Not-so-smooth criminals: Outdoors has its share of strange, outrageous illegal activity
By Bob Frye
Published: Saturday, July 13, 2013, 11:27 p.m.
Let's call them legendary in a criminally stupid kind of way.
They're particularly dumb crooks. You know, like the guy who robs a convenience store but picks the one next door to the police station.
Well, the wildlife and waterways conservation officers who handle fish and wildlife crimes run across their fair share of crazy desperados, too.
Ask Pennsylvania Game Commission wildlife conservation officer Jason Farabaugh in Fayette County. He can tell you about the man who poached a deer, then tried to hide the partially butchered carcass behind his bed. If the leg sticking up over the mattress wasn't a giveaway, that the man answered the door in a shirt covered in deer hair and blood probably was.
Have a conversation with Fish and Boat Commission officer Bruce Gundlach in Armstrong County. He can tell you about the time he arrested a man for fishing without a license one year, then caught him fishing with his identical twin brother's license a year later. That resulted in fines for both.
Then there's the poacher — a felon no less, who claimed to have been unfairly convicted when police mistook his tomato plants for marijuana — arrested by Game Commission's Rich Joyce in Washington County. He shot at a deer decoy.
Where? Just down the road from where he'd met Joyce the night before, after Joyce rescued the man's son, lost on the game lands.
Or talk to the Game Commission's Gary Toward. One of his deputies last deer season caught two men shooting a deer from the edge of the road. The driver, upon seeing the officer, floored it, leaving his partner, smoke still curling from his rifle barrel, standing there.
Did we mention they were related?
Here are a few more stories.
Rod Burns, then the Pennsylvania Game Commission's wildlife conservation officer in Greene County, once received a tip about a hard-core poacher shooting deer without a license and over bait. He found the man on the bait site.
“He took off running, and I was chasing him, yelling: ‘Stop! State officer!' But he kept running, and he could run pretty fast,” said Burns, now working in Armstrong County. “We had run a ways when, all of a sudden, he just stopped dead. I wondered why when I noticed that his pants had dropped to his ankles. He didn't have a belt. He'd been holding his pants up with binder twine, and it let go. That's how I caught him.”
The poacher was fined. Then things almost got really interesting.
The poacher kept insisting he knew who had ratted him out. It had to be an old-timer who hung out at the same country store, he said, and swore he would kill the man.
Burns told the poacher he was wrong but decided to warn his tipster anyway.
“Well, this informant, he was an old Marine. He thought about the threats, then the next day he put on his sidearm and walked into the store where they all hung out and said, ‘OK, where's the (person) who said he was going to kill me the next time he saw me?'
“It was just like the Old West,” Burns said. “He strapped on and went to town.”
The Marine and poacher never shot it out. In fact, a few days later, Burns said he drove by the store and both men were sitting on the porch drinking coffee together.
“I guess they came to some kind of agreement,” he said.
Given the popularity of steelhead fishing, Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission officers routinely patrol Lake Erie's tributary streams each fall. They look for people fishing without a license, keeping more fish than allowed, littering, snagging fish and the like.
They also run into other issues.
“One night we were on patrol and we saw a couple of guys in a car that looked suspicious, so we went over to talk to them,” said Tom Edwards, assistant law enforcement supervisor in the commission's northwest region office. “It turns out they were snorting cocaine.
“What was really funny was that they hadn't noticed they had parked in the one spot with a big sign that said ‘reserved for law enforcement only.' ”
Who's your daddy?
Wildlife conservation officers prosecute their own cases at the district justice level, and Dan Puhala always tries to anticipate what arguments defendants will use.
In this case Puhala, in Allegheny County, had charged an Altoona man with shooting a deer out of season and over bait in Boyce Park. A hiker had spotted the man's vehicle and gotten a license plate number; a visit to the man's home by an officer in Blair County turned up the deer, from which DNA samples were collected.
Puhala offered the poacher three chances to confess his crime and pay his fines. Otherwise he'd also be on the hook for the costs of the officers and DNA expert who would testify against him, Puhala warned.
The man declined; a hearing followed. After Puhala presented his case, the defendant questioned the lab expert about how he could be sure the DNA he'd examined came from the exact deer found in his garage.
“I'm thinking, OK, that's a reasonable question. I'm confident our guy has the answer, but I could see where someone would ask the question,” Puhala said.
The reason he wanted to know, the poacher said, was because he and his brother had recently been having sexual relations with the same woman. When she turned up pregnant, doctors told them DNA couldn't prove for sure which man was the father, just that the baby would be related to both.
“I looked around and thought, did he just say that?” Puhala said.
The defense didn't work. The poacher ultimately paid not just the $900 in fines he faced originally, but $2,000 in court costs.
Mike Walsh's first arrest of a man for boating under the influence contained a math lesson and some pride.
Walsh, a Fish and Boat Commission officer in Allegheny County, was checking boaters on Raystown Lake in Huntingdon County when he found one who smelled of beer. He asked the man how many he'd had. Two, the man said, holding up a 64-ounce plastic cup from a convenience store.
“I looked at the guy and said, ‘You mean to tell me you drank a gallon of beer?' He told me no, he'd just had two cups. I told him his cup held 64 ounces, and there are 128 ounces in a gallon, so unless my math was wrong, he'd had a gallon of beer,” Walsh said.
“He got this very strange look on his face, then broke out in a huge smile. He went from being this uncooperative guy to one who was so proud of himself. Even when we took him to the hospital, he couldn't quit bragging about drinking a gallon of beer, even as he was being arrested.”
Fish and Boat Commission officers often work undercover, dressed as fishermen. They watch for violations and relay word of them to officers in uniform hidden nearby.
Somerset County officer Pat Ferko worked one such detail on Twelve Mile Creek in Erie. He was fishing in plainclothes when he struck up a conversation with another angler. Ferko told the man he was a carpet layer from Pittsburgh named Pat who'd traveled to Erie in hopes of taking a few fish home.
The man, with a wink, told Ferko that if he stuck around after dark he'd get him fish.
“He started giving me a lesson in poaching. He was telling me about how the commission uses undercover officers to trick guys, and about how they use night vision to spot them,” Ferko said. “He even got pretty paranoid about another fisherman we saw coming up the stream. He said we needed to keep an eye on him.”
As dusk approached, the man said he needed to tie a big treble hook and weights to his line so that he could snag fish, but couldn't see to do so because he'd forgotten his reading glasses. He asked Ferko to tie the hook on for him.
Ferko did, then, after the man illegally snagged more than a limit of fish, led him to the parking area where a uniformed officer was waiting.
“When I pulled out my badge and put it on, the guy about had a heart attack,” Ferko said. “By the time we were all done, he asked me if my name was really even Pat.”
Traveling a road near New Castle a few seasons back, wildlife conservation officer Randy Pilarcik of Butler County saw the truck immediately in front of him slow down. A rifle barrel appeared out the passenger window.
“I began to think, no way are they going to shoot a deer out of the truck window with me coming up behind them,” Pilarcik said.
When they did, Pilarcik immediately flipped on the red light atop his vehicle. The driver looked back once, then twice, then dropped his head and pulled over.
Pilarcik asked why they'd shot with him right on their tail.
“The passenger said he asked his brother if there was anybody behind them and his brother said it was only a green truck. Well, that green truck was me in a marked state vehicle with a red light on top of it,” Pilarcik said.
“The first thing they asked me was whether I had a dashboard camera in the vehicle. I ask why and they said it was because they figured if there was, they would be on the dumbest criminals show on television.”
No, but at least they made the paper.
Bob Frye is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @bobfryeoutdoors.
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