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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.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Bill carter left the agency at the end of 2006. Joseph Johns, Carter’s successor as head of the environmental crimes division, had 18 years of experience prosecuting environmental offenses. He understood the value of symbolism and deterrence.

“With wildlife cases, what you see us doing is just the tip of the iceberg,” Johns told me. “For every violator we identify and prosecute, there are thousands more bad actors who we never know about. So we’ve got to try to get both a fair sentence and the most deterrent value for each case.”

After meeting with Ed Newcomer, Johns became one of Operation High Roller’s strongest supporters. “I thought we should hit this group as hard as we could,” Johns recalled. “We’d never get another chance to get in as deeply as Ed was. They’d be hyper-vigilant about outsiders. But if we took down a large number of targets, we could alter the behavior of pigeon fanciers throughout the country for an entire generation.”

Still, the clock was ticking. Every week more raptors were killed. Newcomer narrowed his focus to the key players.
Navarro, through his position as president of the National Birmingham Roller Club, could encourage the killing of hawks and falcons on a nationwide scale. McGhee seemed to be the Johnny Appleseed of hawk trapping. He once told Newcomer that his trap price of $120 barely covered the cost of materials. He didn’t charge more, he said, because he wanted to “give something back” to his fellow enthusiasts.

To nail McGhee, Newcomer arranged to buy a hawk trap from him in the fall of 2006. In wildlife cases, suspects so often use ignorance as an excuse–I didn’t know it was illegal to kill those hawks–that U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agents often coax statements of legal awareness out of unwitting suspects. While he and McGhee were loading the trap in a truck, Newcomer saw his opportunity.

“Now, what should I say if some cop finds this trap in my yard?” he asked.

“Don’t tell ‘em it’s a hawk trap, whatever you do. Say it’s a cage for your pigeons,” McGhee said. “Since you’re going to have pigeons there in the base, they won’t know any different. Act as dumb as possible.”

“What could happen if they catch me killing hawks?” Newcomer said.

“I imagine there’d be some sort of a fine,” McGhee said. “But it’s almost impossible to get caught.”

Oh, and one more thing, McGhee said. “Don’t ever release a hawk you catch in the trap,” he told Newcomer. Once fooled, a hawk will become twice shy, rendering other pigeon breeders’ traps ineffective.

As he drove away, Ed Newcomer put a mental check mark next to Darik McGhee’s name.

To get hard evidence on Navarro, Newcomer had to get a little dirtier. “Ted” had no easy excuse to visit Navarro’s Los Feliz home. So Newcomer and Sam Jojola staked out Navarro’s backyard from an adjacent drainage ditch. Under cover of darkness, the two agents waded through mud and debris to set up motion-triggered cameras trained on Navarro’s hawk trap.

On their way out, Jojola noticed garbage cans sitting by the curb of Navarro’s street. “Going through trash is one of the best and most under-utilized investigative tools,” Jojola later told me. “It’s a lot of work, though, and there’s a risk of being burned.” (“Burned” is undercover cop talk for getting recognized as a police officer.)

Newcomer and Jojola found nothing but trash and pigeon waste on that first garbage run, but a week later Newcomer and special agent Ho Truong hit pay dirt. At the bottom of Navarro’s can, Truong discovered a dead Cooper’s hawk. The bird, tied up in a white plastic bag, had been beaten to death. The next morning, Newcomer examined the surveillance photos. They showed Navarro, with a wooden stake in his hand, approaching the trapped hawk. The next photo showed an empty, re-baited trap, and Navarro holding a lumpy white plastic bag.

When he’s not tailing suspects, Newcomer can be found exploring Southern California’s secret pockets of wilderness. Los Angeles may be synonymous with urban sprawl, but wild country still fringes the city. Mountain lions, coyotes, deer, bobcats, and gray foxes thrive even in the smaller state parks that pockmark the region. Once, when I talked with him, Newcomer and his wife had just returned from the Carrizo Plain, a little-known national monument about 100 miles north of L.A. It’s a dry, open grassland, and contains spectacular ground cuts, miles long, caused by the San Andreas Fault. “Reminded me a little of southeastern Colorado–pine trees, juniper bushes,” Newcomer said.

Even when he’s off duty, the theme of hidden surveillance never quite goes away. Newcomer’s latest hobby, he told me, is photographing wildlife using camera traps–digital cameras strapped to a tree overnight and triggered by the motion of animals.

