Fourth in a series
Its efforts had sputtered on and off for several years, and had only intensified in the early months of the fateful year, but by May 12, 2010, law enforcement was finally ready to strike, amassing approximately 50 federal and state agents to assist in a raid of property owned by Paul and Alvin Sowinski of Sugar Camp.
The execution of federal search warrants that day stemmed from multiple searches without warrants of the Sowinski family’s 8,000-acre property, which includes a 4,000-acre farming operation. The agents, acting on overheard gossip and other tips from informants, had looked since 2007 for poisoned bait sites and poisoned wildlife, particularly for protected eagles and wolves.
By May 2010, after finding one poisoned bald eagle in 2007, they had found no other poisoned eagles – two other dead eagles were found not to be poisoned – and no poisoned wolves. But, according to the U.S. attorney’s office of the western district of Wisconsin, law enforcement had collected 41 other dead animals near nine bait sites, many of which, a government lab “concluded,” had been poisoned; all totaled, the government found somewhat fewer animals than it had agents participating in the May 12 invasion of the property, and fewer yet that had been poisoned.
During the warrants’ execution, agents discovered 38 more dead animals, the U.S. attorney’s office announced, including three bald eagles. Alvin Sowinski stipulated that at least one of those eagles was killed by the banned insecticide Carbofuran, though none of the animals seized during the raid that day was ever tested.
Alvin Sowinski, 78, made the stipulation in a plea agreement; as part of the same deal, his son Paul, 46, stipulated that he knowingly possessed a bald eagle discovered by law enforcement on May 12, 2010.
Each of the men pleaded guilty to a single count of misdemeanor possession of a bald eagle. They will be sentenced Aug. 4 in federal court.
The execution of federal search warrants often begins in the early morning hours, when people are sleeping, or just awakening, and can be surprised, and the Sowinski searches on May 12, 2010, were no different.
For example, DNR special investigator Steven Daye and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service special agent Steve Stoinski arrived bright and early at the home of Paul Sowinski.
They knocked on the door at 6:20 a.m., seeking an interview. Daye was proud of the firepower they had assembled.
“Many Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Conservation Wardens, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Special Agents and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Agents were scheduled to assist with the execution of these search warrants,” Daye wrote in his case report for that day.
A pause followed the agents’ early-bird knock on the door, Daye reported, after which they were greeted by “a shorter stature, stocky build, unidentified male white person believed to be Paul Sowinski.” Daye reported him to be “unkempt” in appearance, wearing a t-shirt, blue jeans, and no socks or shoes.
Sowinski told the officers he was busy readying his kids for breakfast and school, and, Daye reported, he asked them if they could meet a while later at Sowinski’s office.
The agents told him no.
However, they told him he could take a few minutes to get his “kids going, get dressed, and they would speak with Sowinski at Sowinski’s residence.”
A few minutes later, they reported, Paul Sowinski reappeared, apparently kempt this time, with a jacket, cap and footwear. By now, the special agents had changed their minds about where they would conduct the interview.
“Investigators agreed that they would meet with Sowinski at Sowinski’s office so as not to disrupt the morning activities of Sowinski’s family at their residence,” Daye wrote.
The agents followed him to the office, arriving at 6:32 a.m. In a conference room, Stoinski and Daye conducted their interrogation, telling Sowinski they were there as part of “the predator control program being conducted on the Sowinski Farms,” which Paul Sowinski said he had never heard of, other than shooting coyotes when they were discovered on the property.
The conversation soon drifted to the family’s practice of letting people trap on the land, a practice Daye said Sowinski did not appear to fully support. But, Sowinski allegedly told the agents, there were coyotes on the property and occasionally bear, and the agents said he talked about farming and problems with predators on the land.
But it was his father who was more worried about predators, Paul Sowinski allegedly told the agents, because years ago the state had allowed a bounty-predator control program but nothing existed now.
“Sowinski’s father [Alvin] feels there are too many predators consisting of coyotes, wolves, and bear and when the wolves came around that pushed Sowinski’s dad over the edge,” Daye summarized his recollection of what Paul Sowinski told him. “Sowinski is not aware of any poison or bait on their property and they only shoot or trap to catch predators.”
The interview was interrupted several times for business matters, Daye reported, and another interruption occurred at 7:25 a.m., nearly an hour into the interview, Daye wrote.
Yes, we have no recording, or rapport
During the break, special agent Daye realized his recorder wasn’t working, he wrote about himself in the third person, as agents tend to do, and hadn’t been working at all that morning. Daye finally turned it on.
When the interview resumed, the agents reiterated that their focus that day was the predator control program Paul Sowinski had never heard of. At that point, Daye wrote, Sowinski wanted to know if the conversation was being recorded.
“Part of it,” Daye replied.
