Fifth in a series
In the eyes of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, its wardens and special agents were carrying out a ticklish and precarious mission when they raided the Sugar Camp property of Paul and Alvin Sowinski with the assistance of 50 agents in May 2010.
They had been at it a long time, trying to nail the Sowinskis for illegal predator killing, having first placed surveillance cameras – and turning up nothing – on the Sowinski property in the early 1990s.
This time, law enforcement was going all out. On May 12, 2010, they executed seven federal search warrants related to suspected wildlife poisoning on the property.
That latest operation, based on tips, gossip and hearsay, again included a surveillance camera in the woods, but added new elements of self-described trickiness, including sending in an undercover agent to try and bait the Sowinskis themselves, planting dead animals and making fake animal tracks in the ground, not to mention the use of air and photo surveillance to locate suspected poison sites.
Here’s how DNR communications specialist Ed Culhane summarized a Jan. 13, 2014, DNR Northeast Regional Management Team meeting in an Office of Communication meeting-summary document:
“OC is working with USFWS (United States Fish & Wildlife Service) and the US Attorney’s office on a release regarding the legal case stemming from a DNR investigation into massive, horrendous wildlife poisoning in Oneida County,” Culhane wrote. “A tricky and dangerous piece of work by our wardens and our goal is to make sure DNR is properly credited.”
By now, the DNR has surely been credited with the operation, but just how massive was the wildlife poisoning?
Apparently not very. In the end, the approximately 50 agents helping in the operation that May day were more than the number of dead animals law enforcement had found in the previous three years of investigation, indeed in the previous 20 years of surveillance. And more yet than the number of poisoned animals.
How dangerous was it?
Apparently not very. The agents were greeted by suspect Alvin Sowinski, a potato farmer in his 70s, who showed them around and signed consent warrants for searches of other buildings, fields and woods.
In the end, Alvin and his son Paul each pleaded guilty to a single count of illegal possession of a bald eagle.
As massive as the onslaught was on the Sowinski property, it was not contained there. Law enforcement also branched out into neighboring communities to interview family, friends and some employees – the names of those they had linked to the investigation almost entirely by word-of-mouth hearsay, not by forensic investigation.
Nobody else was ever charged, and it doesn’t appear most people were ever interviewed again, at least not according to records received by The Lakeland Times from the DNR in an open-records request.
But that didn’t stop the DNR from applying pressure or engaging in innuendo in their case reports.
For example, though one of Sowinski’s acquaintances was not a serious suspect in the case – no search warrant was obtained for that person or for any others listed in the case reports as interviewed that day – agents nonetheless arrived at the person’s house at 6:30 a.m., just 10 minutes after they had roused the family of Paul Sowinski.
The investigators commenced their interrogation. They confirmed that the person had in the past trapped the Sowinski land. They accused the acquaintance of lying when the person denied giving any beaver carcasses to the Sowinskis, after which the acquaintance admitted to giving them two.
Then they got to the nub of their questions: Did this acquaintance know of any poisoning going on? With this question, the wardens reported, the acquaintance grew evasive, though in the previous sentence they reported the person to have adamantly denied using poison. The acquaintance also did not know personally of any poisoning, the wardens alleged the person to say.
The DNR then asked the acquaintance if the acquaintance had heard rumors that the Sowinskis were using poison, and they alleged the acquaintance acknowledged hearing such rumors. But no written statement to that effect exists.
“Later when the (acquaintance) gave a written statement (the acquaintance) recanted this and said (the person) had heard that poison was being used in the area,” the wardens wrote in their case report of the interview.
Had the person seen dead animals on the property? A dead wolf eight years earlier, the acquaintance allegedly said, and a crow on (the acquaintances’s) property this year.
“(The person) said (the person) did not see any meat baits or other dead animals on Sowinski’s property,” the case report stated.
