Second of two parts | Click here to read Part 1
Editor's note: Thanks to the persistence, research and reporting of author, Friends of the Elephant Seal docent and Cambria resident Christine Heinrichs, here is the story behind the shooting of three elephant seals at Piedras Blancas, 12 miles north of Cambria, on May 3, 2008.
From Carmel south, Highway 1 is a two-lane road, notorious for its winding switchbacks along the coastal cliffs. Once out of town, it's either open coastline, teetering on the edge of crumbling cliffs, or winding through Big Sur's dark redwoods. Occasional restaurants and art galleries beckon along the side of the road. It's been called "a wild coast and lonely, " conjuring ghosts of Indians, Spaniards, seafarers and gold hunters.
For Roy Torres, an investigator with the federal National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Agency Office of Law Enforcement (OLE), the drive is a chance to look over his territory and reflect on law enforcement at Marine Protected Areas, construction ac- tivities along the cliffs, jade collection violations, steelhead poaching on creeks, other threats to endangered species, abalone poaching and myriad other ways criminal acts can mar the natural resources.
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"I'm never doing only one thing, " he said.
The Piedras Blancas bluffs appear after the road emerges from the rocky cliffs into rolling rangeland. Foreboding feelings are left behind as the landscape opens into rolling hills, but it's still lonely and isolated. The Piedras Blancas Lighthouse marks a rocky point, a reminder of danger at sea.
The violent death of these seals tore through the peaceful ambience of tourists on vacation. The crime engendered creepy suspicion that spread along the West Coast. The day after the Piedras Blancas shootings, six sea lions were found dead at the Bonneville Dam on the Oregon-Washington border. The first report was that they had been shot. Rumors ran rampant that a crazed shooter was traveling up the coast killing seals — only to be belied two days later when necropsies of the sea lions showed that they had no gunshot wounds and had probably drowned in traps.
The Piedras Blancas crime was unprecedented. No one involved with marine mammal crime interviewed for this story had ever heard of elephant seals being shot. "Confrontations between fishermen and elephant seals are nonexistent, " said Leander Tamoria, a State Parks supervising ranger at that time, now retired, who arrived on the scene at 10 a.m. "It's not unusual to get a call about a dead sea lion washed up, but this was the worst-case scenario."
"Whoever shot the animals knew what he was doing, " Torres said. All three were kill shots to the head. The animals probably died within an hour of being shot. "This was a person who had no qualms about shooting large animals, " he said.
Sleeping with the seals
Torres decided to spend some time at the site. He slept in his truck, parked in the parking lot and at other nearby locations, several nights, on the chance that the shooter might return to kill some more. No one did. Alone in an isolated location, Torres was initially curious about what it was like out there at night. Under other circumstances, he would have enjoyed camping there. As it was, waiting for an armed person willing to kill, it was creepy.
"You're really alone out there, " he said.
Torres' investigation led him eventually away from the coast and into and across California's Central Valley into the mountains and back to the coast at Morro Bay.
When a crime doesn't have much evidence, investigators rely on other ways. People talk. Torres solved the case of Arrow, a Morro Bay sea lion shot with a crossbow in 2002, by following up on drunken boasts overheard in a local bar.
The elephant seal shooting case began to come together because of an overheard telephone conversation.
Joe, Sarah and Ben
In a Central Valley town southeast of Bakersfield, on Sunday morning, May 4, a man we'll call Joe for purposes of this story was visiting a friend — we'll call her Sarah — when her phone rang. The caller, a family member in Morro Bay, had seen news of the shootings in The Tribune. As Sarah talked on the phone, Joe overheard her express shock and dismay when she heard that her father was the one who shot the elephant seals.
Her father — we'll call him Ben — lived next door, so Joe walked over and knocked on the door. "I hear you are in some trouble, " Torres reported Joe said.
Ben brought out his high-powered rifle and three expended shells. He gave them to Joe and asked him to keep them for him. "Get this out of the house, " Torres said Ben asked Joe.
Joe brought the gun and shells back to his own home and put them with his own guns. No one reported the information to law enforcement. Sarah continued with her plans to get married the next weekend. Ben stayed for the wedding, then left for Louisiana, to stay with another family member.
The rifle stayed with Joe, who was having problems of his own. His marriage was falling apart, and his old dog was sick and dying. Despondent, he took the gun and led the old dog out into a nearby field and shot it. He found returning to his home unbearable. Drinking, he shot up his own house. Looking for solace, he retreated to a cabin owned by Ben's family in the mountains. Joe didn't mention to them that he was going there.
Neighbors to the remote mountain cabin noticed someone there and, knowing it wasn't the owners, called the sheriff. When the sheriff's deputy questioned Joe, he claimed the family had given him permission to use it. The family members had become wary of Joe's erratic behavior. When the sheriff called, they denied giving Joe permission. The deputy took him to jail.
Joe spent a few days in jail. During that time, Ben's family members decided to get the rifle back. They broke into Joe's house and took several of Joe's guns and Ben's rifle. When Joe got home and saw that, he was furious. He decided to tell the sheriff the story of the shootings. On May 23, he did.
Torres, in his Monterey office, got a call from the sheriff, reporting the elephant seal shooting information. Torres went out to collect that dog, now two weeks dead. Its body had decomposed, its putrefied remains scavenged by other animals. As disgusting as it was, he retrieved the bullet he'd need to connect the rifle to the elephant seal shootings.
