First in a series
It didn’t attract the headlines, but the story out of Oneida County earlier this year had all the aggressive law-enforcement trappings of a Nevada cattle rancher’s recent showdown with the federal government, or even of Waco or Ruby Ridge.
In an investigation that began in 2007, the state Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service brought all the legal firepower they could muster, as well some sketchier tricks of the law-enforcement trade, in their pursuit of Alvin and Paul Sowinski of Sugar Camp for the purported poisoning of wildlife.
Along the way they chased uncorroborated confidential source information, used mapping and aerial imaging programs, installed a secret surveillance camera in the woods, planted dead animals – and fake animal tracks – on the Sowinskis’ land, sent in an undercover agent to ostensibly trap both animals and the Sowinskis, searched the property without obtaining warrants in addition to executing search warrants in a massive early morning raid with state and federal agents, and interrogated the Sowinskis in efforts to gain confessions.
In the end, they got at least some of what they wanted: a confession by each to a single misdemeanor count of illegally possessing a bald eagle and an acceptance of responsibility for inappropriate predator control practices.
Specifically, on May 12, 2010, law enforcement agents found a dead bald eagle; Alvin Sowinski subsequently stipulated that the eagle was killed by poison he had placed on a bait pile. Paul Sowinski also admitted to knowingly possessing another bald eagle that agents found near his deer stand on May 12, 2010.
What law enforcement agents didn’t bring forth was any evidence – beyond Alvin Sowinski’s Dec. 17, 2013, stipulation – that any eagle discovered in 2010 died from poisoning, specifically Carbofuran poisoning.
Since 2009, Carbofuran has been a prohibited insecticide, but before that it was commonly used by potato farmers. The Sowinskis have a large potato farming operation; however, in his stipulation, Alvin Sowinski acknowledged that Carbofuran was not being used as an agricultural pesticide on the Sowinski property but was instead being used by him to poison predatory wildlife.
All totaled, in an investigation that ranged from 2007 to 2010, law enforcement found seven dead eagles on the Sowinski property, including the one they planted there themselves, but only one was tied directly to Carbofuran poisoning, and that was found by the DNR in 2007, seven years before any actual charge, after lab personnel “concluded” that the eagle died from ingesting the poison.
Of the remaining eagles, one was planted by law enforcement; two were tested, but the USFWS lab was “unable to confirm the presence of Carbofuran or any other poison”; and three others – including the eagle for which Alvin Sowinski was charged – were never tested at all.
Alvin Sowinski, 65, and Paul Sowinski, 46, will be sentenced Aug. 4. As part of their plea deal, they have agreed to pay $100,000 in restitution. They also face $100,000 each in fines and up to a year in prison.
In a statement after the plea deal was reached, Sowinski Farms apologized.
“We deeply regret the impacts to animals caused by the unauthorized acts and have taken proactive steps to reinforce safe and appropriate practices on Sowinski Farms property,” the family said in a statement.
But while Paul and Alvin Sowinski pleaded guilty, and the Sowinski family accepted responsibility for the actions on its land, the case also shines a light on the internal workings of government, especially on the state Department of Natural Resources, and raises questions about due process by the state.
The chase begins
The case begins a little more than seven years ago, on May 3, 2007, when conservation warden Patrick Novesky initiated an investigation into suspected poisoning of predatory animals on property owned by Sowinski Farms.
According to the case report, no specific allegation or evidence sparked the probe. Rather, the warden reported, the investigation was the result of “several nonspecific bits of information” that Novesky had received over a period of several years.
To wit, over that time period, “several sources” had accused Paul and Alvin Sowinski of placing poison baits at various locations around their property to kill predatory animals.
So why take a walk in the woods now?
“Novesky believed that due to the time of the year that deceased animals would give off enough odor, make them easier to locate,” the report stated.
