The radio in Rick Coelho’s truck crackles: “Three vehicles coming up your road. Flash your lights real quick.”
(Pause) “Yeah, I’ve got you. There are three. . . . One’s going real slow.”
The first voice is that of Lt. Tim Sawyer, a California Department of Fish and Game warden high up on a hill, overlooking a wide valley on a moonless night. Coelho, also a warden, is in his truck below, bouncing along a narrow dirt road through some of Southern California’s finest deer country.
They’re looking for the telltale spotlight sweeping the sparse forest that will reveal the poacher at work. Deer will run from most man-made disturbances, but they won’t run from a light. They just stand there, easy targets transfixed in the glare.
It’s illegal to hunt at night. If you have a gun in your possession, it’s even illegal to shine a light where deer might be--whether you find one or not, whether you take a shot or not.
Most people don’t know that. A lot don’t care.
Coelho, 38, has been a warden for 14 years, first in Utah, then in California. Poachers are his prey, and they have a profile.
First of all, Coelho said: “The guy is a thief. He’s out there to steal something: the people’s deer. He’s just lazy. It’s too much to come out here and hunt, so he’ll come out and spotlight.”
His motivation: “Greed, (as with) any crime that involves a gain.”
They use cheap guns--not standard deer rifles but preferably .22s, because they don’t make much noise.
“I’ve never found a spotlighter with a Browning,” Coelho said.
They drive cheap trucks or campers.
“So if they have to forfeit it, they haven’t lost anything,” Coelho said.
And they’re male.
“In 14 years, I’ve never had a woman involved in a spotlighting situation,” Coelho said.
Ragnar Benson of Boulder, Colo., offered a view of the poacher’s mentality 10 years ago in his book, “Survival Poaching"--basically, how to get away with it.
“For the last 40 years, I have poached game with impunity and ease,” Benson writes in the foreword. ". . . This book will give you the tools needed to bypass the jerk anti-hunter, environmentalist, preservationist, land-poster and college-educated game warden, all of whom make this book so necessary.”
Nobody knows how many deer are poached in California every year, but it’s suspected to be far more than the 35,000 taken legally--perhaps as many as 75,000. In most cases, it’s the perfect crime--no witnesses, no evidence that a crime was even committed.
As Coelho said: “Bambi doesn’t pick up the phone and say, ‘Mommy got shot.’ ”
Duncan Snell, deputy chief of the Wildlife Protection Division in Sacramento, says poaching out of deer season accounts for “nearly twice the reported in-season kills for California (and) doesn’t include deer taken illegally during open season.”
The poachers are getting away with murder. As crime goes, the risk is minimal and the penalties relatively light. The state is limited to 385 wardens, and because of administrative demands, only about 265 are regularly in the field to cover the 1,100 miles of shoreline, 30,000 miles of streams, 4,000 lakes and vast miles of back-country.
Snell said: “It’s ludicrous.”
In 12th-Century England, poaching was punishable by death. Nowadays, a poacher seldom serves hard time. It’s a misdemeanor that can mean up to 30 days in jail, a $1,000 fine, forfeiture of weapons and vehicle or any combination of those penalties, depending on the circumstances and the judge. To the professional poacher, it’s a business expense, and he is soon back at his profession, probably never to be caught again.
“If a guy’s really good, it’s tough to catch him,” Coelho said. “Like anything in law enforcement, you tend to catch the dumb ones.”
In the 1970s, the DFG tried to find out just how difficult it was to catch poachers by sending two teams of its own people out into the field to simulate the crime, unknown to local wardens.
“That study went on for a number of months,” Snell said. “We didn’t get any (reports), so they started getting more blatant. Finally, they left one carcass on the boat ramp at Whiskeytown Reservoir (near Redding). That one was detected, and then another one that was left hanging half out of somebody’s garbage can.”
Snell and Coelho agree that the California public is either ignorant or apathetic.
Coelho said: “One of the frustrating things about being this close to the city is that people might see a guy spotlighting and not even know it’s illegal. Utah was different. Everybody there knows what hunting is all about.”
However, a few years ago, Coelho, working with fellow warden John Slaughter, nailed two poachers who had taken 90 deer near Lake Silverwood in a single year--a massive haul, considering that only 173 were taken legally in that zone during the same season. They had 400 pounds of venison in their freezer, ready for market.
