POACHING MADE BIG BUSINESS by Ruthless Gangs of Killers (Oct, 1933)

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POACHING MADE BIG BUSINESS by Ruthless Gangs of Killers

HIDDEN among the P’s of the dictionary, you find: “Poacher, One who takes game or fish illegally.” To this time-honored definition, recent events have given a new twist. Outlaws are invading the forests and exploiting the game resources of the country. Organized criminals are’ dealing in illegal furs, fake bounty scalps, out-of-season game birds.

The government’s battle against this 1933-type poacher forms a thrilling and comparatively unknown story.

Under the direction of the U. S. Biological Survey, federal agents and game wardens are making a concerted, coast-to-coast drive. Already, fatal duels, attempts at ambush, running gun fights, have marked the struggle.

On the flats of the Sangamon River, in Illinois, recently, two United States game wardens, K. F. Roahen and M. A. Charlton, were cornered by duck-poachers and in an ensuing battle barely escaped with their lives. Hearing heavy shooting along the river, they had headed for the sound. As they were creeping through the woods, they stumbled on a case of shotgun shells and several sheep-lined overcoats. They had hardly stooped to examine them, when a gangster lookout, hidden behind a tree twenty-five yards away, fired both barrels of his shotgun. The sound brought the other poachers on the run.

Fighting Indian style, the wounded men dodged from tree to tree as the gang closed in. Flying shot tore through the leaves and thudded against the trunks around them. Charlton was bleeding badly from wounds in both arms, hips and one leg and Roahen had been hit in the stomach, face, and hands by the time

they fought off their assailants and escaped. Weak from loss of blood, they had to tramp five miles to their boat, row across the river and then drive twenty-five miles by motor car before they could reach medical attention.

Soon after Roahen was released from the hospital, the ruthless gang sought to blow up his patrol boat while he was asleep on board, to wreck his automobile, and, subsequently, to murder him from ambuscade in revenge for his activity.

In Louisiana and in Iowa, other government agents were killed in cold blood by poaching gangsters. In Virginia, two out-of-the-season duck hunters fought a gun duel with federal agents that ended only when both poachers were killed. In Missouri, a U. S. game warden was attacked and seriously wounded from ambush and not far from Memphis, Tenn., another was shot at a dozen times with a high-powered rifle while he was examining a sandbar in the midst of the Mississippi River.

The game racketeers along the Mississippi and its tributaries, sell their bootleg birds to special dealers in Chicago, Ill., St. Louis, Mo., Cincinnati, O., Detroit, Mich., Cleveland, 0., and other mid-western cities. From $6 to $10 a pair is the price paid by hotels, restaurants, and clubs for such out-of-the-season delicacies. One ramification of the activity of a notorious Chicago liquor ring is reported to have been the large-scale disposal of wild game during closed seasons. High-speed trucks often transport the birds from the shooting ground to the ice-boxes of the crooked dealers.

Time and again, the government agents have traced ducks to the refrigerators of such dealers. But, in every case, they have failed to obtain a conviction. In court, witnesses would testify that the game birds had been shot by sportsmen during the open season and had been left to “age” under refrigeration at the dealers where the birds were found.

In bagging the birds, the duck bootleggers use blinds, sink-boxes, motor boats, and even airplanes. Five-shot pumpguns are most commonly employed although some of the poachers use automatics with special extensions attached to the magazines to increase their capacity to nine shots to a single loading of the murderous gun.

During the last few years, government officers have confiscated a veritable arsenal of firearms from men engaged in illegal hunting. They range from single-barreled rifles to enormous punt or swivel guns, twelve feet long and requiring several men to handle.

These heavy artillery pieces are found most frequently along the Atlantic coast from Long Island to the Chesapeake Bay and the Back Bay of Virginia. They weigh several hundred pounds, have from one to fifty barrels and shoot a pound of powder and two pounds of shot at each pull of the trigger. Anywhere from fifty to 125 ducks are slaughtered by a single blast from these gigantic scatter guns.

