By JAMES HALPIN
Anchorage Daily News
June 08, 2008
Once they found the victim's remains, they returned to the scene six times to collect evidence. They interviewed witnesses and scoured the crime scene by land and air. They measured tire tracks. They collected samples for DNA testing.
And, they say, they determined who killed a moose they believe was shot illegally inside a national park.
Alaska's Denali National Park rangers used DNA testing this spring to build the case against Jeff King -- the first time in years park officials have turned to such high-tech forensics, said chief ranger Peter Armington. He wouldn't elaborate on why the techniques were used in this case, citing the pending trial.
King, a four-time Iditarod champion, declined to comment on the charges, though he has pleaded innocent to illegally killing the moose and called the accusations "bogus."
Other wildlife officials say such thorough investigations -- even for misdemeanors -- are not the exception. They are the rule. But while the occasional fish and game violator is sentenced to prison time, more common are fines, probation and the seizure of items used to commit the violations, said Stan Pruszenski, special agent in charge of the Fish and Wildlife Service in Alaska.
Is it worth it?
"I think it's society that makes that decision," said Ed Espinoza, deputy director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Forensics Lab in Ashland, Ore. "The legal system requires you to have a degree of certainty before you prosecute a case. If you're going to punish somebody, you've got to make sure you're right."
King's attorney, Myron Angstman, said the level of scrutiny in the case seems to be in line with that of a typical wildlife investigation -- even one involving misdemeanor violations.
"Both state and federal fish and game cases seem to have a greater level of investigation than many of the corresponding (misdemeanor) crimes that do not involve fish and game," Angstman said.
Using DNA to investigate and prosecute wildlife violations is hardly novel. Such evidence started showing up in Alaska courts during the early '90s, and Espinoza's lab has been in business for nearly 20 years.
It's the only one-stop-shop facility of its kind in the world, and because of its caseload, it generally only has time to handle federal cases: The lab's 25 analysts process between 700 and 800 cases each year, examining between 5,000 and 7,000 pieces of evidence, he said.
Law enforcement efforts focus on areas perceived to have the biggest problems. For example, Denali's north border, which gets significant hunting pressure, is a target for increased hunting patrols and potentially increased scrutiny during an investigation, Armington said. That location is where King's kill allegedly took place. His case is scheduled to go to trial Aug. 18.
The park has 11 law enforcement rangers. About three or four wildlife violations are reported each year, with others likely going unseen and unreported across the vast, remote expanses of the park its rangers can't routinely patrol, he said.
Improvements in technology can help law enforcement track down poachers long after a kill in such situations. But the improvements can also work against investigators, said Capt. Burke Waldron, operations commander for the Alaska Wildlife Troopers.
The Garmin Rino two-way radio, for example, has features of a GPS locator that unscrupulous pilot guides could illegally use to signal the location of game to their partners on the ground, Waldron said.
To counter such high-tech hunting gear, wildlife troopers are using higher-quality cameras for better documentation of violations in the field.
Troopers investigators have fingerprinted weapons, run ballistics tests on ammunition, cast foot and tire prints and even matched human DNA from discarded cigarette butts while pursuing game crimes, Waldron said.
The cost of running a DNA test on animals is similar to what it costs in a human homicide case, he said. But wildlife cases often involve fewer samples and are cheaper as a result.
Federal game officials sometimes use covert tactics like undercover hunts to nab illegal guiding operations, and staging buys -- either on the streets or online -- of illegal animal parts.
Troopers try to focus their energy and resources on wasteful cases and those that have the largest impacts.
For the feds, the priority is crimes involving commercialization of game products -- cases involving things like poached black bear gall bladders or walrus tusks being sold, Pruszenski said.
"We still go through a lot of work," he said. "We have the same rules as the homicide guys do."
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