So, at 8:30 that evening, off Novesky went to an area on the property – no warrant, no permission – that he thought would be easy to check for poison baits, the report stated. The warden said he suspected the area because “it contained a sand pit near a large swamp that would make for easy disposal of animals and allow the bait to be covered by the canopy of trees preventing the dead animals and bait to be seen from above.”
It might have been a good hunch except for the fact that it turned out to be wrong – the warden found nothing in the area of the sand pit. Rather than give up, however, he kept walking until he found an access road with fresh tire tracks. The warden walked the trail for about an eighth of a mile, the report continued, and there he could smell a decomposing animal.
Walking around, the report stated, Novesky located a dead bald eagle, a pile of fish carcasses, and what he considered to be bait: deer remains. Farther on, he found a dead crow, grey squirrel and bobcat. All animals were within 100 yards of the suspected poison bait, Novesky reported.
According to the office of the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Wisconsin, John W. Vaudreuil, the deer carcass was tested by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service forensic laboratory and found to contain the insecticide Carbofuran.
“The bald eagle, crow, gray squirrel, and bobcat were also tested by the lab and lab personnel concluded that the animals died as a result of ingesting Carbofuran,” Vandreuil’s office reported.
That would turn out to be the only eagle found to have been poisoned, or at least to be reported by the government as such in court documents.
As the seasons change
As sure as there are DNR wardens roaming the land, spring turns to summer and May gave way to July. On the first day of the month, warden Novesky was back at the Sowinski property, still without a warrant, still without permission, following another unnamed lead, at least unnamed in his field report.
Specifically, the warden said he believed there was a possible deer carcass that was laced with a poison substance on the property. He does not state in the report why he believed that.
And so he donned a camouflage jacket over his “full uniform” and went looking once more. This time the destination was a gravel pit, where Novesky said he smelled and spotted two deer carcasses that had been eaten by other animals.
“All that remained of the deer carcasses was the hair and a few bones,” the report stated. “Novesky could also see that the area around the carcasses was freshly excavated in the last couple of months. Novesky believed that the excavation was a pit used to bury dead animals.”
On a somewhat contradictory note, however, the warden further stated he believed the carcasses were not buried there but placed there to attract predatory animals and “were laced with poison at some point.” On the other hand, the warden said he did not notice any obvious substance on them or on the ground.
Novesky gathered evidence samples, including the sand around the carcasses, and sent them to the Fish & Wildlife Service for more testing. In announcing the plea deal this year, however, the U.S. attorney never mentioned that any poison was found on Novesky’s July 1 trip, and no court documents refer to that trip, either.
Vanished in Area 45!
As 2007 sped to a close, law enforcement’s interest in the Sowinskis was speeding up, too. Soon, their attention turned from bald eagles to wolves.
On December 19 of that year, DNR special investigator David Goldsworthy called DNR ecologist Adrian Wydeven, the state’s preeminent wolf expert, to say he was working on an investigation “that possibly involved wolves.”
Goldsworthy told Wydeven the conversation should be confidential. The case report for this conversation – entitled Sowinski Farms Poison Investigation – does not indicate why the scrutiny of the Sowinskis had turned to wolves.
Goldsworthy said he was seeking information about the locations of wolf packs in the Rhinelander and Sugar Camp areas. According to the report, Wydeven told Goldsworthy that during recent years wolf packs had been active in the area.
“Wydeven said that the DNR had one wolf with radio transmitter collars on located between Monico and Three Lakes along Hwy. 45, one wolf pack with at least 4 in the pack in the Sugar camp area and one pack in the Pelican Lake area,” the case report states.
“What is the status of each pack?” Goldsworthy wanted to know.
Wydeven said the collared wolf had died about four or five years earlier. A subsequent autopsy indicated the wolf was poisoned by a chemical used in farming practices. Wydeven told Goldsworthy the wolf had traveled through potato fields on several occasions.