Usually, they are used at twilight when flocks of ducks are feeding on the water. The gun is mounted on a recoil block at the bow of a motor boat so it can be swiveled from side to side. Floating down upon a flock of birds, the poachers get into position and fire. Then, as rapidly as possible, they retrieve the dead ducks and speed away. Half an hour later, they repeat the performance, miles away and with similar results.

What happens when a government patrol boat hears the roar of the big gun and races to the spot, was illustrated recently almost on the doorstep of the nation’s capitol. Down the Potomac, not far from Washington, a gang of duck poachers was operating a swivel “cannon” with deadly effect. When a government boat overtook the craft of the outlaw hunters, they found no gun, no ducks, nothing suspicious. The law requires that both the gun and the illegally killed game must be captured before the arrest is made. Temporarily baffled, the officers retraced their course to the place from which the sound of the shot had seemed to come. As they we’re cruising about, one of the men noticed several corks standing still in the current of the river. They investigated and uncovered a clever ruse.

When the crooks had seen the patrol boat speeding toward them in the distance, they had thrown all the ducks overboard in weighted sacks with light lines and corks attached to them. The swivel gun had been dumped overboard in similar fashion. Later, when the government boat had left the vicinity, they planned to return, locate the game and the gun by means of the cork bobbers and retrieve both under the cover of darkness.

Duck bootlegging is but one of several types of poaching with which government agents must battle.

Along the Canadian border, for instance, illegal beaver trapping is a constant source of trouble. These animals are now nearing extinction and in states where they are found are protected by law. But the fur poachers, laying their traps at night and disposing of their catch by stealth, have been reaping a rich harvest of contraband pelts.

One loophole in the American law aids such gangs. The beavers, in felling trees and damming streams, sometimes do considerable damage. Consequently, most of the states with beaver laws have also passed legislation which allows their state game commissions to issue permits for trapping the animals where they are causing damage. On such permits, obtained under false testimony, fur bootleggers and their agents are trapping large numbers of the animals during closed seasons.

A gang of four men in Michigan was recently caught after it had carried on extensive operations in trapping beavers, mink, and otter out of season. For one shipment of furs, the leader cashed a check for $10,000. The country banker who received the check became suspicious. He shrewdly guessed how the money had been obtained and notified the government. Federal men traced the check to a St. Louis fur dealer and brought the operations of the poaching gang to light.

In addition to their illegal trapping, these men had been hijacking the furs of other poachers while they were on their way to market. The contraband pelts are frequently run by fast motor truck or motor car to New York, St. Louis, or Kansas City markets. Rival gangs wait near filling stations where these machines are known to stop regularly for gas and oil. After they have held up the drivers and stolen the cargoes, they race for the same markets and, not uncommonly, sell the furs to the same crooked dealer with whom the original gang had intended to do business.

Recently, half a dozen large-scale attempts to smuggle beaver pelts into the United States from closed-season areas in Alaska have been exposed at ports along the Pacific coast. Customs officials at Seattle, Wash., not long ago, discovered 1,200 pelts hidden under a shipload of dried fish. Another time, they confiscated $15,000 worth of beaver skins which had been cunningly secreted behind false bulkheads in the hold of a vessel, and a third time, they made a haul almost as valuable when they found the furs concealed between decks on a tramp steamer.

SCIENTIFIC detective work, not long ago, uncovered a smooth-running “underground railroad” operated by fur poachers in several eastern states. This gang of trapper outlaws had worked out a system of slipping the pelts north across the Canadian line, putting bogus brands upon them, and sending them back to New York and St. Louis as Canadian furs. The law then required every beaver pelt, shipped from a Canadian province, to carry a special brand formed by tiny perforations produced by an apparatus similar to a check protector.

