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Backpacker Magazine – May 2008

Secret Agent Man

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.

by: Bruce Barcott

Photos by Dan Winters
Photos by Dan Winters
A Cooper's Hawk talon given to Newcomer by a pigeon fancier
A Cooper's Hawk talon given to Newcomer by a pigeon fancier
The evidence room at the USFWS Office in L.A.
The evidence room at the USFWS Office in L.A.
Agents Erin Dean and Sam Jojola with a seized stuffed bald eagle
Agents Erin Dean and Sam Jojola with a seized stuffed bald eagle

Assistant U.S. Attorney Bill carter left the agency at the end of 2006. Joseph Johns, Carter's successor as head of the environmental crimes division, had 18 years of experience prosecuting environmental offenses. He understood the value of symbolism and deterrence.

"With wildlife cases, what you see us doing is just the tip of the iceberg," Johns told me. "For every violator we identify and prosecute, there are thousands more bad actors who we never know about. So we've got to try to get both a fair sentence and the most deterrent value for each case."

After meeting with Ed Newcomer, Johns became one of Operation High Roller's strongest supporters. "I thought we should hit this group as hard as we could," Johns recalled. "We'd never get another chance to get in as deeply as Ed was. They'd be hyper-vigilant about outsiders. But if we took down a large number of targets, we could alter the behavior of pigeon fanciers throughout the country for an entire generation."

Still, the clock was ticking. Every week more raptors were killed. Newcomer narrowed his focus to the key players. Navarro, through his position as president of the National Birmingham Roller Club, could encourage the killing of hawks and falcons on a nationwide scale. McGhee seemed to be the Johnny Appleseed of hawk trapping. He once told Newcomer that his trap price of $120 barely covered the cost of materials. He didn't charge more, he said, because he wanted to "give something back" to his fellow enthusiasts.

To nail McGhee, Newcomer arranged to buy a hawk trap from him in the fall of 2006. In wildlife cases, suspects so often use ignorance as an excuse–I didn't know it was illegal to kill those hawks–that U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agents often coax statements of legal awareness out of unwitting suspects. While he and McGhee were loading the trap in a truck, Newcomer saw his opportunity.

"Now, what should I say if some cop finds this trap in my yard?" he asked.

"Don't tell 'em it's a hawk trap, whatever you do. Say it's a cage for your pigeons," McGhee said. "Since you're going to have pigeons there in the base, they won't know any different. Act as dumb as possible."

"What could happen if they catch me killing hawks?" Newcomer said.

"I imagine there'd be some sort of a fine," McGhee said. "But it's almost impossible to get caught."

Oh, and one more thing, McGhee said. "Don't ever release a hawk you catch in the trap," he told Newcomer. Once fooled, a hawk will become twice shy, rendering other pigeon breeders' traps ineffective.

As he drove away, Ed Newcomer put a mental check mark next to Darik McGhee's name.

To get hard evidence on Navarro, Newcomer had to get a little dirtier. "Ted" had no easy excuse to visit Navarro's Los Feliz home. So Newcomer and Sam Jojola staked out Navarro's backyard from an adjacent drainage ditch. Under cover of darkness, the two agents waded through mud and debris to set up motion-triggered cameras trained on Navarro's hawk trap.

On their way out, Jojola noticed garbage cans sitting by the curb of Navarro's street. "Going through trash is one of the best and most under-utilized investigative tools," Jojola later told me. "It's a lot of work, though, and there's a risk of being burned." ("Burned" is undercover cop talk for getting recognized as a police officer.)

Newcomer and Jojola found nothing but trash and pigeon waste on that first garbage run, but a week later Newcomer and special agent Ho Truong hit pay dirt. At the bottom of Navarro's can, Truong discovered a dead Cooper's hawk. The bird, tied up in a white plastic bag, had been beaten to death. The next morning, Newcomer examined the surveillance photos. They showed Navarro, with a wooden stake in his hand, approaching the trapped hawk. The next photo showed an empty, re-baited trap, and Navarro holding a lumpy white plastic bag.

