‘They broke the law they’re supposed to enforce’
By Roger McCredie- STECOAH – Some years ago a citizens’ group rescued and refitted the village school here, transforming it into a regional, arts and cultural center. The grey stone building now houses exhibit and classroom space and a snack bar. Its centerpiece is the auditorium, which has been refitted, redecorated and turned into a popular performance and meeting venue.
But on Monday, a cold, gray weekday morning, the auditorium was filled with spectators who had come to see and hear another drama unfold. The audience was mostly men, some young, some white-haired, mostly in between. Many were in camo. Some sported hunter-orange caps and vests. All wore long-used boots. This may have been to show solidarity but more likely it was simply because that’s simply what many men in this part of Graham County wear to work.
There was also a handful of suits in evidence: some attorneys, some media types, and the male members of a group of well-groomed people seated behind a table on the stage. These were members of the North Carolina House of Representatives. Their official name is the House Select Committee on the Regulatory Authority and Operations of the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission. They had come to this far corner of the state to hear from persons whose lives had been affected by Operation Something Bruin, the 2013 bear poaching sting operation which, in light of subsequent events, has become known as “Bruingate.”
On the evening of February 19, 2013, dozens of armed officers comprising a joint task force of federal and state agencies, descended on the homes of hunters and hunting guides across southwestern North Carolina and northwest Georgia. They cast a wide net, making 81 arrests for an array of offenses all associated with the illegal harvesting of wildlife, especially bears, and/or the aiding and abetting thereof.
The task force issued self-congratulatory news releases the next day. The sting operation, they said, had been four years in its planning and execution, had cost $2 million to stage and had resulted not only in the arrests themselves, but in “sending a clear message” that there would be zero tolerance of poaching. State media eagerly picked up the story, hailing the raids themselves and the multi-agency cooperation that produced them. Chad Arnold, the state wildlife officer who largely coordinated the sweep was named officer of the year for his efforts.
But as the smoke cleared, enough facts about how the raids were planned and carried out emerged to provide a very different narrative, And it was then that Operation Something Bruin’s reputation as a triumph of law enforcement effectiveness began to go south.
Affidavits from those arrested and their families paint a picture of across-the-board “gestapo tactics” used by the raiding officers; of disregard for police procedure and the rule of law, of warrantless searches, of houses ransacked and family heirlooms confiscated, of frightened children, separated from their parents, hiding under beds.
But even more damaging, as case after case came up for trial, was the evidence indicating that most defendants were either innocent of the charges brought against them to begin with, or that they had been lured by undercover agents into assisting in illegal acts that were actually carried out by the agents themselves. The use of such tactics is called entrapment, and is itself a violation of the law.
On Monday morning, committee counsel Barbara Riley read out the list of activities officers are forbidden under entrapment law to engage in: they may not “resort to trickery, fraud or persuasion” to make an arrest, nor “exploit a friendship” cultivated for the purpose of making an arrest based on those tactics. They may not take advantage of a suspect’s youth and inexperience, nor take advantage of a suspect’s financial difficulties in order to entice him to perform an illegal act.
Against that background, Haywood County atty. Russell McLean, has represented several of the defendants, addressed the panel. Calling the agents’ conduct “outrageous,” McLean said, “I’ve been [practicing law] for 38 years and I have never seen this level of misconduct,” he said.
McLean pointed out that one case after another, brought to trial in state court, had been dismissed for lack of evidence and / or improper procedure. “Not one state court judge would allow these cases to proceed once the facts began to come out,” he said, adding that the wildlife officers, finding themselves losing at the state level, attempted to move their cases into federal court, in many instances altering charges to include “anything that might get a conviction and save them some face,” from expired hunting licenses to illegal harvesting of ginseng.
McLean said the Operation Something Bruin agencies had not obtained assent from the state legislature for carrying out the sting, and had violated the provisions of NCGS 113-307.1 with regard to “the trapping, hunting, or transportation of any game animals, game or nongame birds, or fish by any person, including any agency, department, or instrumentality of the United States or agents thereof, on the lands in North Carolina.” “These agents broke the law they were sworn to uphold.” McLean said.
“My husband has never even shot a bear,” Linda Crisp, whose husband and son were caught up in the sweep, told the panel. She said a posse of agents had entered her home and ransacked it while three armed officers kept her under guard. At the same time, she said, 29 agents descended on her son’s home, where her husband was visiting, and did the same thing. She said the agents confiscated such items as hunting clothes and turkey calls, as well as photographs and family memorabilia. They then went to the Crisps’ place of business, a popular boat dock on Fontana Lake, and confiscated equipment necessary for the boat dock’s operation, including a skidder. “They took our livelihood,” Crisp said. “We haven’t been able to operate properly for two seasons now.”
Hunter Tony Smith said he was home with his nine-year-old daughter when 15 agents came to his home. “Six of them grabbed me and hauled me outside and put me in a car.” Smith said. “I asked them if I was under arrest. They said no. I kept asking them to let me talk to my little girl [who was being guarded by agents inside] and they said, “She’ll be all right.” Then, Smith said, a female officer he identified as 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. 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.)
Attorney Derek Stiles, who has also represented several Bruingate defendants, said, “I fought for my country. I never thought I’d have to fight against my country for my clients’ rights.” Attorney Allyn Stockton told the legislators, “I am ashamed … they [the task force] created the crimes that were committed … This operation was an utter failure, not only in terms of the money it wasted but what it failed to do. There is not one case of this operation accomplishing anything it was supposed to. … the truly sad part is that the crimes were actually committed by the officers themselves.”
“You’ve certainly got my attention,” said committee member Rep. Jimmy Dixon. “I intend to ask the right questions of the right people at the right time.” He did not indicate when that might be, or under what circumstances.
Arnold and Wildlife Commission Col Jon Evans were in attendance but did not speak. Last year a commission spokesperson told the Tribune it would have nothing to say “as long as this care is being tried in the court of public opinion.”