“When you hike in the wild places around L.A., you don’t see much wildlife,” Newcomer told me. “There’s so much chaparral that the animals see you before you see them. But there’s plenty out there. I set one out in the Santa Monica Mountains a few months ago and got a great picture of a gray fox staring right at the camera.” He pauses, and then says: “They can smell you on the camera, you know.” Newcomer’s always looking for his own tell, the giveaway, the thing that tips the bad guys to the presence of a cop–even when he’s just stalking foxes for pictures.

In spring 2007, they decided to take down the birds in hand. The rest of the pigeon breeders, they hoped, would get the message: Quit the bird killing, or we’ll come after you. “The big factor was the number of birds being killed,” Hoy later recalled. “We had to stop it.”

Newcomer had seven suspects to serve with search warrants. In Oregon, Hoy had three. Two others were set to be carried out in Texas. All warrants had to be executed almost simultaneously. “As soon as you do the takedown, they’re on the phone to their partners,” Hoy explained. “If you don’t do them at the same time, evidence starts to disappear.”

On May 22, 2007, two dozen law enforcement officers gathered in a conference room to hear Newcomer relate the details of Operation High Roller. The next morning the agents fanned out across Southern California and arrested some of the nation’s leading pigeon breeders.

As the agents carted hawk traps away as evidence, most of the breeders denied harming birds. Juan Navarro said he’d never killed a hawk–but maybe his gardener had. Ed Newcomer personally arrested Keith London, owner of The Pigeon Connection. London never recognized the man cuffing him as the novice known as Ted. Darik McGhee, the trap maker, held fast to the advice he’d given Ted weeks earlier. “Hawk trap?” McGhee told the cops. “What hawk trap? I use that to train my pigeons.”

In the end, Newcomer and other agents arrested all seven breeders. As word of their activities spread, bird conservationists expressed shock at the carnage. “They’re killing a thousand or more birds a year? That number is staggering,” said Bob Sallinger of the Audubon Society of Portland. There are 250 pairs of breeding peregrine falcons in California. On average, each pair rears two chicks to young adulthood. If only one in 10 of the birds killed by the fanciers were peregrines, that means that of the 500 peregrines added to the population each year, more than 100 were subtracted by roller pigeon fanciers.

All of those arrested eventually pled guilty. They received sentences ranging from 1,000 hours of community service and a $3,000 fine for Rayvon Hall to a $25,000 fine for Juan Navarro. In one case, the judge was so outraged by the crimes that he regretted that sentencing guidelines prevented him from giving the defendant jail time.

The arrests shook pigeon culture to its core. Overnight, hawk traps disappeared from roofs and backyards all across America. A schism developed between those defending the accused pigeon fanciers and other, law-abiding pigeon breeders whose concerns over hawk killing had long been ridiculed and shouted down at club meetings. “Unbelievable!” one pigeon breeder wrote in a chat room on roller-pigeon .com. “What the hell were you guys thinking?? This is national, even worldwide and affects every aspect of the sport. Anyone holding office in the NBRC and involved in the hawk sting needs to step down, NOW!!”

Most of those arrested in the case declined to comment for this article. Rayvon Hall didn’t dispute the facts in the case, but he told me that he thought “the government’s response was overkill on this particular subject.” He continues to raise pigeons. “That’s my therapy, my drug,” he said. “I’ll do it until the day I die.”

Anger over the hawk killings, and the lack of jail time for the culprits, led Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Oregon) to introduce legislation in Congress last November to stiffen penalties for the intentional killing of migratory birds. “I think there should be a bipartisan sense of outrage over this,” DeFazio told The Oregonian. “I don’t know who would apologize for this kind of behavior.”

A few days after the last High Roller defendant was sentenced, Ed Newcomer sat at his desk contemplating his next move. “I’ve got something cooking,” he told me. “Could be nothing, could be something big. Can’t tell you about it yet.”

That afternoon he was going to check out some pigeon breeding websites, see what kind of reaction the latest High Roller sentencing was getting. “There’s a lot of paranoia out there. Some pigeon guys think there’s still an undercover agent working their competitions,” he told me. “They’ll post occasional messages–’Saw another undercover cop at a fly last weekend.’”
“Are there undercover agents still out there?” I asked.

Ed Newcomer leaned back in his chair and smiled. “Who knows?” he said. “Maybe there are.”

Bruce Barcott’s latest book, The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw: One Woman’s Fight to Save the World’s Most Beautiful Bird ($26, Random House), was released in February 2008.

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