When he's not tailing suspects, Newcomer can be found exploring Southern California's secret pockets of wilderness. Los Angeles may be synonymous with urban sprawl, but wild country still fringes the city. Mountain lions, coyotes, deer, bobcats, and gray foxes thrive even in the smaller state parks that pockmark the region. Once, when I talked with him, Newcomer and his wife had just returned from the Carrizo Plain, a little-known national monument about 100 miles north of L.A. It's a dry, open grassland, and contains spectacular ground cuts, miles long, caused by the San Andreas Fault. "Reminded me a little of southeastern Colorado–pine trees, juniper bushes," Newcomer said.

Even when he's off duty, the theme of hidden surveillance never quite goes away. Newcomer's latest hobby, he told me, is photographing wildlife using camera traps–digital cameras strapped to a tree overnight and triggered by the motion of animals.

"When you hike in the wild places around L.A., you don't see much wildlife," Newcomer told me. "There's so much chaparral that the animals see you before you see them. But there's plenty out there. I set one out in the Santa Monica Mountains a few months ago and got a great picture of a gray fox staring right at the camera." He pauses, and then says: "They can smell you on the camera, you know." Newcomer's always looking for his own tell, the giveaway, the thing that tips the bad guys to the presence of a cop–even when he's just stalking foxes for pictures.

In spring 2007, they decided to take down the birds in hand. The rest of the pigeon breeders, they hoped, would get the message: Quit the bird killing, or we'll come after you. "The big factor was the number of birds being killed," Hoy later recalled. "We had to stop it."

Newcomer had seven suspects to serve with search warrants. In Oregon, Hoy had three. Two others were set to be carried out in Texas. All warrants had to be executed almost simultaneously. "As soon as you do the takedown, they're on the phone to their partners," Hoy explained. "If you don't do them at the same time, evidence starts to disappear."

On May 22, 2007, two dozen law enforcement officers gathered in a conference room to hear Newcomer relate the details of Operation High Roller. The next morning the agents fanned out across Southern California and arrested some of the nation's leading pigeon breeders.

As the agents carted hawk traps away as evidence, most of the breeders denied harming birds. Juan Navarro said he'd never killed a hawk–but maybe his gardener had. Ed Newcomer personally arrested Keith London, owner of The Pigeon Connection. London never recognized the man cuffing him as the novice known as Ted. Darik McGhee, the trap maker, held fast to the advice he'd given Ted weeks earlier. "Hawk trap?" McGhee told the cops. "What hawk trap? I use that to train my pigeons."

In the end, Newcomer and other agents arrested all seven breeders. As word of their activities spread, bird conservationists expressed shock at the carnage. "They're killing a thousand or more birds a year? That number is staggering," said Bob Sallinger of the Audubon Society of Portland. There are 250 pairs of breeding peregrine falcons in California. On average, each pair rears two chicks to young adulthood. If only one in 10 of the birds killed by the fanciers were peregrines, that means that of the 500 peregrines added to the population each year, more than 100 were subtracted by roller pigeon fanciers.

All of those arrested eventually pled guilty. They received sentences ranging from 1,000 hours of community service and a $3,000 fine for Rayvon Hall to a $25,000 fine for Juan Navarro. In one case, the judge was so outraged by the crimes that he regretted that sentencing guidelines prevented him from giving the defendant jail time.

The arrests shook pigeon culture to its core. Overnight, hawk traps disappeared from roofs and backyards all across America. A schism developed between those defending the accused pigeon fanciers and other, law-abiding pigeon breeders whose concerns over hawk killing had long been ridiculed and shouted down at club meetings. "Unbelievable!" one pigeon breeder wrote in a chat room on roller-pigeon .com. "What the hell were you guys thinking?? This is national, even worldwide and affects every aspect of the sport. Anyone holding office in the NBRC and involved in the hawk sting needs to step down, NOW!!"

Most of those arrested in the case declined to comment for this article. Rayvon Hall didn't dispute the facts in the case, but he told me that he thought "the government's response was overkill on this particular subject." He continues to raise pigeons. "That's my therapy, my drug," he said. "I'll do it until the day I die."

