The climax of the
case was routine enough, as court cases go: Gary Swanson of Yucaipa, Calif., a
handsome, 6'4" 220-pounder, pleaded guilty to violating Section 182 of the
California Penal Code. That section encompasses a wide arc of legal
sins—specifically, the conspiracy to commit a crime. "Yes, I did,"
Swanson said in San Bernardino Superior Court. And Judge J. Steve Williams also
acted routinely: he set sentencing for Aug. 5. Those were the legally
dispassionate parts. But behind the courtroom procedures lay a full-blown
adventure story. Complete with touches of cloak and dagger, it was one of the
more bizarre chapters in the history of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The story of Gary
Swanson features, in sequence, the rare and elusive desert bighorn sheep, one
of America's dwindling species; a group of wealthy, greedy hunters from 12
states and Canada who wanted bighorn heads; an undercover agent with a camera
bag full of money and a small transmitting radio and, finally, in True
Detective fashion, the hunters hunting the hunters.
Swanson fits the
role of a principal: he was a successful taxidermist, was associated with an
impressive studio in Oak Glen, Calif., with more than 400 specimens on display,
he was a big-game hunter and an avowed conservationist, indeed, a member of the
prestigious Society for the Conservation of Bighorn Sheep. He was well-off for
a youthful small businessman. At 29, he was the owner of a $60,000 home and had
been able to take several high-priced safaris to Africa and Russia. He was well
known; he spoke before civic and service clubs, and local newspapers carried
laudatory stories about him. On May 6, 1970, The Daily Enterprise of Riverside
County ran a special feature on Swanson under a three-column headline,
TAXIDERMIST HAS STRONG FEELINGS ABOUT HUNTING AND CONSERVATION. In the story,
Swanson, described as "a young man on his way up," set forth some
strong opinions, among them that the state should "put more restrictions on
licensing to get more competent hunters in the field."
An important part
of the story concerned the efforts of a band of hunter-conservationists,
Swanson included, who were setting up a water hole for bighorn sheep in the
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, where the sheep were said to be nearly extinct.
"We think there may be 10 or 12 bighorn left," Swanson said, adding
that he was hopeful that the water hole ultimately would support 50 sheep a
year. And he went on to suggest a state charge of $1,000 for a permit to take a
ram and then only in areas overpopulated with rams.
later Swanson stood accused by the state of conspiring to kill bighorn sheep,
as many as 150 of them in the past four years. Further revelations pointed to a
widespread plot in which more than 100 hunters, paying stiff fees, were guided
into the Anza-Borrego Park and other remote areas of Southern California where
they were virtually guaranteed an illegal desert bighorn ram. Moreover, the
hunters were guided to those same conservation water holes Swanson helped set
up, ones where the sheep tended to congregate and where easy shots were the
The case broke
slowly. A month before the 1970 Daily Enterprise encomium, the California state
game department had received an unsigned letter accusing "a Redlands
taxidermist" of killing illegal desert bighorn (there are not any other
kind in California; the sheep has been protected there since 1873. In all of
Mexico, where the species is more abundant, fewer than 30 desert sheep permits
are issued to hunters annually). The letter contained some additional
accusations that stirred official interest, so an outside warden was assigned
to check the charges. He reported that Swanson, obviously the letter's target,
was highly respected in the community (true) and in local wildlife-conservation
circles (true). The writer of the letter was circumstantially identified as a
local citizen with a personal grudge against one of Swanson's associates, and
the investigation was dropped.
In June, U.S. Game
Management Agent Loren K. Parcher, stationed in Pasadena, heard from a fellow
agent in a neighboring state that a sportsman in his area had requested that
Swanson's sheep activities be investigated, having heard rumors of unlawful
hunts. Parcher checked with Inspector Cliff Matthews of the California game
department, who told him of the previous note, and the two men agreed that
there now was sufficient smoke to suggest the possibility of fire. It was
decided that an undercover man should be used, and the stage was carefully set.
According to government sources, here is what happened.
On July 14, Swanson
got a long-distance phone call from an Eastern construction-company executive.
The caller said he had heard from a mutual friend in Seattle that Swanson could
arrange for him to kill a desert ram. Swanson hedged—"Wait until I get on a
private telephone before we discuss anything pertaining to sheep hunting,"
he said—but after some careful checking with the reference and with calls back
to the construction-company office, Swanson agreed to provide a desert bighorn
for a "bargain" fee of $2,500. The construction-company biggie was
actually U.S. Game Management Agent Robert O. Halstead, a 23-year veteran of
the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Seattle "friend" was an alleged
dealer in illegal hides who knew Swanson and who agreed, after some pointed
discussion with agents regarding federal penalties for transporting illegally
killed game, to provide a reference for Halstead. The construction company was
real, complete with a secretary to take the checkup calls Swanson was sure to
make. A hunting date was made for Sept. 13, and Swanson specified, as he had
with all his other customers, that payment be in small-denomination bills.
Swanson said the fee was for five days but the hunt probably would not take
more than two, as he had 31 rams spotted, including several exceptional heads.
He said he would provide the rifle so that Halstead would not risk arousing
suspicion by bringing one along with him.
In late July
Halstead telephoned Swanson to confirm the date and his time of arrival, and
Swanson sleepily explained he had taken two hunters out the day before and that
both had got their rams and were already on their way home after sneaking out
of the desert under cover of darkness. On Aug. 13 the two spoke again via the
construction-company office number and Swanson said he had spotted "the
goddamnedest sheep in the world" and that Halstead would have to come
earlier. Besides, he said, Halstead had said he was in good shape, and this
sheep was in an area that would require a lot of walking in heat up to 120�.
Swanson said he had several poorly conditioned "sportsmen" he would
take into easier country on Halstead's reserved date, the 13th, and Halstead
agreed to fly out 10 days early.
Late on the night
of Sept. 3 Halstead deplaned at the Ontario, Calif. airport and was met by
Swanson and one of his guides, Ray Pocta. Swanson apologized and said he had
another client, this one from New Jersey, and that Pocta would guide Halstead
into an area where there were several exceptional rams, including the
"goddamnedest" one. The three men got in a pickup truck with a camper
body and drove to Swanson's home in Yucaipa. On the way, Swanson told Halstead
that he had a lot of clients in the East, including eight or 10 from
Pennsylvania, mostly in the York area, and several in Vermont. One of the
Vermonters. he said, had killed a desert bighorn that might even rank in the
top 10 in the Boone and Crockett Club big-game records. It had been submitted
as having been shot under a Mexican permit.