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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

If you are a poacher or a wildlife smuggler, if you sell turtle-skin boots to Houston oilmen or Caspian caviar to Beverly Hills matrons, chances are good that one day you'll meet Ed Newcomer. You won't know it when you do. He'll greet you as a suburban dad, or a scruffy longshoreman, or a Hollywood prop wrangler. He'll take his time to win your confidence. It could take months. It could take years. That's okay. Ed Newcomer is a patient man. Over time, he'll infiltrate your operation so completely that you'll laugh and brag that the cops could never touch you. That's when Ed Newcomer will open his wallet and show you his badge, the one that says U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Special Agent, and tell you that your world is about to collapse.

Ed Newcomer is a wildlife detective in Los Angeles. His beat is Southern California, a sprawling territory that includes the Mojave Desert, the Tehachapi Mountains, the Salton Sea, the Hollywood Hills, 500 miles of coastline, and a 200-mile-wide swath of Pacific Ocean.

Newcomer works undercover. You don't know his face, but if you're a hiker who thrills at the sight of a black bear in the woods, or a hawk soaring above a meadow, or a butterfly floating along the rim of the Grand Canyon, you enjoy the fruits of his labor. According to the World Wildlife Fund, the $6 billion trade in illegal wildlife is the second-biggest threat to the survival of endangered species. (Habitat destruction is first.) Between 1996 and 2001, more than 6 million wild-caught live birds, and 7 million wild-caught live reptiles, were exchanged on the global market. Much of that trade is fueled by American dollars and American collectors.

The job of combating that trade falls to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, whose special agents–like Newcomer–are considered the best in the world. Newcomer came to my attention a couple of years ago through a brief newspaper story about the capture of Yoshi Kojima, the world's most notorious butterfly smuggler. From the late 1990s until 2006, Kojima acted like a one-man endangered species wrecking crew, running a black market that hastened the demise of some of the planet's most beautiful creatures. Kojima boasted that no customs agent or cop could bring him down. Then Ed Newcomer picked up the case. Working undercover for three years, he gained Kojima's confidence so completely that the two nearly became business partners. And then one day a special agent opened his wallet and arrested the butterfly man. Newcomer's case was so solid that Kojima didn't even contest the charges in court.

"He's the best undercover agent I've ever worked with," says Joseph Johns, the Assistant U.S. Attorney who heads up the Department of Justice's environmental crimes division in Southern California. "He can think on the fly, and he knows exactly what the best evidence is and how to get it. It's a lethal combination."

When he's not in character, Newcomer is a trim, compact 42-year-old Colorado native who carries himself with the ironed-shirt crispness of a prosecuting attorney, which he once was. Though you'd never guess it, he's a martial arts expert who's a good bet to be the last man standing in a bar fight. "I was always small for my age, so I figured getting a black belt would be a good way to defend myself," he says.Newcomer speaks softly, with a laconic Western accent that he uses as a tool to put suspects at ease.

He works out of the USFWS's Southern California law enforcement office, located in Torrance, not far from Los Angeles International Airport. Newcomer looks at a map of Southern California like a mouse surveying a cheese factory.

"I love L.A.!" he tells me, sitting in an office overstuffed with case files and the tools of his trade: an underwater camera, camouflage pants, walkie-talkies. "It's a great place to be a wildlife agent. Throw a stone, you'll hit a wildlife crime." LAX is one of the world's largest ports of entry. Parrots, iguanas, and other exotic beasts are smuggled across the Mexican border. Rhino horn powder moves through Chinatown. He's tracked butterfly thieves to the Grand Canyon and gone after reptile poachers in Joshua Tree National Park.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service special agents function like detectives without portfolio. For the most part, they develop their own investigations by following up tips from a network of informants. That's how Newcomer's most recent, and strangest, case came about. It was called Operation High Roller. It started with a phone call.



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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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