SI Vault
Ed Zern
June 28, 1971
When word got around that hunters were shooting the rare sheep—at up to $3,000 a head—a secret agent started a hunt of his own
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June 28, 1971

Good Guys, Bad Guys And The Bighorn

When word got around that hunters were shooting the rare sheep—at up to $3,000 a head—a secret agent started a hunt of his own

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At the house Swanson conducted a tour, including his trophy room—in which there were five trophy-size sheep skulls and one mounted head.

Halstead had stopped in Denver to cash a check for $2,500 provided by the California Department of Fish and Game, as arranged by Matthews, and was carrying the money in his camera bag. Also in the bag was a tiny but powerful radio transmitter that would enable agents in small airplanes to keep tabs on Halstead's whereabouts. Later, Halstead was to plant the radio near the site of the kill so there would be no question of whether the shooting had been done in Mexico or California. That night Halstead handed over $1,500 in $20 bills and agreed to pay the balance of $1,000 upon successful completion of the hunt. Halstead changed into hunting clothes and, before leaving, went into the bathroom. When he came out, Swanson asked why he had taken the camera bag with him. "It has the rest of the money in it," Halstead explained, "and I trust you, but...." Swanson laughed, and they went outside to meet Ray Pocta in the camper at about 1:30 a.m.

The two men, Halstead and Pocta, set off, driving toward the Salton Sea. After a while Pocta pulled to the side of the road, saying he had been up two nights in a row with another hunter and was pooped. He slept until 4:30 a.m., then drove south past the Salton Sea through the Imperial Valley and west on State Route 80. Near Mountain Spring he turned south on a blacktop road to Jacumba, nearly on the Mexican border, and then onto a dirt road running through the McCain Ranch. Pocta had been keeping an eye on his rearview mirror and announced that a car with government insignia was following them. The car, with a man and some young boys, passed him and Pocta said they were probably bound for a camp in the area. Pocta then turned off onto a dirt trail up the mountain and, when the trail ended, he hid the camper behind an enormous boulder.

Pocta took out a 308 Remington rifle from beneath one of the camper bunks and handed it to Halstead, along with four cartridges and a knapsack containing a gallon of water and some food. The two men then set forth on foot. After four hours of mostly uphill walking in broiling sun toward what Pocta said were some springs, Halstead announced he was too exhausted to go any farther. Pocta then asked if he still wanted to continue; Halstead did, indeed, and Pocta took the rifle and said he would meet Halstead back at the camper, warning him to look out for rattlesnakes. They had seen several, both sidewinders and diamondbacks, and earlier Swanson had told them of once sitting down within a foot of a diamondback.

While backtracking, Halstead heard a shot and at the truck he heard another. Then he saw a Chevy truck coming up the trail. It pulled up and Gary Swanson got out introducing one passenger as Jim (Bensley) and another, in business clothes, as Mr. Nelson of New Jersey. Swanson said they would be hunting the ridge across the canyon. The three of them left in the truck after Nelson changed into hunting clothes. Halstead then took a number of photographs of the camper and the area and planted the turned-on transmitter in a clump of bushes. Several hours later Pocta showed up with a fine ram's head and cape. He said he had seen eight ewes and a half-curl ram before hearing a commotion in a cave near the spring. It was two rams fighting, and when they charged past him within 15 feet, he had killed the larger. Halstead congratulated him, took some snapshots of the ram's head and asked how many sheep Pocta had packed out this season. "This'll be the 15th," Pocta said, and added that Swanson had probably brought out more, since he guided oftener.

Half an hour later Swanson, Nelson and Jim returned in their truck. Swanson said he had seen seven or eight sheep, including a decent ram, but Nelson had been unable to get a clear shot. While the group discussed the number of sheep seen during the day—about 46, they calculated—Jim skinned out the head Pocta had shot. Halstead noticed he did this with professional speed.

The horns and cape were put in a black plastic garbage-can liner and hidden in the pickup. Swanson told Halstead he would take him into a motel in Redlands. Swanson said he was leaving the following Monday for a sheep hunt in Russia and that he had a lot of work to do. Halstead took Swanson aside and said he would like to tip Pocta $100 but did not have that much extra cash. He asked if Swanson would take a check for the hundred, and when Swanson agreed he gave Pocta five marked 20s. On the way back to Redlands, Halstead noticed they were going by a different route. He asked why and Swanson explained they were taking back roads to avoid the Border Patrol, which made occasional road checks in the area. Swanson dropped Halstead at the Stardust Motel, collected $900 in cash, said he would be back in the morning with the clothes Halstead had left at his house and drove off.

He was back the next morning at nine with the clothes, his wife, his two children and a woman he introduced as Pearl (later identified as Pearl Prudholm, an employee at Swanson's shop). Halstead handed Swanson two $100 checks, one for mounting the ram's head. They all went to a nearby restaurant for breakfast, where after some small talk Mrs. Swanson asked Halstead if he was, or intended to become, a Grand Slammer. The Grand Slam Club, with headquarters in Phoenix, is composed of hunters who have killed four North American wild sheep: desert bighorn, Rocky Mountain bighorn, Stone and Dall. Getting all four—legitimately—involves considerable luck in drawing a desert-sheep permit as well as heart-bursting physical exertion in getting to where the rare mountain varieties hang out, often above the timberline. Thus, the club is an exclusive one. Halstead said he was not a Grand Slammer but might like to try, and Swanson assured him it would be simple. He said he had connections in Wyoming and Montana, and it would not take more than a day or two to get a Rocky Mountain ram. (All Dall, or "white sheep," come from the mountains of Alaska and from the Yukon and the Northwest Territories. Of the 189 Stone sheep listed in the latest Boone and Crockett record book, almost all were killed in British Columbia.) Swanson assured Halstead that although he would be in Russia for the next several weeks, a phone call to his wife would be enough to set up a trophy-guaranteed hunt.

After breakfast Halstead took his leave of the Swansons and Pearl drove him to the Ontario airport. En route she explained that she took care of the taxidermy shop, did most of the skinning, served as camp cook occasionally and had even guided in a pinch. As soon as Pearl left him at the airport, Halstead met Parcher and another federal agent who had been waiting nearby and flew toward the hunting area, which they easily pinpointed thanks to the still-beeping transmitter.

At 11:30 a.m. on Sept. 28, federal agents, California Fish and Game department agents and deputies from the San Bernardino sheriff's office simultaneously raided Swanson's taxidermy shop, his residence, the residences of Ray Pocta, Pearl Prudholm and Jim Bensley and the Safari Hide and Fur Company, owned by Swanson and Bensley. Armed with warrants, they confiscated correspondence involving more than 150 hunter-clients and prospective clients, two address books with names of past and prospective clients, five mounted bighorn heads, 15 bighorn skull caps, some fresh, numerous bighorn capes and skins and a fully mounted desert bighorn ram, crated and ready for shipment to Calgary, Alberta. Swanson was still in Russia, but when the agents learned during the raid that Jim Bensley was on the Ferris Mountain Ranch in Wyoming, the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission was notified. Bensley was picked up while leaving the ranch with a truck-load of antelope horns, hide and meat. A few hours later he was charged with 21 counts of Wyoming state game-law violations and jailed in lieu of $500 bail. Pearl Prudholm and Ray Pocta were jailed on charges of conspiracy to commit a crime.

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