ATLANTA - UPDATE SEPTEMBER 9, 2014:
Channel 2 Action News has learned a jury cleared three north Georgia hunters of federal felony charges after a Channel 2 investigation revealed major questions about how officers made their cases.
When Georgia's Department of Natural Resources and North Carolina's Wildlife Resources Commission first announced the results of Operation Something Bruin in February 2013, they touted it as a huge success.
The two main officers involved were each named Officer of the Year in their respective states. There were news conferences, press releases, even pre-produced videos posted online trumpeting the results.
A year later, a Channel 2 Action News investigation found the web page has been taken down, local prosecutors in various counties have dismissed dozens of charges for lack of evidence, and the “80 wildlife violators” originally announced turned out to be inaccurate.
"It's kind of like summer-time hog manure, the more you stir it the more it stinks," said attorney Allyn Stockton, who has represented several of the hunters. "They've cooked this into something so overblown it's unbelievable."
Bruin is the Old English word for bear. The four-year undercover operation was designed to target poachers who used illegal tactics to kill black bears.
But now, critics say the officers used their own illegal tactics.
Of the 55 people charged, many told investigative reporter Jodie Fleischer the crimes they're accused of committing were actually set up by officers.
"That's all me and my son are guilty of, is trying to help someone," said Walt Stancil, who is facing a federal felony charge for illegally transporting a dead bear across state lines.
Investigation records show Stancil was not present when the officer killed the bear; nor was he present when the officer drove it across state lines.
The Stancil Story
Walt Stancil and his son, Cale, have been hunting the north Georgia woods for years. They routinely baited a wooden tree stand near their Rabun County home to lure bears there with candy. But both men say they have never killed a bear in that baited area.
"When the dogs chase the bear and he climbs up a tree and he sits up there on a limb until you gather the dogs and go back and leave him alone," said Cale Stancil, describing the practice of "treeing a bear" which he equates with catch and release fishing.
In 2011, the Stancils were treeing bears with their friend, Jerry Parker, who also runs a Rabun County hunting guide business called War Paint Kennels. He'd been repeatedly approached by an eager customer who hired Parker and showed up to hunt. But after several days, that customer just couldn't find a bear.
"He seemed like he would like to kill one real bad," said Walt Stancil.
So the Stancils let him tag along with them. At the end of the last day, they dropped him off near their baited land, alone. Later that evening, they got a phone call.
"He said, ‘I've shot a bear, it's got away I need some help,’" recalls Cale Stancil.
The father and son drove up the trail and found the customer alone with the dead bear.
"We help him load the bear into the pickup, haul him down to where he is staying at, and unload his bear. We tell him ‘goodbye’ and don't see the guy since," said Cale Stancil.
The customer was staying at their friend Parker's home, just a few miles up the road.
The next time the Stancils saw that “customer” it was in a courtroom.
Who committed crimes? The district attorney weighs in
The “customer” was really North Carolina officer Chad Arnold, posing as a hunter. Arnold charged the Stancils each with a felony for illegally transporting the bear Arnold had shot.
"There's no question it violated Georgia criminal laws when he illegally killed a bear in Georgia," said Rabun County District Attorney Brian Rickman, referring to the officer's actions.
Rickman spoke out about the Stancil case, and other Something Bruin cases that have landed in his office. He believes a jury would be particularly concerned that Arnold was alone at the time he shot and killed the bear.
"It would have to be an extraordinary circumstance to convince me killing the bears in order to protect them makes a whole lot of logical sense," said Rickman.
Arnold also shot a 45-pound cub in another case, left it there without tagging it, then charged Jerry Parker's son, whom he had hired as a guide.
"If they're hunting poachers, they sure didn't catch any," Jerry Parker told Fleischer.
Both Parkers are still facing federal charges for illegally hunting bear. Undercover officers targeted Parker's business as a main focus of their efforts.
"There are times when law enforcement in an undercover capacity, you have to break the law. But I can't find a reason in this Rabun County case why killing the bear adds anything to what we can prosecute," said Rickman.
Rickman has considered taking a criminal case against Arnold to a Rabun County grand jury, however even if there's an indictment, any charges could be kicked up to federal court, where the U.S. Attorneys who've supported the entire operation would have the option of just dismissing it.
"What I've seen is people get a zealousness for doing their job to a degree that it blinds them from good judgment sometimes,” Rickman said.