What Sowinski didn’t know was that, because of special-agent error, none of the conversation had been taped until that moment and the ‘part of it’ to be recorded was just beginning. Even without that knowledge, Daye said Sowinski grew visibly angry at finding out about the recorder, saying he had not been aware he was being recorded, hadn’t been asked, and wanted an attorney.
Daye said he was sorry but the recording was necessary to ensure accuracy for everyone’s protection, he wrote. Daye said Sowinski remained agitated for a few minutes but subsequently agreed to continue talking and to do so without an attorney.
Stoinski then took charge of the interview, Daye wrote, basically because Paul Sowinski’s attitude toward Daye had soured appreciably: “From this point on, Stoinski lead (sic) the interview as Daye lost rapport with Sowinski.”
In the end, they might not have had an hour or more of the recording, or any rapport with their suspect, but the agents did get a confession. During the next phase of the interview, Daye alleged, Sowinski admitted knowing about the poison bait sites and finding and disposing of the bald eagle law enforcement had planted on the property.
“Sowinski acknowledged he had found a dead bald eagle near one of the baits and was responsible for removing it by tossing it in the woods then returning later on taking it out of the woods,” Daye wrote. “Sowinski claims he burned it.”
The revelation that agents had videotape of him moving the planted eagle no doubt helped motivate Paul Sowinski to admit the obvious. As the interview wound down, Daye wrote, Paul Sowinski “appeared troubled” when told they had captured him on video surveillance moving the bald eagle they had planted.
Sowinski also told the agents he had not placed any of the poison bait sites, and, though he was aware of them, he did not take any action to clean up the bait or correct the situation.
After getting the admissions they wanted, the agents told Paul Sowinski law enforcement would be executing seven federal search warrants, including his residence, Alvin Sowinski’s residence, the office and some outbuildings.
As they spoke, law enforcement personnel was searching his house, the agents informed Sowinski. The interview ended at about 9:36 a.m.
Securing the battlefield
The execution of the house search began long before that, though.
At about the same time Daye and Stoinski were first knocking on Paul Sowinski’s door that early morning, numerous law enforcement teams were gathering in a staging area, preparing to stake out and secure Paul Sowinski’s residence and its perimeter.
After Daye and Stoinski left the Sowinski home to head to his office, the command post signaled the staging area to set up secure posts. By all accounts, it was an impressive show of military-like deployment and checkpoints.
Here’s how warden Casey Krueger described it in his case report:
“As wardens arrived near the Sowinski farm, Warden Krueger observed numerous wardens holding security posts along the Sowinski property,” Krueger wrote. “Warden Krueger passed through the security post and briefly spoke with Warden Supervisor Rick Rosen concerning the status of the security on the property. Warden Krueger then proceeded to operate the state squad down Rolling Acres Road and proceeded to turn left onto Fire Lane Road heading towards the Sowinski residence.”
That’s when he encountered Theresa Sowinski, Paul Sowinski’s wife.
Theresa Sowinski was anything but calm, Krueger wrote. Indeed, if Daye and Stoinski had hoped “not to disrupt the morning activities of Sowinski’s family at their residence,” that hope was crushed when Theresa Sowinski noticed a multitude of armed law enforcement agents descending upon her property.
“As Warden Krueger was operating along Fire Lane Road, Warden Krueger observed a vehicle (Red GMC sport utility type vehicle), that Warden Krueger believed to be that of Theresa Sowinski operating at a high rate of speed approaching Warden Krueger from the opposite direction,” Krueger wrote. “Warden Krueger observed that the operator drove at a high rate of speed past the wardens as wardens were proceeding to the Sowinski residence.”
As the wardens exited their vehicles at the house, Krueger reported, they observed the red GMC heading back up the driveway, also at a high rate of speed.
“It should be noted that as the vehicle approached the wardens, Warden Price had to physically step out of the way to avoid being struck by vehicle,” Krueger wrote.
Speaking in a distressed voice, Krueger alleged, Theresa Sowinski wanted to know why the wardens were at her house. After the wardens informed her of the search warrants, a “verbally and physically upset” Theresa Sowinski said she was trying to take her children to school and wanted the wardens to wait until she was back before entering the home.
They gave her 20 minutes.
Computers and chemicals
The tight time frame agents gave her might help explain Theresa Sowinski’s alleged equally fast departure for the school, as might the location of multiple law enforcement vehicles.
“Theresa Sowinski immediately got back into Theresa Sowinski’s vehicle and left the area at a high rate of speed operating the vehicle on the Sowinski lawn, around the Sowinski house, and back onto the driveway,” Krueger wrote.
About a half hour later, Theresa Sowinski returned and, after having the warrant read, gave the officers entry into the home. She talked civilly with the officers, Krueger reported.
Officers began to ask questions about the family’s farming operation, though she told them she was not involved with the business, what with raising four children and running a potato exchange. She also told the agents she had never heard her husband talk about bears, coyotes, wolves, bobcats or other predator-like animals.
