Six Arrested in Kentucky in Coyote and Fox Trafficking Ring
| Lex18 News Article
April 10, 2009 12:20 PM EDT
April 14, 2009 12:32 PM EDT
Kentucky and West Virginia conservation officers arrested six people, served summonses on two others and seized eight illegally possessed coyotes Friday after an investigation into a coyote and fox trafficking ring that has been underway for almost two years.
In all, the suspects face at least 831 counts of illegally buying, selling or possessing wild-caught foxes and coyotes, and in one case, cruelty to animals.
The 20-month undercover investigation, code named "Gyp-Sum", looking into the illegal practice of buying, selling and holding wild-caught foxes and coyotes for the purpose of sale, came to a head as officers served warrants or summonses in five Kentucky counties and one out of state. Officers in Alabama, Virginia, Indiana, South Carolina and Florida contributed to the investigation.
Forest D. "Tony" Hall, 69, of Sitka in Johnson County, Elbridge Cook, 62, and Michael Ellis, 62, both of Corinth in Grant County, James Auxier, 41, of East Point in Johnson County, and Charles Creech, 73, of Beattyville in Lee County were arrested in Kentucky.
Officers serving a summons to George Hill, 57, of Waco in Madison County, arrested him instead when they found him to be illegally in possession of eight coyotes. Thomas Hymer, 78, of Irvine in Estill County, and Clustena Hall, 70, of Sitka, were served summonses to appear in Madison District Court and Johnson District Court, respectively. The out of state arrest warrant remained unserved and officers expect to complete that arrest this weekend.
Operation Gyp-Sum was triggered in July 2007 when Virginia officers notified Kentucky officers that Howard Blevins of Asheville, NC, a principal subject in a multi-state investigation of persons trafficking in wild foxes and coyotes was making frequent and routine stops at certain locations in Kentucky. Officers involved in that multi-state investigation provided Kentucky officers with GPS map coordinates of Blevins' visits and phone numbers of persons he was contacting.
Kentucky officers were assisting in several other states' investigations at that time, and in November 2007, Alabama Wildlife and Fisheries officers closed their own fox and coyote trafficking investigation with 18 arrests in three states, including Blevins for his involvement.
For the past 20 months, Kentucky undercover officers say they witnessed the illegal buying, selling and possession of live foxes and coyotes. They also witnessed Creech cutting the tails off live coyotes destined for use in chase pens.
"Officers in other states have heard of that practice, but this is the first time someone has actually demonstrated it to an officer," said a Kentucky undercover officer who witnessed the mutilation. "The tail is the first thing the hounds grab, so cutting it off makes it harder for the dogs to catch the coyote and extends the chase."
Creech is charged with seven counts of cruelty to animals, nine counts of illegally possessing wildlife without a permit, and seven counts of illegally buying wildlife. He was arrested and faces fines up to $15,000 and up to seven years in jail.
The trade in foxes and coyotes stems from the practice of turning packs of fox hounds loose inside fenced enclosures ranging in size up to several hundred acres to chase foxes or coyotes. The chases may begin about sundown and may continue through noon or so the next day. Officers say some chase pen operators need a continuous supply of foxes and coyotes and will pay as much as $100 or more for each animal.
That sets off alarms for wildlife biologists concerned about creating a commercial black market in Kentucky for the sale of coyotes and foxes to running pens.
"A market for coyotes in Kentucky would encourage people from out of state to bring coyotes here to sell," said state furbearer biologist Laura Patton. "Complaints about problem coyotes in urban areas and by livestock farmers are increasing. We need to reduce the potential for coyotes coming into Kentucky.
"Bringing coyotes or foxes into Kentucky puts our native wildlife populations at risk of contracting diseases that currently exist only in other states," said Patton. "These diseases include canine rabies and echinococcus multilocularis, a species of tapeworm that can infect humans and pets, spread to the liver, lungs and brain, remain undetected for years, and then cause death."
The commercial trafficking of live-trapped coyotes inside Kentucky also runs the risk of spreading canine distemper, parvovirus, rabies, brucellosis, tapeworm, canine heartworm, canine hepatitis or mange by taking it from one area and spreading it to other wildlife, domestic pets and livestock.
"Even the hounds that come into contact with these foxes and coyotes during the chase are at risk to contract and become carriers of these diseases," said wildlife biologist and state furbearer program coordinator Steven Dobey. "They can carry it back with them and possibly infect other pets and humans they contact, as was the case when the coyote strain of rabies was discovered in Alabama and Florida and linked to the illegal importation of coyotes from Texas for use in chase pens." Humans were exposed and dogs had to be destroyed.
"Disease transmission aside," said Patton, "many of these animals were trapped as nuisance animals. But a nuisance coyote trapped in one county and moved to another location can become someone else's nuisance when it escapes.
"It is illegal to buy or sell wild-caught animals in Kentucky," Patton said.
"The lessons taught by history are clear," said Kentucky Fish and Wildlife Director of Law Enforcement Col. Bob Milligan, "about how wildlife populations can be devastated when people develop an illegal commercial market for them. This investigation plainly shows how quickly a black market can develop."
Tony Hall faces up to $135,000 in fines. He was arrested and charged with 67 counts of illegally buying wildlife, 20 of illegally selling wildlife, and 96 of possessing wildlife without a permit.
Cook, charged with 14 counts of illegally assisting in the sale of wildlife, 111 counts of illegally selling wildlife and 164 counts of illegally possessing wildlife for the purpose of sale, was arrested and faces a maximum of $282,000 in fines.
Ellis is charged with 73 counts of illegally assisting in the sale of wildlife, 18 counts of illegally selling wildlife and 39 counts of illegally possessing wildlife for the purpose of sale. He was arrested and faces potential fines totaling $93,500.
Auxier was arrested and charged with 36 counts of illegally assisting in the buying and selling of wildlife. He faces up to $18,000 in fines.
Hill is charged with four counts of illegally buying wildlife and 11 counts of illegal possession. He was arrested and issued a summons and faces up to $7,500 in fines.
Hymer is charged with four counts of illegally assisting in buying wildlife. He was issued a summons and faces up to $2,000 in fines.
Clustena Hall is charged with five counts of illegally possessing wildlife and faces up to $2,500 in fines.
Huffman is charged with 15 counts of illegally possessing wildlife and 15 counts of illegally buying wildlife. He was arrested and faces up to $22,500 in fines.
Last revised: May 1, 2009