In Washington, experts set to work with high-powered microscopes, comparing the perforations of the real and the bogus brands. Minute differences, visibly only to the eye of the magnifying lens, gave testimony that broke up the “fake brand” method of marketing the furs. A resulting change in the Canadian laws now requires that all beaver pelts shipped to the United States must carry consular certificates identifying them as real Canadian furs.

In western states, another racket has gained rapid headway. Gangs are preying upon fur farmers. They toss poisoned bait into dens of foxes and then cut their way into the enclosures and carry off the animals as soon as they are dead. In a number of instances, they have drugged female foxes and taken them alive to be sold in other parts of the country for breeding purposes. The owners of such farms are installing alarm systems and in some cases are encircling their pens with electrically charged wires to hold off the fur thieves.

BOUNTY faking is another activity of the outdoor gangsters. In many parts of the country, a bounty is paid for the scalps of predatory animals, such as wolves, wildcats, coyotes, and mountain lions, which prey upon livestock and poultry.

One gang in Kansas is said to have reaped a profit of nearly $150,000 from fake coyote scalps. It worked in collusion with several unscrupulous Missouri fur dealers, who supplied synthetic “coyote scalps” by the thousands at twenty-five cents apiece. Operating in eighty different counties, where a bounty of a dollar a scalp was offered, the crooks cleaned up a fortune. In many cases, they substituted dog scalps for coyote scalps.

In another instance, a gang was caught collecting bounty on the same scalps over and over again. It worked with dishonest county clerks as partners.

BECAUSE there is no standardization of bounty payments, each state setting its own price, crooks are able to defraud the government in another way. They trap the predatory animals in states where they are abundant and where the bounty is low and smuggle the scalps into the states where the bounty is high and the animals few.

For example: New Hampshire counties pay twice as much for wildcats as do Vermont counties next door. South Dakota has an eight-fold higher bounty on wolves than North Dakota. Colorado pays $50 for mountain lions while California pays $30, Montana $20, Wyoming $15, and Nevada $5. In Texas, four counties pay $50 apiece for wolves. This hodgepodge of conflicting fees has made the work of the bounty bootlegger comparatively easy.

What happens is illustrated in Wisconsin.

This state offers a standing bounty of $30 for each mature timber wolf killed within its borders. The neighboring states of Michigan and Iowa have no bounty at all upon these animals. Consequently, scores of scalps are smuggled in from other states.

One crook, who had been defrauding this state systematically in this manner for some time, was recently caught and sentenced to a term in the penitentiary. Every few weeks, he appeared at the county clerk’s office with two or three scalps, which he had taken from a supply obtained in Canada, and collected from $60 to $90. Officials finally became suspicious. They checked up on his movements and discovered that he had hidden his cache of scalps where he thought no one would ever find them—in the pulpit and parsonage of a country church.

ANOTHER form of bounty plundering • made its appearance recently in the Pacific Northwest. Several of the states in this region had banded together to exterminate wildcats. A special bounty was offered for each one killed. To protect against fraud, hunters were required to bring in the right forefoot of the animal when they collected their bounty money. This worked all right until one clever ring of crooks discovered the similarity between the foot of the wildcat and that of the ocelet, a small predatory animal of Southwestern and Central America. This gang began smuggling large numbers of ocelot feet into the counties where the fees were paid and collected a small fortune before the deception was discovered.

The federal government in Washington has been opposed to the bounty system ever since its inception. The contention of the government experts is that often the paying of such fees actually increases the number of predatory animals.

In recent months a number of states have been revising their bounty and game laws, seeking to cope with the activity of poachers and bounty fakers. Pennsylvania, for instance, now requires the presentation of a signed affidavit, as well as the delivery to the state game commission of the unmuti-lated skin of the predatory animal, before any bounty payment is made.

In the meantime, Federal agents and state game wardens are pushing ahead in their concerted drive on the gangsters of the open who are trying to defraud the government and exploit the wild life of the country.

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