Ultimately, the officers told her they were at the house as part of an investigation of poison bait sites that were killing wildlife. Theresa Sowinski became pale and said she was going to be sick, Kruger’s report indicates.
Krueger asked if she was going to be OK – she was, she said – and then he asked her bluntly if she knew about the potential criminal enterprise they were investigating.
“Warden Krueger asked Theresa Sowinski if Theresa Sowinski had known anything about any of these events to which Theresa Sowinski rubbed her eyes and covered her face,” Krueger wrote. “Warden Krueger again asked Theresa Sowinski if Theresa Sowinski was okay or if Theresa Sowinski needed fresh air, to which Theresa Sowinski responded that Theresa Sowinski did not, that Theresa Sowinski was just upset that there had been poison out on the property.”
Krueger then continued to grill Sowinski about her possible involvement with the poison bait sites, as well as any potential involvement by her children, but said he was unable to obtain any “valuable information” from her that had not already been known.
And then the search began.
They went to the master bedroom, Krueger said, and rifled through files and photos and containers but found no relevant evidence. They headed to the basement, where they searched a freezer and seized venison found there. They seized a bucket labeled “anti-freeze.” They searched the garage and seized a container with “a yellow substance.”
“The evidence was gathered and placed in Special Agent Mays’ squad truck and the wardens left the area and headed towards the field operations trailer, which was located away from the Sowinski house on the property adjacent to the house,” Krueger wrote. “The officers left the Sowinski curtilage and traveled towards the DNR trailer.”
In his report, Krueger says he spent the remainder of the day assisting other search teams in the hunt for dead, poisoned animals. He said he found none, though other officers did.
Of course, Alvin Sowinski’s house and curtilage were also searched, with a similar outcome to the search of the Paul Sowinski house. The wardens proceeded to search each room, starting with the upstairs and finishing with the basement.
“In the basement, a large freezer chest was searched, where warden Nerva removed a representative sample of frozen packages of meat, some believed to be deer venison,” agent Jeffry Knorr wrote in his case report.
During the search, agents also found a bag of pesticide, a container of anti-freeze, and a green plastic coffee container with a residual amount of green liquid, believed to be anti-freeze, they reported.
Law enforcement agents were particularly interested that day in computers, and especially any files about chemical purchases that might be stored on them. That was true at Paul Sowinski’s house as well as at the Sowinski Farms offices.
Agents took two computers from the house, for example, a desktop computer in the dining/kitchen area and a laptop spotted on a couch in the living room. The also seized memory flash cards sitting on a shelf and from a digital camera.
With that evidence in hand, agents headed to the Sowinski Farms office “to seize the computers at that location,” as special agent Jenny Gibson put it in her report. There they found at least five desktop computers in various offices.
The officers began to shut down the computers to acquire an image of the hard drives, explaining to personnel that computers were within the scope of the search warrant. Gibson said she began to take apart the most important computer – hoping to finish with it first so as to minimize disruption to the business, she wrote – until she was ordered by phone with Stoinski to put it back together and reconnect it.
Stoinski told Gibson to work with a knowledgeable employee to download records of Sowinski Farms’ chemical purchases. The agents also seized a computer in Paul Sowinski’s office. In all, they seized three computer hard drives and four memory flash cards.
Anti-freeze, then lunch
During the day, officers carried out searches of other buildings on the Sowinski property, too. One team combed through a garage/shop related to the business and seized “various unknown containers,” a rabbit carcass and a picture of a Grizzly Bear. They also found containers of both marked and unmarked anti-freeze, which one agent wryly noted was “not uncommon” for a vehicle repair facility.
Agents also carried out a search of the farming operation’s scale house.
Not all the searches conducted on May 12, 2010, were via search warrant. Officers were also able to conduct several consent searches on the property.
For example, Alvin Sowinski signed a consent search form for a large block building with an attached pole building, a white pole barn and a silver pole barn. The elder Sowinski even accompanied the team and showed them around.
Alvin Sowinski also signed off on a consent search of several fields and woods. A bit later he gave agents permission to search a hanger building and “all of the fields and woods owned by Sowinski’s and the hanger building on Blueberry Lane.”
Alvin Sowinski was very cooperative, agen Lance Burns reported.
Despite the intensity of the day’s efforts, law enforcement managed some relief to what it has internally described as a “very dangerous mission.” After the search of the garage area, team leader David Oginski reported, the team headed for lunch.
Of course, buildings weren’t the only things being searched that day; so were the fields and woods on the Sowinski farms.
In addition, other teams of agents were fanning out into surrounding communities to interview potential witnesses, past informants and others rumored to have participated in activities on the Sowinski properties. Those interviews are next.
Richard Moore may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org