Burton on the Bay:

Nobody likes the man who brings the bad news.

      -Sophocles, 1524

Four and a half centuries later, the Greek philosopher’s theme remains popular. In this instance, disliked are wildlife officers doing their job.

We were reminded of this the other day when more than 60 armed state and federal officers made a big bust of violators of fish and wildlife laws across the Chesapeake in Dorchester County.

Curiously, those cited -- their friends, neighbors and others -- appeared more concerned about the way arrests were made than about the charges.

Same old story, best amplified in the recent Monica-gate doings in Washington. The villains get the sympathy, the accusers get the blame -- and we wonder why contemporary society is a shambles.


Snaring the Hunters

At Hooper Island, the Deep Eastern Shore, they’re griping about the way enforcement officers, backed by a noisy whirley-bird overhead, moved in efficiently, by surprise and, I might add, effectively to nab many of the suspects.

Dorchester County Commissioner Jay Newcomb in the Easton Star-Democrat complained, "they didn’t have to use excessive force and scare people’s families."

To hear some Eastern Shore talk, what went on was akin to marauders; it would have better been handled by agents making arrests and serving summons at the convenience of the accused.

Come on, this is serious stuff, the culmination of a four-year undercover investigation covering 341 alleged state conservation violations and 65 alleged federal violations.

What are enforcement officers expected to do? Work the deal unarmed and piece-meal? Give the accused time to warn their colleagues? Time to concoct excuses before being interviewed? Time to chuck the evidence into Hooper Straits? Time, maybe, to take a vacation?

Timeliness, efficiency and surprise are key ingredients in crackdowns like this. Without them, a long, time-consuming and expensive undercover investigation can go down the tubes. Doesn’t the protection of our wildlife resources rate priority?


Sending a Message

Perhaps, in addition to Sophocles, we should also consider words from the Koran:

We never sent a messenger save with the language of his folk, that he might make the message clear for them.

In other words, it probably was the intent of state and federal authorities to impress on the accused -- as well as their friends, neighbors and others who evaded complicity or who might be tempted to illegally pot a duck, deer, fish or whatever -- that society no longer views natural resources violators as boys being boys.

But foremost, regardless of the complaints of Dorchester citizenry, game wardens were doing the jobs they are paid for -- to protect wildlife. In doing so they were following standard police procedure, not just that of the fish and wildlife patrol.

Five of the accused offenders were arrested on the spot, and so were frisked, handcuffed and taken into custody for a ride in agents’ vehicles to Caroline County Detention Center in Denton. That’s a customary police procedure, other than for juveniles, for the protection of both officers and suspects in ensuring that a potentially dangerous situation doesn’t erupt.

After all, the suspects were charged with criminal acts. A federal magistrate viewed the charges significant enough that after a night in jail, the bail was $10,000 until their appearance in federal court.

Others, including a prominent D.C. television anchorman, were issued written citations, which will bring them to State District Court in Dorchester County. No frisking or handcuffs for them.

Then there are the complaints of excessive and aggressive enforcement, things like rousing some of the accused from their beds, in the early morning raid complete with helicopter. What did they expect, a 9am wake-up call complete with continental breakfast?

The procedural success of the culmination of an undercover operation depends on surprise to obtain evidence -- documents, pictures and such -- serve citations and make arrests. When it comes to a small community such as Church Creek, word spreads fast, and evidence can disappear just as fast.

Send several dozen marked and unmarked cars into town, and phones start ringing. The same with 65 plainclothes and uniformed officers. Why so many, you ask? Because such moves must be synchronized to apprehend each suspect at the same time to avoid early birds and their families or friends from alerting others. Standard police procedure.

Obviously, it worked. Officers got their men, almost all of them in the Church Creek sector, though there were visits to Montgomery County and homes in New Jersey and Michigan. Two men were cited several days later, one of them Jim Vance, WRC-TV news anchor, accused of failing to tag a deer or check it in.


No Small Beans

But many of the charges in Operation Golden Hill were more serious. The list is long, and at least two of the accused face charges numbering well over a hundred and covering such violations as over-the-limit possession of whitetail and Sika deer, possession of undersized rockfish, possession of rockfish in closed season, possession of flounder in closed season, possession of loaded weapons in vehicles, removing head and hide from deer before checking in the kill, exceeding the bag limit for deer, illegally killing and possessing and disposing of ducks and geese and so on.

Everything indicates this was no small-time operation, not just a misunderstanding. It all started when Natural Resources Police got a tip that things weren’t right at a commercial gunning operation, Golden Hill Farm, that subsequently became a private shooting club. By then agents had infiltrated the club, and a full-scale sting was underway.

Col. John W. Rhoads, Natural Resources Police superintendent, said the joint federal and state operation should send a strong message to those who violate natural resources laws: Violators will not go unpunished.

I might add that it also sends an unmistakable message to counterbalance temptation: even in private clubs and out on the solitary marsh, you’re not immune from the law. That’s what undercover stings are all about.

The message has been sent, and now it’s the messengers who get the flak, which brings us back to Sophocles and the Koran.

Across the nation, seven wildlife officers lost their lives last year in the line of duty, some while confronting violators. Countless others were threatened, harassed and wounded.

The good news in Operation Golden Hill is that all suspects were rounded up and without altercations, injuries or worse among both police and alleged poachers. That’s thanks in great part to standard police procedures. Now it’s in the hands of the courts.

| Issue 11 |

Volume VII Number 11
March 18-24, 1999
New Bay Times

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