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Hunting the Hunters : The Case of the Big-Game Hunters, the Small Museum, the Misplaced Picasso and the Carwash King

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Nothing much seems to happen in Raleigh, N.C.

Oh, sure, every few years there’s another flap over how North Carolina State recruited a high school kid with a 20-foot jumpshot and why, now that the kid’s a sophomore, he’s driving a BMW.

On the whole, though, not much disturbs the slow Southern rhythms of the affluent little city.

So folks were a tad surprised to learn that the North Carolina Museum of Natural History had been offering to help big-game hunters smuggle the skins of endangered species into the United States.

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The deal supposedly worked like this: The museum would offer to make you an “associate curator,” a title you could then wave around when trying to talk foreign countries into letting you shoot their rare animals or, back in the United States, when trying to get the carcasses past Customs officials. In return you donated a skin or two to the museum, often in return for a generous tax deduction.

Then there was the mysterious Picasso drawing that spent a year or so behind the museum director’s file cabinet.

And there were the skins, skulls and bones of 2,000 pronghorn antelope, wart hogs, elands, greater kudus, Cape buffalo, caribou, Siberian tigers, lions, giraffes, polar bears, grizzly bears, rhinos, elephants, goats, leopards, mule deer, whitetail deer and God knows what else that the museum accepted from big-game hunters and stored in the basement of an abandoned apartment building down the street.

In the damp, some of the animal skins rotted, and the rest became a sort of grotesque decor when street people made the place a crash pad.

Some hunters had even taken tax deductions for donating to this menagerie. In effect, the federal government may have unwittingly subsidized the illegal slaughter of endangered species, such as the polar bears found in the basement.

“This wasn’t hunting,” says Thomas L. Bennett, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service special agent who investigated the scam. “This was killing one of the last of a species and taking it off your tax return.”

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Since last spring, the feds have obtained guilty pleas from an odd collection of conspirators: the museum’s elderly director; an appraiser of big-game trophies in Chicago; a Venezuelan airline, and, finally, two months ago, Bruno Willy Scherrer of Los Angeles.

Scherrer, 60, is a carwash magnate. He is also one of the world’s foremost big-game hunters.

Now, thanks to his involvement with the museum, he is a convicted felon as well.

Big-game hunting conjures images of 1930s author Frank Buck in pith helmet and khakis, hacking through the jungle in “Bring ‘Em Back Alive,” or of Teddy Roosevelt returning from an African safari to dump dead lions and tigers on the Smithsonian’s doorstep.

These days, though, a big-game hunter is likely to be the dentist down the street, or your broker--a white, middle-aged guy with a handsome bank balance.

There’s another difference between then and now. As whole species have vanished in the last century, hunting laws have gotten a lot tougher.

That’s where the museum came in. In return for donating an animal head or whatever, Director John B. Funderburg in the mid-1980s would offer you associate curator status and write a letter to the country in which you were planning to hunt; the official-looking letter would advise foreign game officials to let you shoot your walrus or snow leopard because it was, after all, for science.

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Getting the animal back to the States would be easy too, Funderburg promised. If the feds should ask, just tell them you were bringing it in for the museum.

Under Funderburg, a zoologist, the museum went from being a quaint repository of oddities in the 1970s--in its exhibit cases were the “state’s largest watermelon,” for instance--to a far more credible, relatively well regarded institution in the 1980s.

While few hunters evidently took Funderburg up on his offer to circumvent smuggling laws, the museum did become known in hunting circles as a place where you could donate a skin and take a big writeoff. Dead animals began to rain on the museum.

Sometimes museum staff would finish unloading a truckload of animals--for which there was already no space--only to find another truck pulling up. When asked about all this later, Funderburg would tell people he was only trying to collect a bunch of stuff that would look good in the new museum he was trying to build.

It was on a crisp afternoon in October, 1989, that Special Agent Bennett found himself up to his hips in animal heads. All morning, armed with a search warrant, he’d been rifling files down the street at the museum. In Funderburg’s office he’d found the skin and skull of a jaguar--an endangered species which could legally be brought into the States only with a permit--in an air freight box that some guy named Scherrer had sent to the museum. The invoice written by the Venezuelan airline that shipped the jaguar said the box contained “goat skins.”

Now Bennett was down the street in the dank basement of an abandoned apartment house, wading through years of donations. Hundreds of pairs of glassy eyes stared right back at him.