The acquaintance summed up what the person told the wardens in a written and signed statement at the end of the interview, and was more emphatic than evasive:
“”I did not see any dead animals out there (Sowinski’s property),” the statement read. “I did see a dead wolf in a fire lane around eight years ago. I just drove past it. I did have a dead crow on my property this winter. I heard rumors there might be some poisoning going on in the area. I assumed the poisoning was going on to kill the wolves. I am not doing any poisoning and do not know anything specifically about poisoning. I did not see meat baits on Sowinski’s property.”
At 3:01 that day, wardens interviewed a Sowinski family member, and a common theme began to emerge that would run through all the interviews that day: Nobody had seen any definitive poisoning on the Sowinski property or heard anything other than rumors.
The family member, for instance, said poisoning wouldn’t be permitted.
“(The relative) denied knowing anything about poisoning of animals and stated that (the relative) had heard no rumors or talk of any type of poison,” the interview case report states. “(The relative) stated that (the relative) wouldn’t tolerate this behavior because (the relative) had hunting dogs and (the relative) would not want them to get into something that would make them sick.”
The relative told the warden – cordially at all times, the warden reported – that while the relative lived near the potato farm, the relative had nothing to do with the farming operation.
The wardens pressed on.
“(Warden Bruce) Knepper asked (the relative) if (the relative) had ever observed, heard of, assisted with, or had ever been asked to participate in predator poisoning on (the Sowinski) property,” the case report stated. “(The relative) answered no to all these questions.”
One person interviewed that day did report what he considered potential mischief, though even he said he couldn’t be sure what he was seeing and dismissed it in his mind: Anthony Lorbetske of Rhinelander.
The wardens said the purpose of the interview was to clarify Lorbetske’s observations while hunting on the Sowinski property.
“(Warden Pat) Novesky explained to Lorbetske that they were investigating complaints against the Sowinskis for poisoning wildlife in and around their property,” the case report of the interview states. “Novesky continued by stating that he was aware of rumors that Lorbetske had observed a bait site (possibly containing poison) and sick wildlife while hunting on property owned by Sowinski. Novesky asked Lorbetske to recollect those details from that observation.”
Lorbetske told the wardens that he had permission from Alvin and Paul Sowinski to access the property for turkey hunting on land owned by Lorbetske’s great grandfather.
“Lorbetske stated that either in 2007 or 2008, while accessing the property (near the tamarack fields) he came across a bear that stumbled around and appeared to be sick,” the case report stated. “Lorbetske stated that he had seen the bear on 2 occasions (within a week of one another) and that the bear didn’t act like a normal bear which Lorbetske presumed would typically run off after being scared.”
Lorbetske told the wardens that his “brother-in-law and Oneida County chief deputy John Sweeney” witnessed the second occasion with the bear.
“Lorbetske stated that he wasn’t sure if the bear was poisoned or if the bear was simply lethargic from its winter hibernation,” the case report stated. “Lorbetske stated that he wrote it off as a ‘groggy bear’ awakening from hibernation.”
Lorbetske went on to tell the wardens he found a pile of fish and fish bones that he presumed was a bait site.
“Lorbetske stated that the Sowinskis fish on the West side of the road from where he located the pile of fish and bones so he didn’t think much about it,” the report stated.
Finally, Lorbetske said he had heard rumors that the Sowinskis were poisoning but that he never saw or had direct information from them that they were.
Who was the confidential informant?
Back in 2008, wardens had stated in another case report, a “confidential informant” had contacted the DNR about observations made on the Sowinski property in the spring of 2007 and told warden Dave Goldsworthy about the CI’s encounter with a black bear.
It’s unclear who the confidential informant was, but core parts of Lorbetske’s and the CI’s stories are strikingly similar. Both the confidential informant and Lorbetske were on a hunting trip on the Sowinski property during the same general time period (the CI went along on a hunt in the spring of 2007; Lorbetske in 2010 recalled his trip as being in 2007 or 2008). Both the CI and Lorbetske said they were looking for turkeys. Both were with their brother in law. Both encountered a black bear that wasn’t, in their opinions, quite right.
