Third in a series
It was April 2010, the calm before a May storm, and federal and state agents in northern Wisconsin were putting the final touches on their investigation of alleged wildlife poisoning activities.
Specifically, the state Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service – mostly the DNR – had spent months carrying out an elaborate scheme to catch Paul and Alvin Sowinski killing predatory wildlife through various means, mostly by putting poison on and around bait piles.
They had sent in an undercover agent, for example, used mapping and aerial imaging programs, installed a secret video camera in the woods, and planted dead animals – and fake animal tracks – on the Sowinskis’ land in an attempt to get them to set out poison baits. More than that, they searched the property multiple times without warrants.
In effect, law enforcement was setting out its own bait piles to seduce the Sowinskis into their trap. The question is, did they poison due process along the way?
In the end, Sugar Camp residents Paul Sowinski and Alvin Sowinski, members of a family that owns a large Oneida County farming operation, each pleaded guilty to a single count of illegally possessing a bald eagle. They will be sentenced Aug. 4 in federal court.
In a plea agreement, Alvin Sowinski – who is 78 years old, not 65, as the U.S. attorney’s office had him listed – stipulated to possessing a dead bald eagle found during a massive search of the Sowinski property during a May 12, 2010, raid, which he agreed was killed by poison he placed in a bait pile. Paul Sowinski, 46, stipulated that he knowingly possessed a bald eagle discovered by law enforcement on May 12, 2010.
The charge is a class A misdemeanor. The Sowinskis have also agreed to pay $100,000 in restitution and face $100,000 each in fines and up to a year in prison.
According to the agreement reached with federal prosecutors – a federal judge must sign off on the deal and could reject it – Alvin Sowinski laced bait piles around the Sowinskis’ Sugar Camp property with, among other things, Carbofuran, an insecticide banned since 2009 precisely because of the threat it poses to wildlife.
Preparing for the end game
By April 13, 2010, after months of law-enforcement digging, the agencies were preparing for their end game and assessing the cache of evidence they had collected.
For example, agents reported finding at least nine bait sites containing the remains of beavers and white-tailed deer, as well as processed meats. One of the bait sites contained antifreeze in a coffee container, according to the U.S. attorney’s office.
All totaled, by April 13, law enforcement had found 18 crows and ravens, three chickadees, one nuthatch, one turkey vulture, one blue jay, five coyotes, one bobcat, one skunk, one red squirrel, and three ermine, all dead at or near the bait sites. In addition, the U.S. attorney’s office stated, law enforcement found the remains of two bald eagles and one rough-legged hawk in another area of the property believed to be located near a bait site from the previous winter.
The USFWS subsequently tested some of the bait and 22 of the animals at its forensic laboratory. Some of the bait contained Carbofuran and some of the animals were also determined to have been killed by the insecticide. Curiously, though, the lab was unable to detect Carbofuran or any other poison in the two eagles or in the rough-legged hawk.
It was the eagles, though, the agents were most interested in. For one thing, the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act makes it a crime to take or possess an American Bald Eagle. For another, while investigators’ interest at times had turned to the potential killing of wolves and black bears, an eagle found on the Sowinski property in 2007 had tested positive for Carbofuran poison.
Eagles had thus remained at the forefront of investigators’ scrutiny. They even planted a dead eagle at a bait site on March 24, 2010, along with a surveillance camera, “to make it appear as if it had died close to this pile to alert anyone who may be responsible for this suspected poison to see what they would do with this eagle,” a case report states. “Information has it that the primary suspects of this investigation, members of the Sowinski family, have shot eagles in the past.”
On March 30, agents returned to the property to check on the surveillance tape. They found nothing really new on the property that day, but they did notice the eagle they had planted was gone. The surveillance camera showed an adult and a younger, smaller person removing the eagle and discarding it.
The eagle was subsequently located in a different spot and left there, along with a new surveillance tape.
The tales they tell
As March gave way to April, DNR and USFWS agents continued to glean not only information from the woods but hearsay from local informants, and they did not treat the latter as April Fools’ jokes, either.
Indeed, one overheard conversation might have been anonymous, gossipy and vague, but it was enough to send DNR and federal agents back onto the Sowinski property for another search without a warrant.
For example, on April 7, an informant contacted DNR agent Patrick Novesky about possible illegal activity in the Sugar Camp area, Novesky reported. The source told Novesky he or she would spill the beans if the informant’s identity would remain confidential, and Novesky assured the person it would.
The informant proceeded to recall an overheard conversation about a week earlier in which a female employee of the Cookery, a local cafe, had talked about seeing two wolves in Tamarack Fields, in an area owned by Sowinski Farms.
“Another unidentified male customer at the cafe then stated ‘they (the wolves) won’t last long there’ and talked about the owners of Sowinski farms, Paul and Alvin Sowinski, killing wolves that frequent the area by shooting them,” Novesky’s case report stated.
The informant then told Novesky he had heard more recently that the wolves had been caught in traps on Paul Sowinski’s property. The informant said one wolf died in the trap; the other, killed and buried on the property, according to the informant’s information.
