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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.

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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