What’s more, Novesky’s 2010 report said the agents made contact with Lorbetske in May of that year to “clarify Lorbetske’s observations that Lorbetske witnessed while turkey hunting on property owned by Alvin and Paul Sowinski.” Novesky said they were checking “rumors” that Lorbetske had observed a bait site and sick wildlife while hunting on the Sowinski property. The question is, did those “rumors” come from Goldsworthy’s 2008 confidential informant?
There was one key difference in the two accounts. In 2010, Lorbetske said the bear seemed lethargic and sick, and he wasn’t sure if the bear had been poisoned but ultimately decided it was a groggy bear awakening from hibernation. The CI in 2008 had concluded the bear was dying.
“The CI then stated that they were walking into the woods and noticed a big black bear laying down just huffing as if it were starving for air,” the Goldsworthy report from 2008 stated. “The CI said they got within 15-20 feet of the bear and he felt the bear was dying.”
In another detail, Lorbetske said he had permission to hunt turkeys on the land and mentioned seeing the bear on two occasions within a week – suggesting he was indeed hunting – while he said his his brother in law witnessed only the second occasion.
In 2008, the confidential informant said he only accompanied his brother in law on a hunt and did not hunt or have a license. The CI only mentioned seeing the bear on one occasion.
Ultimately, whether the CI was Lorbetske or his brother in law Sweeney, or whether someone else hunting with another brother in law on the Sowinski property in 2007 also encountered a sick black bear, no sick or dead bear was ever found.
In the headlights
Agents didn’t stop there in the 2010 interrogations, though in some cases those being questioned about hearsay allegations had the presence of mind to refuse to cooperate on the spot.
Over in Eagle River, to cite one example, wardens were investigating information about another person they had “learned by the officers about the (person’s) involvement in illegally killing and trapping wolves and other wildlife,” specifically on the Sowinski property.
The officers approached the person at the person’s residence, told the person about the information and informed the person that some of the “allegations were serious and that the officers wanted (the person’s) explanations for those accusations.”
The person wanted to cooperate and talk, the person informed them, according to the report, but thought it might be best to speak to an attorney first.
At that point, the case report stated, the wardens stressed the importance of cooperating with law enforcement. They asked again for the person’s cooperation.
“(The person) stated that (the person) was an educated person and that (the person) again wanted to cooperate and usually does but that (the person) wanted to speak to an attorney first or at least have one present before answering any questions,” the case reported stated. “(The person) continued by stating that (the person) was really sorry.”
The wardens them promptly left the residence, they stated.
In another incident, wardens said they waited for a “person of interest” for more than two hours for the person to arrive home. When the person did, the agents questioned the person about any knowledge the person might have about wildlife poisoning on the Sowinski farm.
The person said there was no information.
“(The person of interest) stated that (the person of interest) had no knowledge that wildlife poisoning was occurring there,” the case report for the interview stated. “The person stated that poisoning wildlife is wrong and people should be punished for such an action.”
During the course of the conversation, the officers asked the person about any personal involvement with the killing, trapping, or possession of a timber wolf within the last couple of years, the case report continued.
“(The person) denied any involvement,” the report stated. “The officers stated that (the person) had been named by somebody involved with the investigation as having some sort of involvement with a timber wolf that was killed and brought to the Sowinski farm. (The person) stated that (the person) had no idea why (the person’s) name would be associated with that and claimed absolutely no involvement with a timber wolf.”
Body language and business checks
Over in another community, officers were questioning a taxidermist about that person’s knowledge of “illegal intentional poisoning of wildlife by Alvin and Paul Sowinski.” While they were there, they decided to conduct a check of the person’s taxidermy business, and, as wardens did on numerous occasions during the investigation, engaged in profiling the interviewee’s body language.
As they conducted the interview, the wardens reported beginning the conversation with small talk about gardening and other unrelated matters, and they observed the taxidermist to have “an open type of posture, maintained eye contact with (warden Scott) Bowe) during the questions and did not have a wavering voice.”
That all changed, the case report stated, when the talk turned to wildlife poisoning and the taxidermist’s knowledge of it. At that point, the taxidermist allegedly became defensive.
