Once upon a time there were two whooping cranes, one in South Dakota, one in Texas. Both dead.
The South Dakota crane was killed by a 26-year-old man who worked on a tractor for a while one day, drank some beers and shot a white bird with a rifle. The Texas crane was killed by a 42-year-old senior vice president of a national real estate company, while hunting with friends at a private club.
Both whooping cranes were among the last few hundred of their endangered species. Both were supposed to be protected by federal law that regards violations as serious business.
And yet the way these two cases played out in the law enforcement system was vastly different.
The South Dakota whooper will cost the shooter $85,000 as restitution under the Endangered Species Act. The Texas shooter will pay $15,000 — which includes $5,000 as a misdemeanor violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and $10,000 in community service fees.
How and why federal lawyers settled on such widely disparate penalties is a mystery. There is a frustrating and annoying black hole of information about how and why the cases ended the way they did.
Federal attorneys, through intermediaries in both states, have steadfastly refused to discuss the cases. The shooters won’t talk either now that they’ve done their time in front of the bar.
Jeff Blachford, 26, of Miller, South Dakota, killed his whooping crane in 2012 and settled the case Feb. 14. Blachford forfeited the rifle he used to kill the crane in South Dakota and also lost his hunting and fishing privileges for two years. Blachford did respond to a Facebook request for an interview by saying he was reluctant to discuss the case.
Worthey D. Wiles of Dallas shot his crane Jan. 12 near Rockport. He told authorities he wanted to kill a sandhill crane and mistook the whooper for that bird. It’s not legal to hunt sandhills in that part of the state, something Wiles said he didn’t know. Wiles settled his case on March 6. He hasn’t returned phone calls to his Dallas office.
Blachford was prosecuted under the Endangered Species Act, where the maximum sentence for a felony conviction can be a two years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Wiles was prosecuted under the terms of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which has a maximum fine of $5,000 for a misdemeanor conviction. That’s the kind of penalty you might face if you shoot too many doves or ducks.
Blachford had to be tracked down after he shot the crane. At one point there was a reward for information leading to his conviction.
Wiles called Texas game wardens Jan. 12 to report himself. He had left the crane in a duck blind in Sand Lake on San Jose Island and was allowed to retrieve it himself without a warden present. He was then told to return with the crane to a store parking lot in Rockport where he met with a warden and surrendered the bird.
According to records obtained by the Statesman, a state warden did not do an onsite investigation of the shooting location until Jan. 16.
The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department called in U.S. Fish and Wildlife wardens on Jan. 17.
Since then, state and federal employees have declined to discuss the case or answer questions.
Which leaves people who are interested in how the law is enforced and people who are trying to save the whooping cranes uninformed, perplexed and concerned.
“We’re disappointed in the fine being so minimal,” said Chester McConnell with the Whooping Crane Conservation Associaton. “I’m sorry for Mr. Wiles. I believe he did make a mistake, but I decided long ago that the justice system has to be blind. Accidents or not, you have to pay the fine.”
McConnell, who lives in Spanish Fort, Alabama, says in cases where a whooping crane is shot and killed, the perpetrator should pay the maximum fine, regardless of the circumstance. And he certainly should pay a bigger price than Wiles did.
In 1991, for instance, Billy Dale Inman of Marble Falls pleaded guilty to killing a migrating whooping crane and was sentenced to 60 days of jail time, fined a total of $23,000, and his hunting and fishing privileges were revoked for two years. Translated into today’s dollars, that was a fine of nearly $40,000.
Wiles was assessed $15,000 and got to keep his license and his gun. Why? The official court documents reveal nothing more than the judgment against Wiles.
Moreover, a final document titled “Statement of Reasons” that follows Wiles’ criminal document in federal court files was sealed by the court so we don’t know if it contains mitigating information that affected the case against Wiles.
Angela Dodge, public information officer for the Southern District of Texas, said that neither assistant U.S. attorney Hugo Martinez, who handled Wiles’ case, nor U.S. attorney Kenneth Magidson would discuss the case once it was closed. “While we cannot comment on our prosecutorial discretion, what I can tell you is that we look at all aspects in a given crime accepted for federal prosecution and what we can prove beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law,” Dodge said in an email.
Ace Crawford is community services coordinator for the South Dakota District of the U.S. attorney’s office, who said roughly the same thing. “After consulting with our First AUSA and AUSA (Meghan) Dilges, other than our press release and public information available (from records), we do not have any further information to share regarding the whooping crane case.”
So, does that mean that the Texas case, in which Wiles surrendered himself and the crane to a Texas game warden, wasn’t as strong as the Blachford South Dakota case?
And what does all of this say about how law enforcement and the judicial system are, or are not, valuing and protecting the lives of the whooping cranes, only 257 of which made it to the Texas coast this year to winter?
Nobody’s willing to say. And I mean nobody.