homes were ransacked, and of the warrantless seizure of personal property.
Contacted by reporters, officials presented a united what-did-you-expect-them-to-say front.
But shortly thereafter, Operation Something Bruin’s elaborate website disappeared from the Internet.