By Roger McCredie – Waynesville – A panel of congressional subcommittee members last Friday expressed concern over the tactics used by federal law enforcement officers in carrying out “Operation Something Bruin,” a wide-ranging sting operation mounted by a multi-federal agency task force to round up and prosecute hunters allegedly engaged in illegal bear hunting on government property.
The panel, all members of the House Subcommittee on Government Operations, which Meadows chairs, had come to hear testimony from individuals caught up in the sting operation and their attorneys, as well as officers who directed or participated in the operation. The investigation represented the highest-level inquiry yet into the manner in which the sting, now known as “Bruingate” was conducted.
Officers of the four law enforcement agencies in Western North Carolina and North Georgia who were involved in the sting have been accused of evidence planting, conducting warrantless searches and seizure, entrapment, coercion, false arrest, violation of due process, and a clutch of other procedural no-nos, as well as of having broken the very laws they were sworn to protect, including the killing of bears out of season and in violation of hunting laws.
Meadows, who headed the panel, was accompanied by Rep Jeff Duncan (R-SC) and Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA). During his opening statement, Meadows said he was “deeply concerned” by the preponderance of evidence suggesting that law enforcement personnel who took part in the sweep on the night of February 13, 2013, engaged in “overzealous and even unlawful acts” in pursuit of their objective.
The “something Bruin” raids rounded up a total of 81 hunters and guides, who were charged with taking bears out of season, harvesting bear parts and related felonies. Almost immediately a public meeting was convened in Bryson City, during which defendants and family members related their experiences at the hands of the raiders.
Affidavits from those arrested and their families painted 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 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.
As a result, 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 acquitted, however, were promptly recharged under federal law, mostly for misdemeanor infractions. “Not one state court judge would allow these cases to proceed once the facts began to come out,” Waynesville atty. Russell McLean, who represented several of the defendants, said at the time.
McLean accused the wildlife officers of altering their charges to include “anything that might get a conviction and save them some face,” from expired hunting licenses to illegal harvesting of ginseng, when they attempted to move their charges into federal court.
A judge reviewed the law enforcement petition and allowed the cases to be heard before a federal magistrate. Thus, 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 (suspended) to a fine of $1,500 for “driving on a closed U.S. Forest Service road” and a like amount for “using National Forest Service land for commercial purposes.” The plea bargaining, it was said, was the lesser of two evils for the defendants, who could not afford appeals back to a higher court.
The Saga of Chad Crisp
The only previously acquitted defendant to be sentenced to active jail time by the federal magistrate was Graham County resident Chad Crisp. Crisp, was charged with a total of 34 misdemeanors. Instead of a fine and probation, Crisp was sentenced to serve time for all offenses consecutively, not concurrently. The maximum sentence in each case was six months which for Crisp would have added up to 17 years in prison. He was then offered a deal: plead guilty to eight of the charges and receive a sentence of 20 months. Crisp, faced with this Hobson’s choice, took the plea deal.
“That’s egregious,” McLean said when Crisp was sentenced. “ 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 stacked-time sentence, as well as his not being allowed a jury trial, drew pointed comments from Meadows, his fellow panel members, and attorneys.
. “It’s excessive in my book; I think it would be excessive in your book as well and sometimes we can justify by saying, ‘They pleaded, they were guilty of other things,’ but that’s not up to a prosecutor. That’s up to a jury to make that decision and when we stop that fundamental principle within our constitution, it is troubling to me,” Meadows said.
My client was denied one of his most fundamental rights, guaranteed under Article Three, Section Two of the Sixth Amendment of the Constitution – the right to a jury trial,” McLean said.
Crisp’s case has been appealed to the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond.
“Do you think that this swat team swooping down on your home – would you call that excessive?” Meadows asked witness Tony Smith. Smith, a hunter and guide, was at home with his nine-year-old daughter when wildlife officers raided his home the night the sting was launched.
Smith replied that “ten or 15” police vehicles surrounded his house and that armed and armored agents forced their way in “waving a paper they wouldn’t let me see,” seized Smith and took him outside, leaving his child inside, crying, while officers ransacked his house. “I begged them to let me talk to her and tell her it was okay, but they wouldn’t let me,” he said.
Smith said he was handcuffed and forced into a car while an officer identified by Smith as veteran U.S. Forest Service agent Jennie G. Davis asked him “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.)
The Case of the One-armed Hunter
Another witness, Georgia atty. Allyn Stockton, represented Edsel Brent Thomas, who was convicted collaterally during the sting of hunting deer – not bear – at night with a rifle and flashlight.
“Now, it’s important to remember, Stockton said, “That Edsel Brent Thomas has only one arm and is incapable of both holding a spotlight and shooting a rifle at the same time,”
The Asheville Citizen-times, in covering the hearing, was quick to point out that “An online video … hints that Thomas is an adept hunter, despite a missing limb. In it, he shoots a compound bow using his left arm and draws the arrow back with his mouth. He consistently hits a deer-shaped target.”
Citizen-Times reporter Tonya Maxwell did not indicate how a demonstration of oral bowhunting equated to Thomas’ ability to juggle a rifle and a spotlight, aim and fire at a deer at night.
Meadows says his subcommittee will continue to pursue its investigation.