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THE BIGGEST U.S. RAID AGAINST MARKET HUNTING BAGS 53 TEXANS
In the expansive years before World War I hundreds of Americans were active as market hunters—men who legally killed and sold wildfowl. It was something of a luxury business, and it paid well. Not until America's population of ducks and geese had been decimated and the passenger pigeon blasted into virtual extinction did anyone reckon the actual cost to the country of such slaughter. Then in 1918 Congress passed the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and market hunting was outlawed.
But in areas where there is a taste for ducks and money to pay for them market hunters still persist. Texas is one such area and last week in six wealthy southeastern counties 60 agents directed by Lawrence Merovka, regional supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, staged the most extensive raid in the service's history. Fifty-three market hunters and buyers were arrested, accused of slaughtering an estimated 200,000 birds in the past two years for clients who paid up to $5 a carcass.
The coup produced a mixed bag. It included farmers, oil-field workers, ranch hands and a few specimens of more particular interest, notably Johnny Boortz, operator of the Top Hat nightclub near Houston, which often has featured game on its menu; Luther Berwick, an ex-convict who served 10 years for killing a onetime girl friend and her indiscreet male admirer; and Constable Ike Franks of Algoa, who declared: "This is all politics."
Franks's observation notwithstanding, the 53—most of them now free on $2,500 bond each—all face stiff fines and up to six months in prison for each offense. If convictions are obtained, principal credit will belong to a Fish and Wildlife undercover agent who for two years, at the possible risk of his life, circulated among the hunters and buyers and actually purchased 3,000 illegally butchered ducks.
The government started to build its case in 1954 when Anthony Friloux, an assistant United States District Attorney in Houston, wrote Merovka to report that he had received complaints of market hunting in his area. Merovka knew just what to do. He called Anthony Marc Stefano in California. Stefano, a stocky 47-year-old lawyer who habitually wears an uncreased Charlie Chan type hat to hide his bald head, is one of the Fish and Wildlife Service's more intrepid undercover agents. When Merovka hailed him, he had just cracked a market hunting ring in the San Joaquin Valley near San Francisco.
Stefano immediately moved to Houston, renting a five-room frame bungalow in suburban Bellaire. Representing himself as a jewelry salesman, a trade he had studied in connection with previous undercover work, Stefano began moving about in Houston's cafe society, giving special attention to clubs and restaurants that billed wildfowl dinners.
Once he had established acquaintanceships, Stefano began hinting that he might be in the market for bootleg birds. At the Top Hat, the government will contend, Club Operator Boortz introduced Stefano to Luther Berwick. Before long Berwick invited Stefano to join him in the field.
"We'd go hunting at 5 or 4 or even 2 in the morning," Stefano recalls. "We'd crouch down there near the rice breaks and wait for the ducks to come fluttering in. I always kept very close to Luther." One foggy dawn as they squatted in a rice field, Berwick spoke offhandedly, "You know, I'd rather kill a Federal man than take the rap for shooting ducks for market." Quietly Stefano answered: "Look, if you think there's an agent working this country let's get the hell out of here. You know I've been handling 100 to 150 ducks at a time...."