The inference is that the wolf could have died from ingesting Carbofuran legally used in the potato field. Carbofuran is a pesticide that was commonly used throughout the United States in potato farming and was still being used in late 2007. In 2009, the Environmental Protection Agency banned it after associating it with water contamination and other health hazards. The National Corn Growers Association took the EPA to court but lost when the Supreme Court refused to take the case.
Before the ban, however, carbofuran was widely suspected of various wildlife poisonings through farming practices – mostly it was linked to bird kills and fish kills in contaminated waters, but mammals that ingest even small amounts can also die.
Wydeven told Goldsworthy that a wolf from the Pelican Lake pack was tracked several times north of Hwy. 8 into the potato field area. That wolf disappeared and was never found.
And then there was the wolf pack that simply vanished.
“The last known wolf pack in the Sugar Camp area was a pack of 4 wolves,” the case report states. “Department of Natural Resources pilot Mike Weinfurter told investigator Goldsworthy he tracked that wolf pack several times in the Sugar Camp area and more specifically on the Sowinski farm property. Weinfurter stated he remembers seeing 3-4 wolves in the pack of which one was collared.”
Goldsworthy concluded his report: “The pack just mysteriously disappeared.”
Soon enough, Goldsworthy was focusing again on bald eagles. On Jan. 8, 2008, he received a call from the USFWS that an injured bald eagle had been recovered in Sugar Camp. A couple had reported the eagle, and a volunteer had taken the bird to the Northwoods Wildlife Center, where it died the same day.
According to officials at the center, Goldsworthy reported in his case report, the center x-rayed the eagle for gunshot wounds, which turned out to be negative. They reported the eagle as being lethargic but not malnourished.
Goldsworthy took the bird; no more about the incident was ever reported in the DNR case reports about Sowinski, or in court documents. It is unclear why the case report was entitled ‘Sowinski Farms Poison Investigation’ and placed in their file.
Wolves and eagles and bears, Oh my!
Two months later, Goldsworthy had turned his scrutiny to black bears.
Specifically, Goldsworthy says in an April 1, 2008, report, Goldsworthy made contact with a “confidential informant,” who “started talking to Goldsworthy about black bears.” The informant asked Goldsworthy if he had ever walked up on a black bear in the woods.
Goldsworthy allowed that he had – he had walked up on a bear bait and saw the bear run off the bait, he said – and the confidential informant said he had seen a bear, too, while accompanying his brother in law on a turkey hunting trip in Sugar Camp in the spring of 2007.
“They walked toward the Sowinski property,” Goldsworthy reported. “They were trying to locate turkeys. The CI stated that he knew that there was some food plots planted or some corn left standing on the west edge of some fields.”
He and his brother in law were cutting in and out of the woods on the east edge of the fields, the CI told Goldsworthy, according to the warden’s version of events.
“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 stated. “The CI said they got within 15-20 feet of the bear and he felt the bear was dying.”
“Where was the bear?” Goldsworthy said he asked. From the description the CI gave him, Goldsworthy determined that the location was “fairly close” to the poison site that Novesky had found earlier.
Ultimately, at least in the DNR investigatory files about Sowinski, the black bear disappeared from the record, as mysteriously as the wolves had disappeared.
Perhaps just as mysteriously, the Sowinski investigation vanished, too, at least from the DNR’s investigatory record, for the next two years, until February 2010.
Undercover with Ted Gilbertson
On Feb. 26, 2010, Goldsworthy picked up the Sowinskis’ scent again, and this time asked a warden from Waupaca, Ted Dremel, to assist with a suspected wild animal poisoning case.
Goldsworthy told Dremel that he and Novesky had received “several complaints” that the Sowinskis and their friends were poisoning timber wolves. The idea was to send Dremel in undercover.
And thus was born Ted Gilbertson from Racine.
Dremel was to go the Sowinski farm and ask for permission to trap coyote as a way to validate the complaints about the wolves. Dremel made his way there “in plain clothes” and managed to meet with Alvin Sowinski.