Novesky wanted to know what kind of trap was used, but the informant wasn’t sure, and Novesky wanted to know who the trapper was. The informant gave Novesky the name of a local resident, Novesky reported.
The law enforcement net was suddenly widening, and, on April 13, DNR investigators David Goldsworthy and Steven Daye, along with USFWS agent Steve Stoinski, embarked on yet another trip to the Sowinski property, this time to see if they could find the dead wolves.
They could not. But they did notice that the dead eagle they had previously left on March 30 was now removed completely, and they retrieved their surveillance camera to see if they could identify who removed it.
In addition, they discovered a beaver carcass with dead flies on it, a sure sign of poisoning to the investigators, as well as a coyote they described as lethargic, another sure sign to them it was poisoned, and so they decided to kill it.
“It was agreed upon by investigators that it was very likely that this coyote had consumed some of the poison bait and the coyote was euthanized by Goldsworthy, then placed in plastic bags, and carried out for testing at a later date,” Daye wrote in his case report.
While there, the agents decided they might as well check another area that had not been checked for some time – a gravel pit. Along the way in and out, they collected more dead animals and discovered a container with a green liquid they believed to be antifreeze.
At the gravel pit, they found “house hold garbage, evergreen brush, and a new looking cardboard box used for a gas grill.”
All that apparently fueled the agents’ suspicions: “This site needs to be further inspected at a later date,” Daye wrote in his report.
Fruit baskets as spy gadgets
Meanwhile, DNR agent Ted Dremel, working undercover as a trapper named Ted Gilbertson, made his way to Alvin Sowinski’s house to say his goodbyes.
Ostensibly, Dremel had been using Sowinski’s land to trap coyotes, with Alvin Sowinski’s permission, but in reality he had been planting dead animals and fake animal tracks on the property to try and induce Alvin Sowinski to set out poison bait sites.
On April 13, 2010, he had one final trick to try.
This time, before saying so long and farewell, Dremel showed up with a dead timber wolf and planted it under some debris. The plan was to tell Alvin Sowinski he shot it.
He found the elder Sowinski eating lunch.
“Upon walking into the living room area of the home, Dremel placed a fruit basket he had brought with him on a small table,” Dremel wrote in his case report. “Dremel explained the fruit basket was to ‘say thank you’ for giving Dremel permission to hunt and trap on his property. A. Sowinski thanked Dremel for the fruit basket and said ‘you didn’t have to do that.’ A. Sowinski added that ‘every (expletive) predator you take away from here is a plus for us.’”
In his case report, Dremel says he reminded Sowinski of some wolf tracks he had previously shown him and said the animal making those tracks is not “making tracks no more.”
Sowinski allegedly gave Dremel a thumbs up sign and said, ‘Good deal,’ according to Dremel’s report.
Dremel then said Sowinski began to reminisce about a “government trapper” coming onto the property years earlier and trapping a lot of predators.
“Dremel informed A. Sowinski that ‘it’ (referring to the timber wolf Dremel ‘shot’) was not a very ‘big one’ and that Dremel had placed the timber wolf in a ‘low spot’ and placed some debris over the animal,” Dremel wrote. “A. Sowinski said ‘good deal, yeah – we should have more guys like you around here to do that.’”
Dremel and Sowinski continued to talk about predators in the area, the case report continued, and the topic switched from timber wolves to black bears.
“A. Sowinski told Dremel, ‘The hell of it is, like with us here you know the bears are gonna be out in another couple of weeks combing the fields here looking for fawns,’” Dremel quoted Sowinski in his report as allegedly saying. “While sitting in the living room, A. Sowinski and Dremel continued to talk about bears and the strong appetite the animals have during the spring months.”
And because they were very hungry, Dremel alleged that Sowinski told him at one point in the conversation, the bears were easy to bait in the spring and would “eat anything edible, especially if you got meat of any kind.”
“A. Sowinski said Paul Sowinski picked up a road killed deer and dumped the animal in a gravel pit (on the Sowinski Farm) and the next day the deer was completely eaten by a bear,” Dremel wrote in his case report. “From previous conversations with A. Sowinski, Dremel has learned A. Sowinski has referenced ‘bait’ to mean poisoned meat he has placed on his property.”
Putting poisonous words in his mouth?
In addition to trying to bait Sowinski to set out poison bait, one of Dremel’s tactics had been to engage the elder Sowinski in conversations and activities designed to get Sowinski to incriminate himself, and Dremel was trying again during his fruit-basket foray.
Once again, however, as The Times has reported to be the case in previous reports, the incrimination was often Dremel’s interpretation of what Sowinski was saying, not what Sowinski actually said.
The issue is important because, while Sowinski had allegedly admitted explicitly to using poison in at least one conversation, the agent implies he is making extensive admissions of guilt, both about baiting and poisoning, rather than simply making an observation about bears’ appetites.
Perhaps Dremel’s version is correct, but it is not clear from the case report who first mentioned baiting, or whether Sowinski was merely responding to Dremel’s talk about baiting with comments about hungry bears.