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“We’re moving them around, right? Trying to figure out what was there,” Bennett recalls. “You’d pick up a head, and bugs would fall out all over the place.”

Derelicts had broken into the basement and been sleeping among the animals. Two had eventually “torn the place up,” he says. Later, he would learn that a couple of college kids had also broken in, stolen a walrus head and sold it.

A few days after the raid, across the country at LAX, the feds grabbed a shipment of animal bones and skins--including an endangered puma--with Scherrer’s name on it. A few days after that, a shipment from Nepal turned up at the airport in Raleigh with the remains of a serow and a goral, two small, rare, goat-like creatures that were also linked to Scherrer.

Who was this guy Scherrer? Bennett wondered. All of a sudden he was all over the place.

In fact, Bruno Scherrer was already rather well known in the most rarefied circles of big-game hunting. He had always hunted, even as a young man growing up in Switzerland. But with all that carwash money came the ability to indulge a taste for the exotic: trekking through the wilds of Nepal for snow leopards or tramping the jungles of Venezuela for jaguar.

Over the next year, the feds would slowly reel Scherrer in. Through it all he remained strangely composed. For a while, he didn’t even have a lawyer present when agents questioned him.

The museum records also turned up a Chicago appraiser named R. Bruce Duncan, who introduced many big-game hunters--including Scherrer--to Funderburg.

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Here’s where the tax scam came in. For a handsome fee--usually $400--he would appraise an animal so hunters could take a deduction after “donating” it. Duncan, though, was in the habit of appraising pictures of mounted animals he’d never seen firsthand. And he was, the feds say, extraordinarily generous in his appraisals.

“If you saw the stuff, you’d know it was junk with a capital J, “ says Assistant U.S. Atty. Richard H. Moore of Raleigh, who prosecuted the museum case. “They would take anything people would send ‘em.

“They had whitetail deer that had been appraised at $5,000 to $6,000, for heaven’s sake. And you can’t drive around North Carolina without hitting one of them.”

And there was one last surprise. Funderburg had retired shortly after the museum raid hit the papers in October, 1989. A week later, though, he came back at the museum. Oh, by the way, Funderburg said to a startled state official, here’s a Picasso drawing and an oil painting by a French artist named Marie Laurencin. The feds missed them when they searched my office .

The artworks, the museum director said, had been behind his file cabinet for a year or so.

A fountain burbles next to the door as you enter the low-slung Crown Valley Car Wash in Laguna Niguel. Once inside, you have to negotiate a soft-drink cooler, an array of automobile gadgets and seat covers, a rack of greeting cards and--in another room finished in marble and mirrors--a glass counter crammed with jewelry.

All this before you reach the patio, where workers swab and wipe a small fleet of gleaming automobiles. There are five lanes to handle the crush; the carwash machine can churn out 180 of them an hour.

It is, the Times Magazine said recently, the “crown jewel” of Southern California carwashes: “All it needs is a tall, pale maitre d’ with a ponytail.”

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There’s not much Angelenos like better than whizzing around in a shiny set of wheels. It takes a lot of carwashes--600 or so, more than anywhere else in the nation--to keep them all clean.

Still, it must have seemed at least a little risky to Bruno Scherrer in 1969 when he decided to branch out from meatpacking and open a carwash. After all, the carwash business was relatively new. The nation’s first had opened only in 1946 in that other auto-obsessed city, Detroit.

Scherrer’s first was in Venice; a second opened in 1976 in Redondo Beach. In the 1980s he began to think about extending his empire south. It was a smart move. Suburban Orange County was booming, but land near the freeway was still relatively cheap compared to Los Angeles.

In 1983 Scherrer shelled out $469,000 for an acre in Laguna Hills near the San Diego Freeway, and put up another carwash. On average, Scherrer will run 1,000 cars a day through there.

Early this year, a few miles farther south, he opened the Crown Valley Car Wash. Other carwash operators, enthused the trade magazine Auto Laundry News, speak Scherrer’s name “in hushed tones.”

But carwashes don’t usually make all that much money unless you can talk customers into buying extras, like a wax job, or sell them gas. Scherrer sells a lot of gas. At Laguna Hills alone he usually pumps more than half a million gallons a month. In 1990 he became the only Amoco dealer in the Southwest to sell more than 6 million gallons in a year.