The undercover agent told Sowinski he was staying at a friend’s cabin near Pelican Lake.
“Dremel also told A. Sowinski he was laid off from his job and was staying in the area for a few months to do some trapping,” the case report, written by Dremel on March 1, states. “Sowinski told Dremel he could trap but wanted to take Dremel for a ride in his truck to show him what area of the farm he could trap.”
Dremel said he thanked Sowinski for allowing him to trap on private land because he had had a trap and a coyote stolen on public land, to which Dremel said Sowinski responded that the person who stole his trap “was probably one of those green people.”
And so they drove around and had a significant talk, as Dremel described it. There is no mention of whether Dremel was wearing a wire and recording the conversation.
Among the topics discussed: Sowinski told Dremel to stay away from the north end of the property because he had a friend trapping timber wolves there to eradicate them from the area. Sowinski also allegedly told Dremel he hoped he didn’t like wolves, coyotes, bobcats, fishers or skunks.
“A. Sowinski told Dremel that his friend trapped a coyote and a timber wolf this year in traps set close together,” Dremel stated. “Both animals ‘were taken care of.’”
Dremel reported that he took that to mean they were killed.
Dremel said he asked Sowinski if Sowinski wanted a wolf should he trap one. Sowinski said no, flavored with an obscenity. He also allegedly told Dremel, according to Dremel’s report, that if Dremel trapped a wolf with a collar, he should smash the collar into pieces and leave it and the wolf “lie.”
“A. Sowinski said if you try to take an eagle or wolf to get mounted, ‘you could get into trouble’ – ‘for just having the thing,’” Dremel wrote. “A. Sowinski knew of this because he had friends who brought eagles to a taxidermist in the past and were fined. A. Sowinski said you could get in trouble – ‘just for having it and even if you find the thing dead.’”
Along the way, in Dremel’s version of events, they discussed trapping bobcats, how Sowinski would run any game wardens off who showed up, and an employee of his who was a good trapper. Dremel also said he told Sowinski he had trapped a wolf, shot it in the head while it was still in the trap and left it to die, and he said Sowinski nodded his head as if in agreement.
Sowinski then allowed that he had been intending to put out some bait for bobcats but had gotten too busy, and Dremel said he asked him why he would feed them if he hated them.
“A. Sowinski said, ‘I put poison in the bait, we want to get rid of them,’” Dremel alleges Sowinski told him.
Dremel said Sowinski said he tried to “cover the bait” because he did not intend to kill ravens or eagles, as they would die and be found right at the bait site. Still, Dremel reported, Sowinski “did not seem to be very concerned if ravens or eagles died from the poison bait he placed.”
At the end of the trip, Dremel said he gave Sowinski a fictitious phone number and left.
Nothing left unless we act
A few days later, on March 2, 2010, Dremel reported, he checked his empty traps and went to see Alvin Sowinski.
His traps may have been empty, but Dremel – or Ted Gilbertson – arrived at Sowinski’s house with tales in hand, of a wolf track near the “log pile.” As Dremel reports it, Sowinski cursed and seemed surprised Dremel would have seen a wolf track.
“A. Sowinski said this past winter (meaning the winter of 2009-10) ‘a couple of guys’ had placed ‘bait’ (Dremel understood A. Sowinski meant this to be meat bait) to the east of his residence and hunted all night during a moonlit night and did not see anything,” Dremel wrote in a March 7 case report. “A. Sowinski also talked about how well coyotes and wolves can smell bait and game. A. Sowinski said, ‘unless we do something about the predators in this country, we won’t have nothin left.’”
Sowinski then mused about a bobcat being in the area, and Dremel reported that he had run into a few beaver traps, Dremel reported. Sowinski said those belonged to a friend and asked Dremel to stay out of the area.
Dremel agreed, and the visit then ended.
Next: Ted Gilbertson traps a coyote on the Sowinski property, after bringing it there himself.
Richard Moore may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org