Bayou Gator Catcher Told to Cool His Heels

Times Staff Writer

A day after being tapped to track down an urban alligator in a Harbor City lake, a New Orleans evacuee was taken off the job Sunday after city officials determined that he had no liability insurance and no known credentials.

Thomas “T-Bone” Quinn had been invited Saturday to join the effort to capture the alligator named Reggie just a week after arriving at a Los Angeles shelter for those displaced by Hurricane Katrina.

The invitation came from Councilwoman Janice Hahn, who represents the district around Lake Machado, where the pet gator was allegedly dumped by his owners more than a month ago.

Quinn touted himself as a swamp-savvy bayou resident with a fondness for gator meat who could make quick work of Reggie. He dismissed efforts by the Florida-based Gatorland crew, professional gator-grabbers whom Reggie has eluded for more than a month, calling their pontoon boat “retarded” and saying he hoped that they would keep “off my back.”

But after Quinn’s brief outing on the lake Saturday evening with Hahn and the Gatorland crew, city officials pulled the plug on the plan."We have to protect ourselves and the people of Los Angeles. We can’t have anybody jump in there with a Bowie knife,” said Ron Berkowitz, superintendent of the harbor area for the city Recreation and Parks Department. “It’s nothing against T-Bone. I want him to feel part of the world again, and we appreciate his offer.”

Berkowitz said some of Quinn’s statements to the media also raised concerns about how he would treat Reggie. On Saturday, Quinn had described grabbing Louisiana gators by the legs, flipping them over and driving a knife into their brains.

City officials knew nothing about Quinn and planned to conduct a background check, as they would for any city employee, Berkowitz said.

“We’re in California here, not in the bayou,” Berkowitz said. “We don’t want any harm coming to Reggie. We want to capture him and move on.”

Gatorland’s crew wrapped up their efforts Sunday as scheduled, and the city was looking for a new wrangling outfit, Berkowitz said. Until that contractor has been hired and properly insured, city officials have asked Quinn to return to the Dream Center shelter, where he is temporarily housed with other victims of Hurricane Katrina.

“We’ll get him back in action,” said Hahn, adding that she had no regrets about inviting the help of Quinn, whom she first learned of from a Times reporter.

Interviewed by phone Sunday, Quinn said he was disheartened that his offer to help had become so complicated.

“It kinda sounds like I gotta fight just to help out,” Quinn said, adding that city officials had given him a bunch of forms to fill out. He said he was surprised at the media attention his comments before television cameras Saturday had attracted.

“I’m just an old country boy, and I don’t know the media really,” Quinn said, noting that the team from Gatorland — an Orlando, Fla., theme park and wildlife preserve — had taken offense at some of his comments. “I’m not good at this stuff, TV blah, blah, blah. I’m from Louisiana in the swamp. We do things different there.”

Hahn said she had helped ease hard feelings between Quinn and the team from Gatorland before they set out for a sunset search Saturday. Once on the boat, Quinn and the Florida crew exchanged gator wisdom, swapping tips about the virtues of flat-bottomed mud boats versus pontoons and quibbling over what kind of bait was best for luring gators out of their hiding spots.

“This whole world of gator wranglers is something we’re not used to,” Hahn said.

By Sunday, Quinn said he was impressed by Gatorland’s efforts and admitted that he had underestimated the challenge of capturing Reggie in the 59-acre lake, which he had called a “mudhole” Saturday.

“You’re binded by so many things. You can’t even get in the water it’s so polluted,” Quinn said.

After speaking with a reporter, Quinn handed his cellphone to a woman who described herself as an independent agent representing Quinn.

Jennifer Burns-Hills said she was “trying to protect T-bone” and that she hoped to get a book deal or TV movie “like Jessica Lynch,” the rescued prisoner of war who survived an ambush in Iraq.

Burns-Hills described how Quinn had escaped from New Orleans, abandoning his truck and two Harley-Davidson motorcycles to rescue a young family.

“That’s the movie of the week, not Reggie,” Burns-Hill said.

T-Bone is the latest to be foiled by Reggie, who was first seen in the lake Aug. 12 and has attracted lakeside crowds and national media attention as he eluded some of the nation’s best gator catchers.

In mid-August, authorities flew in Colorado gator wrangler Jay Young, but the Crocodile Dundee look-alike had no luck.

A two-week search by the Gatorland crew was suspended in late August, and the exhausted team wrapped up its second attempt Sunday.

Last week, media reports circulated that Young had returned to Los Angeles and captured Reggie in a matter of minutes. The reports proved spurious, however. Young confirmed that he had never left Colorado, and Reggie reappeared in Lake Machado soon after.

“It’s Reggie 3, experts zero,” said Hahn, adding that it might be time to consider other options.

“I think we’ll have to take a hard look at the possibility that this gator is not going to be caught.”

By Sunday, Quinn too was rethinking Reggie’s fate:

“I think Reggie outta just stay where he’s at, if you ask me.”