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Not bad for a guy who, his lawyers say, grew up poor but hard-working, the kind of immigrant success story Americans like to celebrate. (Scherrer declined to be interviewed for this article on the advice of his lawyers.)

According to what his lawyers told the judge at his sentencing, Scherrer quit school at 13, in the middle of World War II, to become an apprentice meat cutter. It was as a butcher that he got work when he came to Los Angeles in 1954, while still in his early 20s. And people who’ve met him--even the federal wildlife agents on his case--say the same thing: Bruno Scherrer is a very nice guy.

Scherrer’s house clings to the side of a hill overlooking the fashionable Westside neighborhood of Brentwood. A gated private lane, named after his wife, leads to the four-acre estate. About 9:30 a.m. last March 16, Scherrer buzzed through four special agents of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Special Agent Herb Curry had questioned Scherrer twice the year before. As Curry got out of the car in front of the rambling, Mediterranean-style house, he recognized Scherrer, balding and stocky, standing in the doorway.

Curry is a large, bearded man constructed along the lines of the black bear whose skin--confiscated from a hunter--decorates an entire wall of his office. He would be hard to forget. Still, he asked: “Mr. Scherrer, do you remember me?” Scherrer said yes. Curry handed him a search warrant.

Inside the 12,000-square-foot house, the agents found a spacious, two-story trophy room with an enormous stuffed giraffe and three stuffed monkeys posed to hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil. The walls were studded with the mounted heads of animals. Even the handles on the house’s front doors were elephant tusks.

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“Every nook, every cranny, had something in it,” says Curry. “It would take hours to see everything.”

But the agents weren’t interested in a tour of the trophy room, where actor Patrick Swayze had kung fu’d his way through the climactic shootout scene in the movie “Road House.” The agents wanted the skins of the two snow leopards and a cheetah, both endangered species, that they’d learned Scherrer kept here. If they found them, they would be able to prove Scherrer had lied to a federal grand jury the year before, when he denied having the stuff.

Scherrer chatted cordially with them and invited them to search the guest house and cabana.

The agents stayed for five hours, burrowing in one file cabinet after another. The cheetah and the snow leopards didn’t turn up. But the agents did find photos that proved the animals had been there. And they found something else: a rifle with a silencer, which Scherrer told them he kept to shoot the rabbits that infiltrated his grounds.

Owning a silencer carries an even stiffer sentence under federal law than possessing the skin of an endangered species.

Bruno Scherrer wore a rumpled suit, running shoes and thick aviator glasses to his September sentencing for smuggling. By now Funderburg had rolled over on him. The museum director pleaded guilty to possessing an endangered species--Scherrer’s jaguar--and got probation and a $5,000 fine in return for agreeing to cooperate with the government.

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Duncan, who had made $500,000 over the previous three years appraising animals for hunters, rolled over on his former client, too. So Duncan, the guy whom the feds accused of dreaming up the museum scam, got 10 months in prison and a $30,000 fine. The Venezuelan airline that helped smuggle the jaguar into the country after Scherrer shot the animal in 1989 was fined $50,000. And now--one day after his 60th birthday, flanked by three lawyers--it was Scherrer’s turn.

“I think I have lost all my interest in hunting,” Scherrer told the judge in his thick Swiss accent. “And I am not going to hunt any more.”

A good thing, too, because after nine months of plea-bargaining, Scherrer agreed to forgo hunting during his three-year probation. After all the lawyers had said their piece, he stood up in the Raleigh courtroom and pleaded guilty to one count of smuggling an endangered species.

Scherrer agreed to pay the government $100,000; he could have been fined up to $250,000. And, partly because of his age--his lawyer suggested he may have a touch of Alzheimer’s disease--Scherrer avoided the up-to-five-year jail term provided for by law. The government agreed not to prosecute for the silencer.

But Scherrer wasn’t just out a hundred grand. He’s also, apparently, lost his shot at the Weatherby Trophy. The Weatherby is the Holy Grail of international big-game hunting, a recognition only 20 or so of the richest, most determined men in the world may aspire to. You have to bag record-setting animals on six continents to be considered.

These guys, in short, definitely don’t wear plaid caps with earflaps when they hunt.

