Texas game wardens are using a secret weapon in their battle against lawbreakers: Science.
By Ben Rehder
Game Warden Scott Davis had a problem on his hands: a waste-of-game case, in which seven deer carcasses were left strewn along a quiet county road. The evidence was scant — just a lone witness who had reported seeing a truck, towing a stock trailer, in the general vicinity. Fortunately, the witness had written down the license plate number, so Davis went to question the truck’s owner and a passenger.
“They had a little bit of an arrogant type of attitude at first,” says Davis, a 20-year veteran in Midland County. “They were uncooperative, like, ‘What are you doing out here messing with me?’”
Perhaps, in the minds of those two young men, that cockiness was justifiable. After all, at the time, they were the only people who knew they were guilty. Davis had no eyewitnesses to the actual shooting, and nobody had seen the men dump the deer on the roadside. It was nothing Davis could build a case on — but the strength of the evidence would soon change.
“When we talked to the suspects,” Davis says, “they said they knew nothing about any deer. They said they had been at the scene, but they did not dump the deer on the roadway. We found the trailer, and when we looked in there and saw blood, they claimed it to be goat and cow blood.”
That’s when Davis saw his opening. He and fellow game wardens Terry Lloyd and Wayne Armstrong were about to gather a type of evidence so undeniable, the results are rarely challenged in court.
“When we started taking blood samples from the trailer, we told them exactly what our intentions were,” Davis says with a laugh. “You could see that they were getting a little nervous then. It was like nailing their coffin shut when we got the results back and it was not goat or cow blood — it was a definite match to the samples from the deer on the roadside. This case wouldn’t have been made without the lab’s help. That’s what sealed it for us.”
The lab Davis is referring to is located at the A.E. Wood Fish Hatchery in San Marcos, and, as those poachers learned the hard way, the forensic tests conducted there have been helping game wardens prove their charges for nearly two decades.
But don’t let your mind conjure up images of the flashy forensic technicians you see on wildly unrealistic prime-time dramas. If you do, you’ll be disappointed, according to Beverly Villarreal, a soft-spoken woman who is the lab’s only employee dedicated to law enforcement. “What I do is pretty routine,” she says, “not the glitz and glamour you see on TV. I don’t go out and do crime-scene investigation; my job is here in the lab doing analysis.”
Nonetheless, as a visitor to the lab, you’re likely to hear some rather impressive phrases being tossed around. Isoelectric focusing. Dinucleotide microsatellites. Short tandem repeat. And — more commonly used — DNA fingerprinting.
Broken down into layman’s terms, those buzzwords simply mean good news for game wardens. For instance, if a hunter says the blood in the bed of his truck is from a hog, not a deer, Villarreal can help determine whether he is being truthful. If it turns out to be deer blood, she can tell whether it was from a buck or a doe. Five years ago, the lab gained the equipment necessary to match a blood or tissue sample to an individual mammal. Now, rather than saying a blood sample came from a deer in general, a game warden can prove it came from a specific deer in a poacher’s vehicle.
That’s what happened in the Midland case, and the situation repeated itself — with a twist — in a Comal County case involving Game Warden Kathleen Stuman.
In a quiet subdivision, word was going around that one of the residents was taking advantage of the semi-tame deer in the area, shooting them with a bow and arrow. Stuman had been stationed in the county for just a short while when she caught wind of the situation — but that didn’t mean it would be an easy case to crack.
“We worked on this for a couple of months before we got our final break. The older people by the lake watched these deer every day, so they knew when one was missing. We’d get calls to different places and come up with the same type of arrow shaft every time. It was frustrating, because we knew it was the same guy doing it all.”
Again, the lab was soon to play a part. Responding to a call, Stuman and Chief of Fisheries Enforcement Bill Robinson found the suspect cleaning an eleven-point buck late at night.
“He claimed he shot it at six o’clock, but he wouldn’t say where he’d been hunting,” Stuman says. “So we went back to his place, where it was illegal to hunt, and found blood on the ground.”
Stuman and Robinson collected a blood sample from that location, as well as a tissue sample from the eleven-point, and sent them to the San Marcos lab. The result was what they were hoping for: a match. But this case had a surprise ending: The game wardens discovered that the entire violation had been caught on videotape.
“We were clearing his vehicle for weapons,” Stuman says, “and we found a tape. He’d actually filmed himself shooting the deer from his balcony at night under a light. Everything the guy had been telling us was a lie, and we were able to prove that with Beverly’s support.”
Villarreal has been with the lab for 15 years, in which time she has handled more than 600 cases. She began as a part-time forensic specialist while earning a master’s degree in biology; in fact, her work at the lab had an impact on the subject she selected for her thesis.
At the time, a new law made it illegal to sell wild redfish, so game wardens needed a way to tell which fish were wild and which were farm-raised. They learned that the National Marine Fisheries Service was exploring a technique known as fatty-acid profiling to distinguish wild striped bass and hybrid striped bass from their farm-raised counterparts.
The wardens approached Loraine Fries — who was the hatchery lab manager and one of the originators of the forensic program — about using the technique. Fries passed the information on to Villarreal, who designed a thesis project proving the efficacy of the method for profiling redfish.
“Fish are what they eat,” Villarreal says. “Farm-raised fish are fed a commercial diet made of terrestrial grain sources, which contain fats that ultimately distinguish them from wild fish. Their fatty-acid profiles are different.”
The technique has apparently deterred many poachers over the years. “Once it became known that this type of test existed, there has been a noticeable drop-off of these types of cases,” says Villarreal.
