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Florida undercover wildlife officers use social media sites to catch poachers

August 2, 2011

By Alexia Campbell, Sun Sentinel

After spearing a snook in the Intracoastal Waterway in June, Brian Spuler proudly posted photos of his catch on Facebook. Days later, he was arrested and fined $350.

Florida wildlife officials have gone undercover on Facebook and other social media sites to catch poachers like Spuler showing off pictures of their illegal catch. And it often is the lawbreaker's online friends who get a cash reward for tipping them off.

"People go on Facebook bragging about their exploits. They think they're protected," said Lt. George Wilson, who oversees the Internet Crimes Unit of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

The urge to brag on the Internet has proven valuable to investigators, who use the online photos, videos and comments as evidence. They create fake Facebook accounts to befriend fishermen and hunters or, most often, access photos through a tipster's account.

The growing number of Internet-related calls led the commission to create the unit in late 2009. The commission reviews about 10 complaints a week in South Florida about people who post images of hunting and fishing out of season or breaking other wildlife laws.

In 2010, the Internet Crimes Unit made 177 arrests and gave 92 warnings.

In June, wildlife officers arrested Spuler, 18, of Port St. Lucie, who posted a photo of himself with a snook that appeared to have been killed with a spear gun. Snook fishing in Florida is highly regulated, and it's illegal to take the popular game fish out of season or capture it with a net, spear or trap.

FWC investigators identified people in the photos with a tipster's help, called them up and tracked down the alleged law breaker. Spuler, originally from Boca Raton, met with officers and admitted spearing the snook , according to his arrest report. He was charged with taking snook out of season and taking snook by an illegal method.

The teen, who gave the fish to his mother for dinner, pleaded no contest on Friday to taking snook out of season, and a Martin County judge imposed the fine and gave him six months probation. Prosecutors dropped the charge of taking snook by an illegal method.

Spuler said investigators violated his privacy, and that he didn't know it was illegal to fish snook at the time. It's wrong for officers to go snooping through photos on private Facebook accounts, he said, although he thinks he allowed public access to his photos.

"Every day I see people posting pictures of marijuana and cocaine, and I get in trouble for this?" he asked.

Wildlife officials pay about $100 to tipsters for each misdemeanor conviction, wildlife officials said. Fines imposed on law breakers often are used to pay future rewards. In 2010, FWC paid $23,550 in rewards to people who tipped them off to wildlife violations.

"Sometimes [tipsters] are motivated by money or because they don't like someone," said FWC Investigator Jon Garzaniti, who works for the Internet Crimes Unit in West Palm Beach. Others are genuinely concerned about the wildlife, he said.

Local anglers have mixed feelings about the commission's strategy. Tom Twyford, president of the West Palm Beach Fishing Club, said he hopes wildlife officers will focus on flagrant crimes and take it easy on people who don't know the law.

"It's easy to get confused," Twyford said. "Florida's laws are lengthy and complex."

Ken Sorensen, president of the Boynton Beach Fishing Club, said he applauds the agency's efforts and thinks officers should go after violators however they can.

It's upsetting to see people disrespect wildlife laws, he said. He often sees people upload photos to Facebook of undersized fish. The arrests will set an example and prevent others from doing the same.

"They broke the law they deserve it," he said. "If I had a friend breaking the law I would turn him in, too."

Officers with the Internet Crimes Unit use their discretion, sometimes giving warnings instead of making arrests, Garzaniti said. It depends on how serious the crime is and whether a person realized it was illegal. Many times, social media evidence helps them figure out a person's intention.

The unit also investigates black-market wildlife sales on sites such as Craigslist. On July 11, officers arrested a Fort Lauderdale man on charges of illegal possession, sale and caging of a marmoset monkey. The 26-year-old man allegedly tried to sell the native South African monkey online without a permit for $2,700.

One flagrant poaching case in April 2010 involved a Martin County man who allegedly boasted on Facebook about shooting an alligator with a rifle in his backyard. Someone who saw his photos on Facebook turned him in, according to an FWC arrest report.

The photos on Tom Doyle's profile show his son, rifle in hand, sitting on an alligator about 9 or 10 feet long. In the Facebook comments, Doyle, 49, said he shot the gator in the eye. It's illegal to shoot an alligator in Florida, and only a licensed trapper or agent can kill it with a bang stick on designated lands during hunting season.

"Wish my first one could have been a legal kill," Doyle commented beneath one of the photos.

When wildlife officers knocked on his door, Doyle told them he killed the alligator with a bang stick because it was threatening his goats, the arrest report said. One of the officers pointed out his Facebook comment that he shot it. Doyle said he was only bragging.

Doyle later showed officers the alligator meat packed in plastic bags, buried at the bottom of a freezer.

The meat was seized and Doyle was arrested for illegal possession of an American alligator. He pleaded no contest and was fined $480.

In a telephone interview, Doyle said he killed the alligator during the legal hunting season. He still posts photos of his hunting catches on Facebook, he said, and has no opinion about officers accessing his private profile.

"I don't know if they should be doing that or not," he said.

On June 17, a Facebook complaint led to the arrest of a Tampa man who admitted to killing a deer and an alligator with an AK-47, according to FWC.
Kyle Edwards, 21, reportedly told investigators he was trying out his new assault rifle.

Edwards allegedly admitted posting the photos on Facebook, and investigators later found the two animal carcasses, the agency said. He was cited for hunting deer during closed season and illegally taking an American alligator.

The widespread visibility of social media has made it harder for violators to hide, and easier for investigators to find them, Garzaniti said.

"Some people might have 2,000 friends on Facebook and not realize it," he said. "If we're lucky, their page is set to public."

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