What is clear is that Sowinski did not mention any poison even if he did bring up the subject of baiting, according to the case report. Instead, he simply continued to talk about the voracious appetites of bears.
“A. Sowinski also told Dremel about an incident in the fall of the year when he walked through a wooded area and chased a bear toward several of his friends who were hunting,” Dremel wrote. “A. Sowinski said his friends shot the bear and A. Sowinski had to field dress the animal for his friends. A. Sowinski recalled seeing a whole leg of a deer in the bear’s stomach.”
After talking about the possibility of other wolves or bears in the area, the two men walked into the kitchen, Dremel wrote.
Dremel asked Sowinski if there was anything he should do with the timber wolf. Sowinski allegedly told him no, that he would find it and take care of it. Sowinski also asked Dremel if the wolf was wearing a collar, and Dremel told him it wasn’t.
“‘Well then, but we will (check for a collar) in case someone’s around. There’s always people snooping around out there,’” Dremel alleged Sowinski to say. “A. Sowinski then agreed to come with Dremel so Dremel would be able to show A. Sowinski the location of the dead timber wolf.”
As they were preparing to leave, Dremel told Sowinski the wolf had scared him when it came into the bait before he shot it. Sowinski allegedly replied that Dremel was “pretty safe around here”: “You know, only a couple of times in the last twenty years we’ve even seen a warden around here.”
But when he did, Sowinski allegedly told Dremel, it was Sowinski who called the shots.
“‘I’ll tell you what I said,’” Dremel quoted Sowinski as recalling his encounter with the warden. “‘You know you better enjoy your stay here because I don’t want to see your (expletive) out here ever again.’ A. Sowinski said he told the warden he was going to smash his truck into the warden’s truck the next time he came to the farm. A. Sowinski said he told the warden Alvin Sowinski does the talking when he’s on his own property.”
As they were searching for the wolf – Dremel was having a hard time locating it – Dremel said he kept worrying to Sowinski that someone else would find it. That, Dremel related, got Sowinski started on the subject of the DNR wasting taxpayer dollars with fly overs to track wolfpacks.
“Them (expletive)s flying around with airplanes, burning up my (expletive) money – that should be going for game animals,” Dremel alleged Sowinski said.
Of guns and bird feeders
As they returned to the farm, Dremel says Sowinski continued to regale him with stories. Dremel’s narrative paints a picture of Alvin Sowinski as a man with an extreme anti-government bias.
Dremel underscores that latter characterization with a story Sowinski allegedly told him about a bear coming to his house and destroying bird feeders.
In the story, Sowinski allegedly told Dremel he decided to sit at the window with a shotgun after the bear came to his house two days in a row. His wife warned him he would get in trouble if he shot the bear, he told Dremel, and wanted him to call the DNR for assistance.
But Sowinski was defiant, Dremel related.
“A. Sowinski said ‘The DNR my (expletive), .... I’m loading my shotgun with buckshot and I’m gonna sleep there and the minute I hear that (expletive), I’m gonna shoot him and drag him right out the end of the driveway and call them (expletive)s and tell them to come and get it,’” Dremel wrote.
The bear never returned. But, as for shooting a bear that was destroying bird feeders, Dremel said Sowinski told him: “You live in the country, you have a right to do those things. You should have a right to do them without some (expletive) predator!”
That story ended secret agent Dremel’s contact with Alvin Sowinski. But he said Sowinski had parting words for him: “Anytime you want to come back and try out your eye, you’re welcome to it.”
And then, Dremel wrote, Sowinski winked at him.
And so, as of April 13, 2010, the gossip had all been tallied, the warrantless searches all conducted, the surveillance tapes all collected, the lab testing – what they chose to do – all finished, the undercover agent’s field work all done, the insinuations all compiled. There was just a few housecleaning chores to be completed before D-Day arrived.
On April 24 and April 25, DNR agents furtively recorded the license plate information of vehicles parked on the Sowinski property. They were all current employees of Sowinski Farms.
On April 27, agent Daye completed his long-awaited review of the surveillance tapes from the field camera. Of particular interest was who removed a dead eagle that law enforcement planted in the woods.
The tapes yielded no clue. The surveillance camera had recorded two “male white looking people” finding the eagle on March 25 with the obviously older male relocating it to a different spot, which law enforcement subsequently located and surveilled. The older male was later identified as Paul Sowinski.
On April 1, an older male driving a six wheeler with a dump box was recorded leaving the area, but no eagle was seen. On April 3, the camera captured the two “white looking males” and a third person entering the wooded area where the eagle had been discarded on March 25, but no one was seen leaving the wooded area.
Finally, on May 7, 2010, Goldsworthy emailed GPS coordinates of suspected bait sites and dead animal locations to a criminal analyst at the Wisconsin Department of Justice. The analyst fed the coordinates into a mapping and aerial imaging program to assist agents with quickly finding the locations during the upcoming planned execution of federal search warrants.
In other words, location information obtained by property searches conducted without warrants were going to be used to successfully facilitate a formal search of the property with warrants, the latter search leading to the only charges against the Sowinskis.
At long last, state and federal agents were ready to pounce. That story is next.
Richard Moore may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org