Another time, he arrested some suspected poachers who proclaimed their innocence--until Coelho had their camera film developed to show them posing with their guns and poached deer.
Coelho has been more successful than most wardens. From his position 7,000 feet on the particular hill where he will work tonight, he estimates that he has caught 20 spotlighters during the last few years, even though it covers only about 5% of his territory. He’ll watch for the light, then try to swoop down before they finish their work.
Wardens in other states, including Arizona, have been successful planting dummy deer of Styrofoam or fiberglass near roads and waiting in hiding for poachers to come along, shine their lights and blast away. The intent is what counts, courts say. Coelho prefers his own methods.
“I work a lot differently than other people,” he said. “I also make more cases than others. I like to work alone because I can control the situation.”
If he sounds like a cross between John Wayne and Dirty Harry, there is reason. Nine DFG wardens have been killed in conflicts with fishermen or hunters since 1913, the most recent in 1979.
But Coelho says he has never been shot at or had to fire his own weapon--although he always wears a bullet-proof vest.
Coelho steers his truck up the hill in four-wheel drive to meet Sawyer, who switches to a position on the valley floor below. A 12-gauge shotgun rests upright in a rack in front of the passenger seat. Coelho rolls his window halfway down and clamps a 20-power spotting scope to the glass.
The three vehicles Sawyer saw earlier do not materialize into a threat. Coelho scopes others--tiny pinpoints of headlights in the total blackness of the valley--but none show a spotlight. All’s quiet. The temperature is dipping toward freezing. Sawyer calls on the radio at 10:30 that he’s going home. Coelho will spend the night on the mountain.
Coelho’s day started at 9 a.m., when he began patrolling the lake in his small runabout to check for fishing licenses, over-limit catches and other violations. The boat is unmarked, but Coelho’s “Smokey the Bear” hat is conspicuous.
Some boats he bypasses.
“You can usually tell by the age group whether they have a license,” he said. “Never saw a fisherman over 65 who didn’t.”
Others he hails: “Morning . . . Could I get you to hold up your licenses, please?”
The process involves putting down the rod, digging into the wallet with cold fingers, withdrawing the new, large document, unfolding it and displaying it so Coelho can see the colored stickers.
“Thank you,” he said, then: “I try not to disturb ‘em any more than possible. We’re not out here to hassle ‘em.”
He will warn some anglers that it’s illegal to keep trout alive in a container on a boat--"I didn’t know that,” one says--and others that they can’t fish with more than one rod.
“We were at Irvine Lake and . . . “
“That’s a private lake,” Coelho said.
Coelho writes one citation. An angler has a rod in one hand and a barely visible monofilament line tied to the stern of his dinghy. As Coelho approaches, the man tries to snap the extra line off.
“Something like that I’ll write,” Coelho said. “He’s trying to hide it.”
The angler, whose wife is fishing silently from the front of the boat, is embarrassed and contrite. “You’re right,” he tells Coelho. “I was wrong.”
His penalty will be at least $117.50.
Coelho is building a house at Big Bear Lake. The residents realize that the town is his home, too.
“I get good support,” he said. “In a smaller community, you’re not the game warden; you’re their game warden.”
Driving along a narrow back road, he’ll subtly open his door to block approaching vehicles and check hunting licenses. Invariably, after a brief, low-key exchange, the hunter will extend his hand for a shake. They want the warden to be their friend.
Once Coelho busted a well-known member of the local Elks Lodge, whom he caught with three rods and seven fish--two over the limit.
“Hi, Rick,” the man said, “how about a beer?”
“How about your license?” Coelho responded.
“That got around town. Everybody knew him and what he’d done. It’s a good deterrent.”
Dawn is breaking. It has been a long day and night, for which Coelho is paid no overtime. It’s not in the budget, and DFG wardens are told not to work more than 40 hours a week.
The pay scale runs to $2,770 a month for wardens, more for lieutenants and captains, ranks to which Coelho does not aspire. He figures that he’d have to live in a city, where the quality of life is lower and the cost of living would eat up the extra few hundred dollars a month.
Also, he likes the feeling of independence. The department has just given him a new truck--"best I’ve ever had"--with top-notch communication equipment, including “a new frequency (the poachers) don’t know about.”
He thinks it’s a pretty good life, with one frustration.
“There just isn’t enough time to do everything you’d like to do,” he says. “I don’t know if there ever will be.”