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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.

“Ed, we just took in a red-tailed hawk,” said a staffer at the California Wildlife Center, a Malibu clinic for sick and injured animals. “It’s been shot.”

Newcomer took down the information and tossed the file on the pile. “Ninety-nine percent of shot-hawk cases are unsolvable,” Newcomer later told me. “The hawk gets shot, flies away, and dies.”

The next week, during an idle moment, Newcomer dialed up the man who had rescued the bird. The guy had no idea who pulled the trigger.

“But you know what’s funny?” he told Newcomer. “I found another hawk in my yard a couple days ago, and this one’s dead.”

That piqued Newcomer’s interest. “What’d you do with it?” he asked.

“Put it in my freezer.”

The man lived near the Van Nuys airport in typical San Fernando Valley sprawl: tract house after tract house, broken up by the occasional tract house. After interviewing him, Newcomer quickly identified a suspect: a pigeon breeder who lived next door.
Marty Ladin was the pigeon fancier’s name. Ladin was too curious and too cooperative by half. “What did the neighbors tell you?” he asked Newcomer. “What would happen to somebody who did this?” Then Ladin started vibing creepy. “You carry a weapon?” he asked.

Newcomer nodded. In his head, red flags were waving like May Day in China. He ended the interview cordially, convinced that Marty Ladin was his guy. But aside from a frozen hawk corpse, Newcomer had no evidence. So he cooked up a plan.
He had Ladin meet him for another interview. At this one, Newcomer brought two videotapes. He put them on the table as he talked.

“You ever notice that street light near your house?” Newcomer asked Ladin. “It’s got a camera in it. When you shot that hawk, we were looking at you.”

The two video tapes were blank. There was no camera.

The bluff worked. Ladin confessed.

At the time, Newcomer was still the rookie agent in the Torrance office, even though he was 37 years old. He’d joined the Fish and Wildlife Service after a stint as a state prosecuting attorney in Olympia, Washington. “In order to do undercover work you’ve got to have brass balls,” says Marie Palladini, Newcomer’s former boss. Palladini, who recently retired as head of the Torrance office, is now a criminal justice professor at California State University, Dominguez Hills. “You’ve got to be creative and a little theatrical. When Ed pulled that bluff I knew he was going to do great things.”

Marty Ladin paid a $5,000 fine for shooting two hawks, a violation of the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

Something kept nagging at Newcomer, though. “During our interview, Marty told me about these pigeon clubs,” he later recalled. “They’re all over Southern California. Hundreds of guys. If Marty’s got a problem with hawks, I’m thinking every pigeon breeder has a problem with hawks.” Newcomer did the math. If hundreds of breeders were each killing a handful of raptors, that added up to thousands of hawks and falcons killed every year.

He told Palladini he wanted to play his hunch. She was skeptical. “Follow it up,” she said. “But don’t spend too much time on it.”

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