As a kid, Ed Newcomer enjoyed hiking and camping in the Front Range of the Rockies, west of Denver, where he grew up. Other kids played with G.I. Joe action figures. Newcomer played with a toy U.S. Forest Service truck. When he turned 16, his parents gave him an old Jeep CJ-7, and he often spent weekends rambling around the backcountry, exploring Pikes Peak and Rocky Mountain National Park. Wildlife fascinated him. When he wasn’t looking for it outside, he was looking for it inside, on TV shows like Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom and National Geographic. He imagined himself as a martial arts master who wandered the land like David Carradine in the TV show Kung Fu–only he’d battle on behalf of birds and bears.
To state the obvious, Newcomer is living his dream. Unlike Carradine, though, he’s never really seen. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service relies heavily on undercover work. The reason is simple. “There are no informants among animals,” says Newcomer. “A mother bear can’t call me up when somebody poaches her cub.”
Since arriving at the Torrance office, Newcomer has been lucky to learn from a master of the undercover craft, Sam Jojola. Jojola, 58, is the Torrance office’s wily veteran. He’s worked undercover jobs for 25 years, many of those spent with the Fish and Wildlife Service’s special operations unit, which runs long-term international investigations out of the Service’s Arlington, Virginia, headquarters. Jojola has busted everyone from bird smugglers to big-game poachers to Versace fashion pirates.
Jojola once told me why he and his colleagues relied on fakery. “With a drug bust, it’s straightforward,” he said. “The DEA gets the bad guys together with the cocaine, arrests them, and sends them to jail. But in a lot of animal cases, our suspects use the magic words–captive bred–like a get-out-of-jail-free card.” In the exotic wildlife trade, many species can be legally sold if they’re bred in captivity. They’re illegal only if taken from the wild. “The burden of proof is on us to show that it’s not captive bred,” Jojola said.
“Animals can’t talk,” added Newcomer. “So we go undercover and become witnesses to the crime.”
“This line of work requires a lot of creative thinking,” Jojola said. “You’ve got to figure out how to come across as a certain type of person, someone your suspect would want to spend time with.”