The award’s been given every year since 1956 by the South Gate manufacturer of the Weatherby, a .460-caliber monster, the world’s most powerful rifle. And Scherrer has been nominated for the award several times. With the conviction, it is now probably out of his reach. He recently resigned as a nominee for this year’s award.

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The judge at Scherrer’s sentencing hearing in Raleigh--who had been hunting doves just the day before--had the last word.

“I used to dream that someday I might be able to go on a big-game hunt in some remote part of the world,” U.S. District Judge W. Earl Britt told Scherrer. “But I don’t think I could ever enjoy it if I knew that the quarry I was pursuing was endangered.

“To me,” the judge said in stern tones, “one of the tragedies of this entire series of cases is the bad name that it gives hunting and sportsmanship.”

In the end, the wildlife agents who believed they’d uncovered a sort of Smugglers Central for big-game hunters turned out to be wrong.

What they had, it turned out, was really a tax case. A lot of the museum records were turned over to the Internal Revenue Service. But the statute of limitations for civil tax cases is three years, and many of the animals clogging the basement in Raleigh were given to the museum more than three years ago. If there was a tax scam, some involved will probably walk away with their deductions.

The IRS is said to be looking at the museum records but, citing strict confidentiality laws, won’t disclose what--if anything--has been the result.

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The museum case and a couple of other big investigations have had an astonishing impact on big-game hunting clubs. As late as last year, enthusiasts were saying federal wildlife agents were picking on rich hunters for all kinds of obscure technical violations.

Now the official line, at least, is totally different. In fact, Safari Club International in Tucson, the pre-eminent big-game hunting organization with 17,000 members around the world, says it’s considering kicking out Scherrer, a life member and a friend of the club’s retired founder.

It’s also contemplating doing away with such traditions as the Grand Slam of North American Game, a designation hunters get for shooting 29 big-game animals, some of them the hardest-to-find--cougar and grizzly and Alaskan moose. That sort of thing gets hunters into the record books and wins prizes like the Weatherby.

But after the North Carolina case, the North American 29 is a bit of an embarrassment. So are several of the club’s top members, like Scherrer, who’ve been busted for wildlife violations. Scherrer met Duncan at the Safari Club.

In fact it’s the hyper-competitiveness of the sport, wildlife agents say, that gets some hunters into trouble while pursuing these records. Even the Safari Club acknowledges it. The club’s saying things these days that would have been heresy a few years ago.

“In the view of society and this club,” intones Philip L. DeLone, the club’s administrative director, the Grand Slam “doesn’t convey the spirit of hunting. Giving awards for the quantity of animals you shoot is just not a good thing.”

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The Safari Club, DeLone says, will spend more time on conservation from now on.

Individual members may still complain that Fish and Wildlife agents are overzealous and like to target wealthy bigwigs for small infractions. But a federal commission from outside Fish and Wildlife took a lot of the steam out of those charges last year, when it said that wealthy people wind up being the targets of investigations for a very simple reason: Only wealthy people can afford to be big-game hunters.

In fact, the commission’s report said, Fish and Wildlife’s enforcement arm is pitifully undermanned, and operates on a scanty budget, rotten morale and antiquated equipment.

“There are more policemen in New York City than there are conservation officers in the whole of North America,” says Dave Hall, a Fish and Wildlife agent and undercover investigator. “That tells you how much we value Mother Nature and her creatures.”

Meanwhile, the Picasso that Funderburg supposedly kept behind the file cabinet is in the middle of a genteel tug of war back in Raleigh.

The North Carolina Museum of Art, a relatively new, smallish institution that has no Picassos, says it wouldn’t mind having the 1969 abstract drawing of a woman--worth something less than $200,000. That picture and the other, a more conventional portrait of a woman painted in 1923 by French artist Marie Laurencin, are tucked away for safekeeping there.

“We’re not saying they belong to us,” says Richard S. Schneiderman, the museum’s director. “But our feeling is they should come to us.”

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The state Department of Agriculture, though, runs the natural history museum, and says it intends to hang on to the pictures--at least, that is, until a change in state law allows it to sell them and keep the money. The proceeds would probably go into a kitty for a new museum--already on the drawing boards--that Funderburg had dreamed of building.

The artworks, incidentally--which the state still has no official record of receiving--once belonged to none other than Bruno Scherrer. To this day, no one knows exactly how or why they wound up in a science museum. And Scherrer isn’t saying.

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