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Dawn’s light spread slowly into overcast skies at Piedras Blancas on May 3, 2008. The only sounds were those of nature, peaceful sounds of surf washing across the beach, grunts from some of elephant seals slumbering on the sand, stray cries from gulls looking for breakfast — until three shots punctuated the morning mist, shattering the silence and the skulls of three seals.
Most of the Northern elephant seals at the crowded rookery slept on. The official count was 3,398 seals visible from the bluff that day. Nearly all were either adult females or juveniles, less than 6 years old. A dozen were large enough to be classified as subadults — not fully mature, but beyond juvenile, 6 to 8 years old. No adult males were on the beach.
They lolled on the beach, their only activities the annual molting, when their old skin peels off, revealing new skin underneath, and occasional scooting across the beach to parry with other seals or splash in the breakers.
Someone executed three of those young males that Saturday morning three years ago, leaving only the gulls as witnesses. An ensuing investigation, led by a federal investigator with the assistance of state and local law enforcement, connected an individual with the crime. But, before official charges could be brought and a trial held, a heart attack carried him off.
“Karma,” one member of the investigating team said.
Life on the beach
The seals started coming to Piedras Blancas about 20 years ago, their population soaring from about 12 in December 1990 to thousands by the mid-1990s. Now, seals are always on the beach, although they come and go individually, so it’s a constantly changing population. Thousands of people come to see the seals, year round.
The winter breeding season, January through March, is especially popular with visitors, what with pups being born every day. Males fight, mothers argue with each other, mating gives the public sex on the beach.
By May, it’s calmer. Adult females have regained the weight they lost nursing their fat pups. Youngsters come on to the beach to rest. Mostly, it’s sleeping and flopping around.
Elephant seals are deepwater animals. They spend most of their lives diving to depths of 1,000 feet and deeper. One large male was recorded at nearly a mile down—and that seal was still headed down when the depth meter stopped working.
Because they’re mammals, they have to come to the surface to breathe. They do that briefly, for two to four minutes, between dives, for months at a time. They migrate, north to the Aleutians and west out into the Pacific, spending eight to 10 months of the year at sea. The two to four months they spend on the beach are for resting, breeding and whatever life means to elephant seals.
Scientists estimate 15,000 seals now come to this section of beach during the year. Over 4,100 pups were born in the winter 2011 birthing season.
Scene of the crime
That May morning in 2008, Kathryn Karako, a volunteer for Friends of the Elephant Seal, arrived before 7 a.m. to count the seals. It’s a regular count she does twice a month during the months the animals aren’t breeding.
As usual, she began the count at the south end, working her way north. By 8 a.m., she was on the trail at the north end. Although her attention was focused on counting, something odd caught her attention. One of the seals among the jostling youngsters wasn’t moving.
“There were a lot of young seals in the area, sand and movement,” she said.
Next she noticed something dripping down the side of another seal’s head. The seals around it were smeared with something. She got her binoculars to take a closer look. That was when she saw the hole in its head. She raised her eyes and saw a third seal in a pool of blood. The horror of what she was seeing became real.
“It was definitely a shock,” she said. “I never thought I’d come across something like that. It’s shocking that we had that kind of violence against the seals in this area.”
The three young males, between 2 and 5 years old, weighed around 1,000 pounds each. They had been executed, each by a single shot to the head.
They lay about 25 to 30 yards below the entrance to the trail at the north end of the parking lot. They were visible from the parking lot, leading investigators to surmise that the shooter didn’t even get out of his truck to shoot them. Propping his high-powered rifle between the door jamb and the truck body over the open door’s hinge would give him a stable place to brace for the shot. The expended brass shell casings would have been conveniently discharged into the passenger side of the truck.
“Only the rifle barrel would have protruded from the truck,” said Todd Tognazzini, then a California State Fish & Game Warden, now a lieutenant, who was on the investigating team. “He didn’t have to get out of the truck, so he wasn’t exposed to potential witnesses.”
Docents arrived as usual, their bright blue jackets making them easy for visitors to identify. Karako pointed out the dead seals to the first who arrived. He called the office on his cell phone to report the shootings.
Typically for that time of year, the marine cloud layer concealed the sun. The temperature never got above 55 degrees. As is usual, the air was calm with an occasional breeze. The wind comes up in the afternoon.
Tognazzini arrived around noon. He closed the gate to the trail and marked it off-limits with yellow crime-scene tape. He examined the dead animals. With more than 20 years in wildlife law enforcement, he drew some conclusions about how the shooting had happened. The weapon was a high-powered rifle, probably a .223 caliber or 22-250.
“Judging from the angle of the wound, they were probably shot from the parking lot,” Tognazzini said. “I surmised that it happened around first light, when no one was around. It’s a very easy shot for a rifle with a scope.”
He searched for shell casings but didn’t find any. He hoped none of the visitors had taken one away. The following day, a team of volunteers with metal detectors went over the area for shell casings or other evidence. They found nothing.
“Whatever physical evidence I had was in the animals,” he said.
The animals were too large to move. The heads of the animals, with the bullets that had killed them, were the only crime scene evidence he could collect. He cut the heads off, using a saw to cut through the necks. The heads, 60-80 pounds each, weighed nearly over 200 pounds collectively.
He bagged them as evidence and took them to a Department of Fish & Game evidence freezer in San Luis Obispo, where they were kept in until they could be examined.
Special Agent Roy Torres arrived in San Luis Obispo County from Monterey the following day, Sunday. The federal National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Agency Office of Law Enforcement (OLE) took charge of the investigation. Elephant seals are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, but the crime’s severity was compounded because it took place in a National Marine Sanctuary.
Torres’ territory covers the coast from San Luis Obispo north to San Mateo, about a quarter of California’s 840 miles of coastline — counting all the bays and inlets, about 3,427 miles of shoreline.
Torres, one of two OLE agents in NOAA’s Monterey office, led the investigation. He and a field agent handle criminal investigation of wildlife crimes. Crimes may be violations of the Endangered Species Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Magnuson- Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, the Lacey Act and the National Marine Sanctuary Act.
“There are not enough people to do the work,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons this took so long to solve.”
The case joined several other open investigations he was working on. On Torres’ recommendation, NOAA offered a $5,000 reward. The decision on whether to offer a reward is made depending on how serious and egregious the crime is, whether a reward might encourage someone to come forth with evidence.
“This is like Yosemite or Yellowstone, except it’s marine,” he said. “We consider it analogous to a national park, but marine.”
Torres drove his truck south on Highway 1 towards the crime scene, the route he always takes when he gets a call from San Luis Obispo County.
Cambria resident Christine Heinrichs is the author of “How to Raise Poultry.” For more, go to poultrybookstore.com.