Anger over the hawk killings, and the lack of jail time for the culprits, led Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Oregon) to introduce legislation in Congress last November to stiffen penalties for the intentional killing of migratory birds. "I think there should be a bipartisan sense of outrage over this," DeFazio told The Oregonian. "I don't know who would apologize for this kind of behavior."

A few days after the last High Roller defendant was sentenced, Ed Newcomer sat at his desk contemplating his next move. "I've got something cooking," he told me. "Could be nothing, could be something big. Can't tell you about it yet."

That afternoon he was going to check out some pigeon breeding websites, see what kind of reaction the latest High Roller sentencing was getting. "There's a lot of paranoia out there. Some pigeon guys think there's still an undercover agent working their competitions," he told me. "They'll post occasional messages–'Saw another undercover cop at a fly last weekend.'" "Are there undercover agents still out there?" I asked.

Ed Newcomer leaned back in his chair and smiled. "Who knows?" he said. "Maybe there are."

Bruce Barcott's latest book, The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw: One Woman's Fight to Save the World's Most Beautiful Bird ($26, Random House), was released in February 2008.



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READERS COMMENTS

johnny law
Jan 17, 2012

they have enough time to infiltrate groups spy and colelct evidence, whynot get them to change their way of thinking like a real participating member of society? a jedi knight if you will "hey man you got to be kidding me youre doing this... dont you know... im going to spy on you then, if i find out this is true im telling! and i know about so and so selling... you're the head of the damn fan club you have the power to change everyones views" oh wait i know why, theres no bonus pay from the "punishment"

johnny law
Jan 17, 2012

they have enough time to infiltrate groups spy and colelct evidence, whynot get them to change their way of thinking like a real participating member of society? a jedi knight if you will "hey man you got to be kidding me youre doing this... dont you know... im going to spy on you then, if i find out this is true im telling! and i know about so and so selling... you're the head of the damn fan club you have the power to change everyones views" oh wait i know why, theres no bonus pay from the "punishment"

clue-by-four
Jun 14, 2010

Cats and small dogs shouldn't be left along for predators to snatch. They are themselves a nuisance if left to roam, not to mention other dangers out there for them - people are mean, especially to cats. It comes down to personal responsibility. Don't want Fluffy or Fido taken, don't leave them alone outdoors.

I don't think we're here to manage anything. I think we're supposed to respect life and live in harmony with other creatures. YMMV.

Steve Santhuff
Oct 25, 2009

It's really strange that someone can appreciate pigeons so much in their own collection and not appreciate raptors........such that they kill them and in such cruel ways.

I can picture those agents crawling in the field with AR15's, I'm sure they didn't stop in the field. The agents comming after me were stealing my animals (turtles) for several months and asked me to participate in some elaborate undercover purchases to help them that they later spun around on a search warrant. I've got 3 law suits on file against the various agents. I was finally given a trial after 3 years where I was acquitted on 21 charges. I've got my own opinion of Federal USFWS agents, which is that some of them are criminals far worse then the REAL wildlife violators they stalk. Illegal searches, lies to get a search warrant, planted evidence, false charges, false summary of laws to a judge or prosecutor to get search warrants or charges. Lieing in court. But killing raptors is horrible, especially with bleach and ammonia.......but I haven't heard the undercover recording myself, so I'm skeptical knowing what I know about the USFWS!

tou vang
Jul 16, 2009

yup, these men were protecting their birds like how bops are being protected. i know most of em and they're good mens. they are cheaters tho however because all roller fanciers fly rollers and have to face bops attacking their birds but those who shot them have less bops and is easier for them to fly their rollers.

tou vang
Jan 22, 2009

these men were protecting their birds. jus like protecting bop's. bop's should be spreaded in the forests more.

Andrew
Nov 14, 2008

The bible? Give me a break--thinking like that has left us with a withered planet where the only thing that thrives anymore are (some) humans.
We only think we're superior. Actually, some of us are obvioiusly worse than animals. The hawks, after all, are only killing their prey. Navarro and McGhee, with their bleach and stick--what they're doing is torture, absolutely malice. They make me sick.
And all for a bunch of flying rats--go DeFazio indeed.

