|NATIONAL PARKS QUICKLINKS|
Backpacker Magazine – May 2008
Animals can't talk. But Ed Newcomer can. As an elite U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service detective, he goes undercover to protect threatened raptors, bears, even butterflies–and bring poachers and smugglers to court. Inside the agency's latest covert operation.
As Operation High Roller entered its second year, Newcomer focused on a list of high-profile fanciers. There was Juan Navarro, the national president. Keith London, the Pigeon Connection shop owner. Darik McGhee, the hawk trap manufacturer. And then there was Brian McCormick.
McCormick, a custom-truck enthusiast, kept a kit of roller pigeons in the backyard of his house in Norco, a small town in Riverside County, about 50 miles east of Los Angeles. He was also president of a Riverside-area group, the California Performance Roller Club. After a competition at McCormick's house, Newcomer sidled up to him and asked for some advice. "Say Brian," said the man known as Ted, "I noticed you keep your hawk trap under a tree. Does that work better, when the hawk can come in and perch and drop down?"
McCormick bristled. "I don't trap hawks," he said.
A few days later, Newcomer spoke on the phone with Darik McGhee, the trap maker.
"Hey Ted," McGhee said, "be careful how you talk about hawks in front of the guys. A lot of them get real shy when you start talking about predators."
Newcomer stepped up his game. "Hell, Darik, I didn't mean to freak anybody out. But it seems like that's all you guys talk about," he said.
McGhee reassured him. "Don't worry," he said. "I told them you were okay."
Newcomer hung up the phone and smiled. He was in so tight he didn't even have to deflect suspicion. Other pigeon breeders were doing it for him.
To get proof of McCormick baiting his traps, Newcomer and another agent, John Brooks, staked out his house at night. Armed with AR-15 rifles, Newcomer and Brooks donned camouflage suits and used night vision scopes to crawl across an empty field adjacent to McCormick's yard. One night they were moving across the field when they stumbled into the decomposing body of a red-tailed hawk. The agents suspected it had been shot, but it was impossible to prove.
Traps weren't McCormick's only method of killing hawks. During a roller pigeon competition at McCormick's house, Newcomer spotted a bizarre weapon leaning against a wall. It was a Remington 870 shotgun custom-fitted with an eight-foot barrel. "At one meeting, I'd overheard Brian talking about how he could shoot falcons and hawks without anybody hearing him," Newcomer told me. "I figured it was because he lived next to the I-15 freeway. But it turns out that the long barrel acts as a silencer. The shot's no louder than a hand clap. His neighbors never heard him."
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agents weren't planning to go after other members of McCormick's club. But then one afternoon Newcomer dropped by Rayvon Hall's house.
Hall had recently purchased a hawk trap from Darik McGhee. Newcomer, posing as Ted, knocked on his door.
"Hey, I'm a friend of Darik's," he told Hall. "He said you had great pigeon lofts. Can I check 'em out?" Hall invited him in.
In the backyard, Newcomer spotted a trap. He asked Hall what he did with the hawks once he caught them. "Oh, I cut off their talons and throw 'em out," Hall said.
"Cool!" Newcomer said. "You got any around?"
Hall walked across the yard and returned with a severed Cooper's hawk talon. "You can have it," he told Newcomer.
"How do you kill the hawks?" Newcomer later asked. Then, with a secret audio recorder running, Hall offered up his own indictment.
There's a school next door, he explained, so he didn't want to take a chance shooting them. Instead, he told Newcomer, "I put some bleach and ammonia in a spray bottle, then spray the hawk in the face and eyes." It caused convulsions. "They flap around, gasp and suffocate, until they die," Hall said.
Holy shit, thought Newcomer. Rayvon Hall went on the short list.