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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.

In Undercover, former Secret Service agent Carmine Motto’s classic guide to the trade, Motto cautions that the initial meeting is crucial. “The most important time during the whole undercover case is the first five seconds when the suspect is introduced to the agent,” he wrote. “It is these first few seconds when the suspect makes a personal judgment and decides whether or not he wants to do business.”

I once asked Newcomer how he handles the first meeting. “Do you reel off some elaborate back story?” I said.

“No, no, no,” he said. “You keep it as vague as possible. If you and I met, and within an hour I’d told you everything about my background–what I did for a living, whether I had a wife and kids, where I lived–you’d find that a little strange. In real life, people don’t offer up a whole lot of personal information.” It helps, he said, to go in as a novice rather than an expert. “That way your curiosity as an agent is the same as your natural curiosity would be as a new guy.”

To infiltrate Southern California’s pigeon breeding circles, Newcomer made himself into Ted Nelson, a blue-collar worker with a mustache straight out of My Name is Earl. Through a roller pigeon website, Newcomer made contact with a fancier who invited Ted to a show. That weekend, dozens of members of the Inner City Rollers Club gathered in an alley behind The Pigeon Connection, a bird shop near Inglewood, to check out each other’s pigeons. Newcomer wired himself up–”I can’t tell you the specifics,” he told me, “but video cameras these days are so small you can practically stick one on your wristwatch”–and walked in.
Newcomer spent six hours at the Pigeon Connection show. Nearly every breeder he met told him that they trapped hawks, shot hawks, and killed hawks. One man had developed a poison paste that he smeared on the back of his pigeons’ necks. Another man sold $10 “pigeon jerseys” made out of fishing line. When a falcon strikes the pigeon, explained the entrepreneur, its talons get tangled in the line. The bird panics and drops to the ground. “At which point,” he told Newcomer, “you can take out all your frustration.” The salesman executed the falcons with a brutal boot stomping.

Two days later, Newcomer played the surveillance tapes for Palladini. She was aghast. “I’ve been doing some research,” he informed her. “There’s a national group called the National Birmingham Roller Club. The president of the club, Juan Navarro, lives here in Southern California. There are about 250 members in L.A. alone. So far, I haven’t met a breeder who isn’t killing hawks and falcons.”

Palladini was convinced. “We’re talking about a potentially huge impact,” she said. “You gotta work these guys.”

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