Thursday, August 09, 2007

Finding and Convicting Poachers Being Made Easier with High –Tech Techniques

Very good news. Looks like at least one person is serious about this.


Poaching probes go high-tech

REBECCA BOONEAssociated Press writer

CALDWELL, Idaho -- A knife with traces of blood found in a suspect's truck. A few hairs picked up at the crime scene hundreds of miles away. Authorities feared the victim was dead, perhaps already dismembered and eaten.

Dr. Karen Rudolph didn't have much time: She had to see if DNA on the bloody knife matched the scattered hair found on a rock outcropping in the Idaho wilderness. Two days later, working quickly but carefully on delicate equipment in a state laboratory, she had an answer for investigators. The DNA was a match.

The suspect was arrested and charged -- with poaching.

"Idaho poachers, until recently, were kind of your average Joe Bad Guy out in the woods doing small-fry things," said Rudolph, a wildlife laboratory biologist for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. "But now many of them literally hunt every day and night -- looking for antlers to sell so some rich guy in Jackson Hole can have an antler chandelier, or ingredients to make some strange alternative medicine or to get a trophy for bragging rights. It's become commercial."
That means more high-stakes court cases, she said, with defendants hiring top-dollar attorneys and juries expecting high-tech evidence.

And that's where Rudolph comes in.

As the state's only wildlife DNA expert, the 44-year-old Horseshoe Bend resident handles evidence for many of Idaho's poaching cases. At its simplest, Rudolph's job requires her to forensically determine the species, gender and identity of any given hunk of tissue, wayward tuft of hair, bone chip or dried splatter of blood.

In many cases, her work has helped prosecutors win convictions and encouraged defendants to plead guilty without going to trial, officials said.

In one recent case, Gary Lehnherr of McFarland, Wis., and Ronnie Gardner of Jerome, Idaho both pleaded guilty in federal court to illegally killing a trophy mule deer in Lincoln County with a high-caliber center fire rifle. Rudolph matched DNA in blood and hair found at the kill site -- in an area where only muzzleloader hunting was allowed -- with DNA from the deer's antlers, found in Lehnherr's home.

When the two are sentenced Oct. 15, they face up to one year in prison and $100,000 fines for the federal misdemeanor. Assistant U.S. Attorney George Breitsameter, who prosecuted the case, said Rudolph's work was "an important investigative tool" in the case.

DNA also helped crack the case of a man who was suspected of trying to poison wolves in Wyoming and Idaho with pesticide-laced meatballs. No wolves were found dead, but the tainted meat was suspected in the death of more than 20 pet dogs.

First, DNA from some meatballs found at a crime scene near Salmon was matched to DNA found in blood in Tim Sundles' freezer. The former Salmon resident, who now lives in Montana, was headed for trial but pleaded guilty after more DNA evidence turned up.

Investigators had taken samples of yellow snow found at the crime scene that day, suspecting that the person who left the meatballs had relieved himself at the site. They were right, Breitsameter said -- DNA from human cells found in the urine was a perfect match for Sundles.
In February, Sundles was sentenced to six days in jail, banned from federal or public land for two years and ordered to pay more than $1,500 in fines for violating the Endangered Species Act.

The use of DNA evidence in wildlife investigations is fairly new, but it's being used more and more, Breitsameter said.

"I'm not sure if that's because of people's expectations, but DNA is the modern fingerprint that people can use to attach an individual to a crime," he said. "It's only come up in the last couple of years or so here, and as it's available, it's required because it can either exculpate somebody or has the potential to inculpate them."

At the tiny cinderblock Fish and Game lab where Rudolph works in Caldwell, the mail may bring a cardboard tube filled with bear bait or a wrapped hunk of meat taken from someone's freezer. Game wardens often stumble on suspected crime scenes while they're hiking in the wilderness, Rudolph said, so they have to collect the evidence with whatever makeshift container they can find in their backpacks.

Sometimes Rudolph finds herself living something like a countrified scene from the TV crime thriller CSI.

"I've been given a bone saw that had tissue from different animals stuck between the tiny teeth of the blade. Once, I had to pick through a shop vacuum for tissue. We mostly found hair," she said. "I spent hours examining a pontoon boat for moose blood, because the officer had a tip that the poacher had been fishing the same day he killed a moose, and both the boat and the moose were transported in the same truck."

Some suspects, apparently unaware that investigators use advanced forensic techniques, get a little cocky and unwittingly help investigators, Rudolph said.

"One guy had a folding knife that a warden thought had been used in a poaching case, and when the officer asked for it, the guy laughed and said, 'Go ahead and take it. I've already cleaned it and boiled it and you won't find anything."'

Back in the lab, Rudolph was undeterred. She put a layer of aluminum foil down on the lab counter and slowly opened the folding knife. As she ran a tiny brush over the hinge, the bristles dislodged a speck of dried blood.

The sample was minuscule. But it was enough to run a DNA test and connect the knife to the poached animal, she said.

Few states have their own wildlife DNA lab, said Ken Goddard, director of the National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Lab. So Goddard's Ashland, Ore. lab handles wildlife evidence from across the nation, as well as for some international cases.

"Maybe 8 or 9 states have one person, but have never been able to get the funding for a real lab," Goddard said. "The idea is to take what works in a human crime scene and transfer it to wildlife crime management. All labs -- human or wildlife -- try to link the suspect, the crime scene and the evidence together. But in wildlife, you have to figure out first if a crime was committed. That can depend on time of day, what side of the road someone was on and even the type of weapon used."

Ultimately, the use of DNA evidence helps keep game wardens safe by minimizing their initial contact with suspects, Goddard said.

"Before, you had to catch them with the deer or poached bear and they're generally armed at the time. That can be terribly dangerous," he said. "Now they don't have to catch people in the act -- they can just gather the evidence later."

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