The Long and Winding Road

IN THIS INSTALMENT I will discuss asuccessful investigation into the illegal killing of a grizzly bear in Alberta. I will not disclose the identities of the individuals who were convicted because the main focus of the article is the effectiveness of modern investigative tools and the skill and determination of the investigators.

On October 25, 2011, in Stony Plain, Alberta, a fish and wildlife officer attends a scene where a Lac Saint Anne County peace officer had discovered an abandoned grizzly bear carcass. The remains consisted of a hide with the head and front legs still unskinned and attached. In Alberta, grizzly bears are identified as a threatened species and they have been illegal to hunt since 2006. The maximum penalty for the illegal killing or possession of a grizzly bear is $100,000 and two years of imprisonment per count.

     
Head and paw of abandoned grizzly bear.

The Fish and Wildlife Enforcement  Branch employs local media to advertise the details of the case in hopes of obtaining information leading to a possible suspect. This strategy quickly paid off as a witness came forward with information pertaining to this matter. The witness provided fish and wildlife officers with information related to the investigation and identified a suspect.

When the suspect is first questioned by fish and wildlife officers he is not cooperative, however, the information provided by the witness is enough to obtain a search warrant for the pick-up truck that was reportedly used to transport the hide and the suspect's garage where the bear was suspected to have been stored. The Forensic Unit is assigned to aid in the execution of the warrant. Even though this hide spent a relatively short time in the vehicle and garage, evidence is recovered from the box of the pick-up truck. Evidence as small as individual bear hairs produce DNAtyping profiles that match back to the abandoned hide. This link is significant
because it provides the information needed to obtain an additional search warrant for the suspect's cell phone. Through the use of computer forensics, the phone not only leads to the identity of the individuals with whom suspect #1 had been in contact, but also provides a photograph of a female posing with a freshlykilled bear that looks very much like the abandoned grizzly. Suddenly, the investigation has two more suspects and more sleuthing leads to the identity of a female shooter (suspect #3) and her hunting
partner (suspect #2).

Bear hair recovered from pickup truck.

The cell phone provides the information needed for a search warrant for the garage and residence of the female shooter. Fish
and wildlife officers orchestrate a wellorganized and executed search of suspect #3's residence that includes the Forensic Unit and a search warrant team of fish and wildlife officers. The search of the suspect's computers yields another digital photograph of the female shooter with the large bear. However, this new photo has one important difference. It contains geographic information for the location where the picture was taken. The task now is to link the carcass that was abandoned near Stony Plain with the bear in the photograph. The investigators now had a location where they could search for evidence that may have been left behind when the bear was dressed. The only problem with this plan is that six winter months had passed since the bear had been shot. Therefore, the probability of finding useful evidence was greatly diminished.

This is where the investigator's determination really comes into play. The lead fish and wildlife officer drafted his family pet (a golden retriever named Sam) into service. They travel to Whitecourt, Alberta and, with the help of the local Fish and Wildlife officer, arrive at the coordinates that were recorded on the photograph of the shooter and the bear. Sam's nose is put to work and he manages to find some hair and a piece of rib bone. After spending six months exposed to the elements and scavengers, this is what is referred to as “challenged” evidence. This means that getting usable results from this type of evidence is often problematic. Fortunately, the Forensic
Unit has experience with this type of difficult evidence and they are able to obtain a DNA profile from the bone. The bone's profile is an exact match to the profile produced by the abandoned grizzly carcass. The DNA match has a random match probability of one in 20 trillion. This means that, on average, you would need to look at 20 trillion grizzlies before seeing one with the same DNA profile.


Sam, the golden retriever.


Bone recovered from the shooting site.

This result ties everything together. Technology played a crucial role in this investigation. The media release led to the identification of the first suspect. DNA technology linked suspect #1 and suspect #3 (the shooter) to the grizzly carcass, while computer and phone forensics led to the identification of suspects #2 and #3.
 
All suspects claim to have mistaken the grizzly for a black bear. It is amazing that three hunters can handle a bear that is obviously a grizzly, and mistake it for a black bear (see accompanying photos). Interestingly, it is also discovered that although suspect #2 did have a valid tag for black bear, suspect #3 (the shooter) did not have such a tag. Although none of the suspects were initially cooperative, they all eventually pled guilty. All defendants received hunting suspensions ranging from three to six years in length. Additionally, suspect #1 (who abandoned the carcass) received a fine of $11,500. Suspect #2 (who accompanied the shooter) received a fine of $4,000 and suspect #3 (the shooter) received a fine of $15,000. An expensive outing, but all things considered, it could have been much worse for them.

This particular investigation clearly illustrates that present day circumstances place individuals who poach or traffic in fish and wildlife in a much higher level of jeopardy than was experienced in the past. Firstly, fines and penalties are much higher now than they were previously. As an example of these tougher penalties; a couple who was recently convicted of multiple poaching offences in the
Edmonton area received a fine of $100,000 and also forfeited a vehicle to the crown. In addition to the higher penalties, fish and wildlife
officers also have state of the art investigative tools such as DNA-typing and computer forensics at their disposal. These tools can take seemingly invisible evidence, such as a single hair or a seemingly erased photograph, and turn it into powerful evidence in court. Finally, fish and wildlife officers have the training and motivation to use these resources to maximum effect. With increased probability of detection and serious consequences if convicted, illegally killing or trafficking in wildlife appears to be an ill-advised risk.




Author: Dr. Rick Jobin.
Dr. Jobin s a forensic DNA specialist with the
Alberta government in Edmonton
and is a regular contributor to the WCGWM.

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