Questions about the records
Initial reports claimed Operation Something Bruin “involved 80 violators and some 980 violations.”
The state agencies, partnering with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Commission and the U.S. Forestry Service, reportedly spent $2 million on the operation.
Officers touted 10 bears killed and commented on the illicit sale of bear parts, including a market for bear gallbladders.
Channel 2 Action News filed an open records request with the Georgia DNR and very quickly obtained a list of eight individuals arrested in Georgia.
It took North Carolina's WRC four weeks to provide a list of names of 47 individuals charged there.
Fleischer spent months contacting hunters and their attorneys, and digging through investigative reports, some of which remain confidential because of pending cases. She noted seven bears killed while officers were present. Arnold and Webb shot at least as many as the hunters did.
Records show three bears killed by the hunters, three bears killed by the officers, and in the last case multiple shots fired at once mean it's impossible to tell whose bullet wounded the bear.
The Parkers and Stancils all deny even shooting at any bears during Operation Something Bruin, let alone killing any.
"I think it is very lowdown trickery," said Cale Stancil, who eventually pled guilty to misdemeanor removing a bear from over bait, and got probation in exchange for federal prosecutors dropping the felony against him. The bear in question is the one officer Arnold shot and called the Stancils to help remove.
"I have a problem with a person that is sworn in to be a conservation officer and he's actually out destroying the animals," said Cale Stancil.
"I've never killed a bear in my life," said Jack Billingsley, who is friends with the Stancils and Parkers, and often accompanies them when treeing bears.
Billingsley was initially arrested for illegally hunting bears. His home was raided by wildlife officers, he spent thousands of dollars on attorney’s fees, only to have prosecutors later drop all of his charges for lack of evidence.
North Carolina's Wildlife Resources Commission refused to answer questions about Arnold's cases, but Georgia's Department of Natural Resources, which partnered on the operation, defended it.
Fleischer asked Maj. Stephen Adams why it was OK for officers to shoot bears when their mission was to save bears.
"In wildlife management you manage the population, not the single individual," Adams replied. "And that's the way we looked at this operation."
Adams said the officers needed to kill animals in order to keep their cover and fit in with the hunters.
"Officers did fire shots and miss. There is only so much of that you can do," said Adams.
Adams could not account for the discrepancy in the initial report of ten bears killed while officers were present.
He said the operation was a needed response to several years of complaints, and that he would characterize it as successful. He denied that the Georgia Officer David Webb entrapped anyone.
"They were always on their own free will. The suspects could have done what they wanted to, and the officers never tried to teach an illegal behavior or encourage illegal behavior," said Adams. "Again, they had to build trust, they had to think about officer safety and to think that they were just one of the guys, one of the hunters of the group."
But during a public forum in January, Rochelle Crisp joined more than 300 hunters and their families from Georgia and North Carolina to voice concerns about both officers' actions.
"Twenty-nine Wildlife and Forest Service agents stormed our home with automatic machine guns drawn," said Crisp, whose husband Chad is still facing federal charges. His state charges were dismissed by prosecutors.
"Operation Something Bruin has traumatized my family deeply," Rochelle Crisp added, choking back tears.
Agents raided the home of her husband's parents the same day.
"Charges made against my husband included conspiracy to take a bear illegally and possession of bear parts. Well, we've been married 37 years and I can tell you he's never killed a bear," said Linda Crisp, wife of David Crisp. Watch more from the public forum here.
Investigating the investigation
Fleischer traveled to North Carolina to meet with Congressman Mark Meadows, who has called for an independent federal investigation alleging the officers “used abusive tactics, including entrapment.”
"The allegations were a very big concern to me," said Meadows, "No one is above the law."
His letter asks the federal agencies who deputized Arnold and Webb to work in each other's states to investigate how the cases were made, including shooting so many bears.
"If true, then shame on us, and we can't stand for that," said Meadows, "It is very troubling."
Meadows also questions how some of the 55 cases ended.
Fleischer's investigation found more than half were dropped by prosecutors for lack of evidence, or hunters pled to a single misdemeanor, for example, hunting at night or driving on a closed forestry road.
Kenneth Collins had a valid hunting license, but spent 30 days in jail for failing to get a $23 federal land use permit.
"I'd never been in no kind of trouble. I've never been to court for nothing," Collins said during the January forum.
Walt Stancil plans to keep fighting his federal case.
"Everybody that's heard about it so far thinks it's the stupidest thing that's ever happened,” Stancil said.