Phil
Jul 28, 2008

Hey Billy, I have neighbor who hates pigeons and if they land on his barn he shots them no matter if your standing in you yard or not, doesn't matter. My self I shoot lose dogs, even if I know it's yours or not. Where does it end.

Samantha
Jul 16, 2008

I can't believe these negative comments. These guys are heroes! Great article as well, I'd love to see more articles like this in Backpacker.

Billy
Jul 14, 2008

I wonder if people would feel differently if they started losing small dogs and cats to hawks. Would you feel differently if your prized family member was killed by a hawk. It seems one small special interest group dictates the laws the rest have to follow. Kids are abused by family members every day and they get a slap on the wrist. Someone hurts an animal and look out. When did we elevate animals above ourselves. Who decides the value of one animal over another. I'm sure the pigeon fanciers love their animals just as much as everyone else. If a coyote kills a baby lamb nobody has a problem with a farmer killing the coyote. If a mosquito lands on my arm and I kill it some entomologist may have a problem with me. If you have a problem being at the top of the food chain, hide in the closet with your friends and leave the rest of us common sense god-fearing Americans alone. I'm tired of the whining. Before you respond to my comment think about what you ate today, what you're wearing and who that might offend. Hey folks, bottom line we are all offended by something. We were put on this earth to manage the creatures here not be managed by them.

Billy
Jul 14, 2008

I wonder if people would feel differently if they started losing small dogs and cats to hawks. Would you feel differently if your prized family member was killed by a hawk. It seems one small special interest group dictates the laws the rest have to follow. Kids are abused by family members every day and they get a slap on the wrist. Someone hurts an animal and look out. When did we elevate animals above ourselves. Who decides the value of one animal over another. I'm sure the pigeon fanciers love their animals just as much as everyone else. If a coyote kills a baby lamb nobody has a problem with a farmer killing the coyote. If a mosquito lands on my arm and I kill it some entomologist may have a problem with me. If you have a problem being at the top of the food chain, hide in the closet with your friends and leave the rest of us common sense god-fearing Americans alone. I'm tired of the whining. Before you respond to my comment think about what you ate today, what you're wearing and who that might offend. Hey folks, bottom line we are all offended by something. We were put on this earth to manage the creatures here not be managed by them.

Tooch
Jul 03, 2008

Undercover and out of control
http://www.tuccille.com/blog/2008/04/undercover-and-out-of-control.html
"Undercover police work has a long and dishonorable history. Undercover officers have infiltrated peaceful anti-war protests and political organizations and often acted as agents provocateurs -- engaging in or provoking illegal activity to give the authorities an excuse to move in and make arrests. Laws against victimless activities like drug use and prostitution almost require the use of undercover agents to induce people to engage in activities that would otherwise go undetected. Since such "crimes" are consensual, there's no wronged party to file a complaint -- unless a police officer covertly engages in a forbidden transaction.

So there's good reason to be leery of people like Ed Newcomer."

Doug
Jun 24, 2008

Well preliminarly i must say yes we humans are superior Amy.The bible tells us so.
But i sure think these men are wrong and should let nature take its course.

Mike
Jun 18, 2008

Yes, all life should be respected; but, there is a reason pigeons are often referred to as "flying rats", they are the bottom of the food chain for those raptors. Unfortunate those men can't receive a taste of their own medicine--it may be the only way they would ever understand their wrongdoing.

Chris
Jun 17, 2008

Go DeFazio (fourth to last paragraph)!
Thats my Rep!

Amy
Jun 12, 2008

Wow. These bird killing men make me sick. The laws need to be changed. Humans are not superior, we only think we are. The laws should be the same if a man kills/tortures an animal as it is for a human. Life is life and all creatures have feelings. Getting sprayed in the eyes with bleach or stomped to death is cruelty and torture to animals. These men should have been put in jail and their pigeons should have been taken away.

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