On Saturday, Jan. 20, in seven southern Michigan counties, 141 state law-enforcement officers and 30 special agents of the Federal Government moved in on a seven-year-old poaching ring. In a classic early-morning-hour raid, 54 persons were arrested and tons of evidence—the carcasses of whitetail deer, rabbit, squirrel, duck, pheasant and partridge—were seized and transported to the State Fairgrounds in Detroit.
The raids and arrests resulted from the work of three undercover agents who had infiltrated the ring. It took them more than two years to identify the ring members and collect enough evidence to put them out of business. The arrests brought a halt to a million-dollar operation in which thousands of wild animals were poached from the southern Michigan countryside and taken to Detroit for distribution. The ring consisted of "killers"—which is what the actual poachers called themselves—collectors, wholesalers, distributors and customers. How many thousands of wild animals did they kill? An estimated 100,000. How big was the ring? According to Michigan Attorney General Frank Kelley, "bigger than anything ever seen before in this state or in recent U.S. history."
When news of the bust was released, sportsmen throughout the state were incredulous. The report of 1,000 ducks taken in a single shoot over a baited pond was staggering. A report of a pile of pheasant heads four feet high and eight feet long, found in a basement, astounded those who had recently hunted pheasant in Michigan. The poachers' claim that they could take 100 cottontail rabbits in one day was simply not believed by experienced rabbit hunters. The bragging of the so-called ringleader to an undercover agent that he had made as much as $200,000 a year on the operation fired the imagination.
As it turned out, some of the newspaper stories were exaggerated. For example, the 1,000 ducks in a single day. It actually took more than one day to kill that many. The ducks were taken by illegal methods during both fall and spring. Corn and a No. 1� steel trap placed on top of a muskrat house was almost a sure thing. Some of the biggest hauls were made out of season on baited ponds and marshes, using shotguns. These areas were baited with corn for about two weeks, or until a sufficient quantity of birds had been enticed. Then a few phone calls organized a "hunt." A single duck brought the ring $1.50 and had a street value at Detroit meat markets of $4.50.
Although the pile of pheasant heads actually consisted of only about 300, it was still an amazing number to Michigan pheasant hunters. According to undercover agents, pheasant was not a big item with the ring. There is no way to take the birds en masse, and the poachers got only $1.00 a pheasant. They sold for $2.50.
Rabbits were a big item. Based upon field observations, the undercover agents assert that it is possible for three or four men to take 100 cottontail rabbits in a single day—especially during the last two years when the rabbit cycle has been high and ferrets were used to flush rabbits out of burrows and brush piles. Then they were shotgunned. The use of ferrets is so illegal in Michigan that you can't even own one. They can be purchased in neighboring Ohio for about $50—a prudent business investment indeed, considering that each rabbit brought $2.50 to the killers. The meat-market price in Detroit was $5.50—and a skinned rabbit rarely weighs more than a pound.
Whitetail deer were taken at night using a spotlight, which freezes the animal and offers two glowing green eyes for a target. The killers generally worked four to a pickup, two in the cab, two in the open bed ready to shoot. For a whole deer, gutted but not skinned, they got $60 to $80. The market value was from $100 to $250 depending upon size. Venison sold for $4.50 a pound under the counter at your friendly neighborhood meat market. The very rich and the very poor were paying more for rabbit and venison than they would for prime sirloin.
The identification, infiltration and dismantling of the ring was no easy task. Late in 1976, both the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources received tips that a certain person was involved in the sale of wild game. This person turned out to be the so-called kingpin, who at this writing must remain unidentified. Let's call him Mr. Clean.
DNR Agent Charles Beegle and Fish and Wildlife Agent Rick Leach investigated and witnessed enough activity around Mr. Clean's garage (which served as a processing station) to convince them that something big was going on. At this juncture George Dahl, chief of DNR law enforcement, had the foresight to realize that ordinary DNR investigative procedures would only scratch the surface of the operation, so he arranged for Beegle to go under cover. J. B. Lang, another Fish and Wildlife special agent, was responsible for many of the technical aspects of the surveillance, i.e., setting up photographic and electronic recording devices, in addition to infiltrating the gang and making purchases, along with Beegle and Leach.
"The hardest thing was gaining their confidence," Leach says. "After almost a year of surveillance, we found out some of their favorite hangouts. Then we grew beards and started hanging out there ourselves." Beegle posed as a legitimate fox trapper, because Mr. Clean also dealt in furs.