Back to the lab
The Marine Mammal Center (TMMC) in Sausalito has collected data on gunshot wounds to marine mammals since 1991. Nearly all gunshot victims that are rescued there, over 97 percent, are sea lions, most shot by shotgun, presumably from a boat.
Often the shot or bullet shows up on X-rays, behind healed wounds.
"It's tough to prosecute these cases, " said William Van Bonn, director of veterinary science at TMMC. "Law enforcement officials often have to have another bullet from the gun to compare."
TMMC doesn't see many cases; only nine in 2010. Whether this is because fewer are being shot or the ones that are shot die undiscovered isn't clear. NOAA reported six California sea lions shot in 2008 and 14 in 2009 for San Luis Obispo, Santa Cruz, Monterey and Santa Barbara counties, combined. Sea lions typically come to the center because they're starving, not because of bullet wounds. Later, it's found out that some are starving because of damage from gunshots.
On television's "CSI" program, lab results are ready in minutes, if not seconds. The real world of wildlife crime investigation is different. Without a NOAA forensic laboratory, Torres has to rely on other law enforcement labs to analyze evidence.
The California Department of Fish and Game laboratory in Santa Cruz was willing to help in this case. Lab workers examined the heads and retrieved the bullets. A report completed May 20 used the weight of the fragments and the ¼-inch diameter of the bullets to identify the weapon as a high-powered rifle, possibly .223 caliber.
The bullets had hit bone and shattered when they hit the animals, damaging them too severely to connect them with a specific weapon — but they were the same kind of bullet as the one Joe, using Ben's rifle, used to kill the dog.
Torres and the sheriff in the county southwest of Bakersfield planned to persuade Sarah's new husband, Tom, who now had the high-powered rifle and other guns, to turn them over to law enforcement. A sheriff's deputy would approach Tom at his home early May 27. The deputy would question him sympathetically, telling him that he understood that Tom wanted to prevent Joe from doing any more damage, perhaps harming himself with the guns.
Torres watched from a distance as the local deputy talked to Tom. Torres was glad when he saw Tom bring guns to the front door and turn them over — but what Torres couldn't tell from his vantage point was that the guns weren't the ones he wanted. They were air rifles, not serious weapons.
Eventually, the persistent deputy was able to pressure Tom strongly enough to lead him to the back of Ben's property. Tom brought out the high-powered rifle, wrapped in plastic, hidden in dense brush. It was the gun Torres was looking for.
Now, with the gun connected to the crime, Torres had to establish that the gun owner, Ben, was the shooter. He interviewed local people to confirm that Ben was in Morro Bay the weekend the seals were shot. Ben, a former abalone harvester, often spoke up against restrictions on commercial fishing. Other fishermen, too, have fought limits on fishing, sometimes angrily.
"Animosity built up over the years over fishing restrictions, " said Torres. "That year, the salmon season was shut down and that infuriated this person."
The Sacramento River fall salmon run had collapsed the previous year. A few weeks before the elephant seals were shot, the salmon season was closed by the Pacific Fishery Management Council.
Elephant seals are rarely a target for fishermen. Some fishermen blame the decline in fisheries on marine mammals, especially sea lions. Elephant seals don't eat species commercial fishermen pursue. Elephant seals prefer Humboldt squid, which they catch deep in the ocean. They are deep divers, hunting at 1,000 feet and deeper. They eat fish as well, but the hagfish, rays and small sharks they eat aren't in demand for commercial catch. The elephant seals that were shot weren't competitors to fishermen in any way.
"I don't think that you will find fishermen who have any issue with elephant seals, " said Mark Tognazzini, who has fished from Morro Bay for more than 40 years. "What they're consuming isn't in this area. I've never seen or even talked to anyone who had any issues with elephant seals."
Ben's rifle and the bullets taken from the elephant seal heads and the dog were sent to the U.S. Fish&Wildlife Forensics Laboratory in Ashland, Ore, for analysis. The lab's report stated that the rifle "could not be ruled out" as the weapon. That made a sufficient case to bring to a federal grand jury for indictment.
As that process was unfolding, in July 2009, Ben, who had returned to the Central Valley, was reported dead of a heart attack. As abruptly as the seals were shot, the case was closed.
On legal advice, NOAA declines to release the name of the person ultimately identified by the investigation, because he died before NOAA was able to bring its case into court. The shooter would have been charged under the Marine Mammal Protection Act with as many as three counts of illegal "take."
The MMPA protects all marine mammals, including cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises), pinnipeds (seals and sea lions), sirenians (manatees and dugongs), sea otters and polar bears within U.S. waters. The act makes it illegal to take marine mammals without a permit. This includes harassing, feeding, hunting, capturing, collecting, or killing any marine mammal. The penalty for each count can be as much as $100,000 or one year in prison for each count.
Torres is confident the evidence he compiled would have been adequate to convict the man.
"One thing people do need to know, " Torres concluded, "is that when they commit a crime in a remote area, even though there are no witnesses and not much evidence, we do our best to solve the crime and hold those responsible accountable."
Cambria resident Christine Heinrichs is the author of "How to Raise Poultry." For more information on the elephant seal docent program, go to http://elephantseals.blogspot.com/.