“(The taxidermist) denied knowing anything at all about the poisoning and stated that (the taxidermist) had never placed any poison bait,” the case report stated. “As soon as Bowe asked (the taxidermist) about (the taxidermist’s) knowledge regarding the poison bait, (the taxidermist) sat up in (the) chair and crossed (the taxidermist’s) arms in front of (the taxidermist’s) chest. (The taxidermist’s) voice wavered and (the taxidermist) looked towards the floor as (the taxidermist) shook (the taxidermist’s) head from side to side and told Bowe that (the taxidermist) did not know or had heard of the Sowinskis’ placing poison bait.”
The wardens thought this might be a good time to explain the need to be truthful and the consequences of providing false information to a law enforcement officer and of obstructing justice. The taxidermist proceeded to repeat the taxidermist’s assertions, however, saying there had been negative talk about predators by the Sowinskis but the taxidermist did not know if they hunted or trapped them.
The conversation about poisoning seemed to be going nowhere, so talk turned to the taxidermist’s business. The taxidermist, who presented a valid taxidermy license, allowed the wardens to check freezers on the property.
There they found multiple violations.
“During the inspection, wardens observed several records and co-mingling violations,” the case report stated. “(The taxidermist’s) paper records were not complete (several missing address and dates). The specimen packages in the freezers were not labeled at all and there was no way to identify the packages to the customers or records. Additionally, (the taxidermist) had personal items in the freezers that were not labeled as required.”
The wardens then explained the need to comply with the taxidermy law, and they said they would forward to a local conservation warden the violations they had found. They again told the taxidermist the taxidermist should be truthful.
“Bowe and (warden Jeremy) Peery explained to (the taxidermist) the importance of being truthful and that it would be in (the taxidermist’s) best interest to come clean with any knowledge or violations that (the taxidermist) knew about now rather than when the wardens heard about them from other people during the investigation,” the case report stated. “(The taxidermist) told the wardens that (the taxidermist) was being honest and knew of no violations.”
Throughout the day on May 12, 2010, interviews around the area continued in much the same way as the DNR cast its net as far and wide as it could, and they ended with the same result: Nothing.
Officers tracked one potential witness to Antigo, for example, only to be told that the person had “never seen any containers of poison, never seen any carcasess soaking, or never had been asked to assist in the poisoning of animals.” The person also told the wardens the person had seen no dead eagles or wolves on the Sowinski property.
The wardens reporting asking the person about hearsay, and the person repeatedly refused to repeat hearsay, they reported. The person did ultimately confirm hearing about Alvin Sowinski poisoning animals after the agents cautioned how important it was to be truthful, particularly in the first interview.
In addition to the interviews conducted that day, investigators conducted a follow-up interview with the then retired Goldsworthy in April 2012. The purpose of the meeting was to document Goldsworthy’s knowledge about the Sowinski’s alleged poisoning activities and predator control, the case report stated.
In an important revelation, the case report of that interview reveals that the DNR had been targeting the Sowinskis since at least the early 1990s, without success.
Goldsworthy said he had received information in the early 1990s from a “cooperator” whose identity he could no longer remember that Paul Sowinski was shooting predators, including coyotes foxes and eagles. That led the DNR way back then to surveil the property, he said.
“(Warden Randy) Stark was pioneering the use of surveillance equipment in the use of conservation law enforcement at the time,” the case report stated.
As a result of the surveillance, Goldsworthy said he remembered having to watch many hours of VHS tape. The result?
“There was no documentation of Sowinski or anybody else having shot any predators,” the case reported summarized the Goldsworthy interview. “Goldsworthy explained he did observe Sowinski on one occasion on the deck with a long gun, but never shouldered it.”
Flash forward to “the most recent investigation” in 2010. Goldsworthy said he had searched for video tapes and records from 20 years earlier that may have been associated with “this activity.” He was unable to find any.
The interview concluded with Goldsworthy repeating that he “had received information” that Paul Sowinski had a necklace of leg bands from eagles killed on his property, and that the Sowinskis had placed poison carcasess out trying to kill wolves.
Again, though, it was all hearsay and rumor, like most everything else law enforcement compiled in its massive investigation.
Richard Moore may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org