Game Warden Jim Lindeman in Lampasas County ran across a fish poacher in a rather unusual place — Lindeman’s wife’s family reunion. The man in question, a commercial fisherman, sold a bag of redfish fillets to a relative. Lindeman, in street clothes, then approached the man and posed as a potential customer.
“I said, ‘You’re sure these are redfish, not black drum?’ He said he guaranteed they were redfish. I asked him how he avoided getting caught. He said the game wardens were stupid and never checked the bottom of the tubs.”
When the man returned with a five-pound bag of fillets, Lindeman thanked him and then sent samples to the lab the next day. The result: Five of the seven fillets in the bag were redfish. The man, of course, received a citation.
Not every case that crosses Villarreal’s desk involves poaching. In East Texas, a Tyler man in his mid-fifties went out for an afternoon hunt and never returned home. Unfortunately, he hadn’t told anyone exactly where he had planned to hunt.
Two days later, a landowner checking his property found the man, deceased, beside his truck, with a wound to his lower leg. The investigating officers, Captain Larry Hand and Game Warden Paul Gluck, were initially stumped. There was neither ammunition in the man’s rifle, nor any spent or live cartridges anywhere to be found. No downed animals were located. There was, however, a trail of blood — much like that left by a wounded deer — leading from one clump of brush to another, then through some briars to the man’s truck.
“In that second clump of brush, there was obviously some thrashing where a struggle had occurred,” says Hand, who is now stationed in Smith County. “It wasn’t apparent what type of wound the gentleman had. It didn’t appear to be a gunshot, but we weren’t ruling anything out.”
Later, a knife was found in the man’s pocket, and the blade had blood on it. Speculation ran rampant in the community, and the fastest-moving rumor held that a feral hog had attacked the hunter.
The game wardens decided they needed to know exactly what they were dealing with, so they collected three blood samples — one from a grassy area between the two clumps of brush, one from the site of the struggle, and one from the victim.
“I drove directly from the Rusk office to the lab in San Marcos,” says Hand. There he remained until late that evening, when the results were available. Two of the samples were from the victim. The third was from a white-tailed deer.
“We believe he shot a deer and it went down, but it wasn’t fatally wounded. The gentleman had expended his shells, so he was going to use his knife to complete the kill. There was a scuffle that took place, and the man was wounded by his own hand in the lower leg.”
It was a tragic incident, but Hand and Gluck were glad they were able to make some sense of what happened.
“The lab was instrumental in helping put the pieces of that case together,” Hand says, “It’s something that the game wardens don’t necessarily need on a regular basis, but when we do, it’s usually a very important case.”
Villarreal has heard that sentiment before.
“One game warden told me I was like the Maytag repairman,” she says with a smile. “He said I’m not needed very often, but when I am needed, they’re glad I’m here.”
Not all forensic procedures take place in a lab. Sometimes the scene of the crime tells the tale: a spot of blood on the wrong side of a cactus, for example, or a deer carcass showing signs of advanced rigor mortis just 30 minutes after sunrise.
In some cases, bloodstain-pattern analysis can offer up enough evidence for a game warden to determine exactly what took place. Game Warden Mike Bradshaw (pictured left) — who acts as an instructor in forensic science at the National Hunting Incident Investigation Academy — tells the story of a trophy-hunting poacher who tried to outsmart his pursuers.
“The guy had gone into a pasture, shot a deer, and then cut its head off. He was wanting to leave, and he figured out that if he would walk backwards, he’d probably throw off anybody who found the deer.”
Clever — but not clever enough.
“The tracks were going one way, yet the blood droplets showed the direction of travel was just the opposite.” It didn’t take long for Bradshaw to discover the ruse and lock on to the poacher’s escape route.
In another case, state troopers pulled two men over on a traffic violation in Medina County. When the troopers found a deer in the back of the truck, they notified the local game warden. After inspecting the truck, the warden asked the suspects where the other deer was.
“They finally fessed up that they already had it at home,” says Bradshaw. “The patrolmen were just amazed. What had happened is, one deer was loaded over the tailgate, and the other one was loaded over the side of the pickup.” The blood evidence — and the game warden’s sharp eyes — revealed a different story than the suspects were telling.
Determining a deer’s time of death can also aid game wardens greatly in an investigation. For that purpose, many wardens carry a special kit containing all the equipment necessary to conduct a series of time-of-death tests.
Bradshaw is understandably reluctant to provide many details for fear that poachers will attempt to use the knowledge as a tip sheet to help them avoid prosecution.
“I don’t want this to be a training manual to show outlaws how to get around this. I’ll say that we gather temperature information, evaluate the eyeshine and pupil diameter, and apply an electrical charge to assess the deer’s muscle reactions.”
Bradshaw and fellow game wardens Tracy Large, Shane Teeters and Larry Griffin (now retired) combined time-of-death testing with bloodstain-pattern analysis to nab a Webb County poacher. Bradshaw was in one of his favorite hiding places when a man in a truck fired from a public roadway and immediately drove away.
“Trees obscured my view and I hadn’t seen who fired,” Bradshaw says. “Of course, when I stopped the truck and saw a rifle inside, the suspect denied shooting.”
But when the game wardens later found the buck, high-velocity bloodstain patterns on a prickly pear bush indicated where the deer had been standing when the bullet struck. That information, in turn, helped the wardens ascertain which direction the round had come from.
Lest the poacher claim that someone else had shot the deer earlier, the wardens also conducted time-of-death tests. “We determined that the deer expired about the same time the man fired.”
The result? The poacher was charged with waste of game, hunting from a public roadway, and taking a deer without landowner consent.
“It’s just another tool in the toolbox,” Bradshaw says of time-of-death testing.
From an outdoorsman’s perspective, it’s another weapon in the war against poaching.