Former Florida Gator and football pro Jack Ridley Harper faces 67 felony charges related to the alleged killing of 74 alligators in two years.
By JULIE HAUSERMAN, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published January 8, 2002
Maybe it was the thrill of the hunt, the alligators' red eyes flashing across dark water. Maybe it was the rush from killing a prehistoric, gnashing predator that could surely kill you first.
Or maybe it was just the money.
Not even the authorities who arrested him can explain why Jack Ridley Harper, a wealthy former professional football player, would kill so many gators.
Harper isn't talking.
Still, he is at the center of one of the biggest wildlife poaching cases in modern Florida history, accused of killing 74 alligators in two years.
Harper, 56, owns a marina and a pricey home on exclusive Boca Grande in Lee County -- the same fishing town where the Bush family held its post-Christmas vacation last month. His marina is near Boca Grande Pass, the hottest fishing spot for tarpon in the United States. Every year, he hosts big-money fishing tournaments.
Now, the former Miami Dolphins running back faces 67 felony charges of poaching, forging names on alligator permits, trafficking in illegal alligators and identity theft.
Alligator hunting, once illegal in Florida, is now regulated. The state chooses hunters randomly by lottery. In 1999, a hunter with a valid permit could kill five alligators. Last year, the limit was two.
In every case, the state requires scrupulous recordkeeping. After a hunter kills an alligator, the hunter has to put a tag on it that stays with the reptile's carcass until the hide or meat is processed.
Authorities say Harper got dozens of applications for alligator hunting permits. He used different names, sometimes forging signatures, authorities say. He also used other people's permits illegally, said John Duryea, an assistant statewide prosecutor.
"These people didn't harvest the alligators, and it's not their signature on the forms or the licenses," Duryea said. "Since the alligators belong to the state of Florida, we charged him with trafficking in stolen property."
Each year, about 5,000 to 7,000 alligators are legally killed by hunters. Another 4,000 to 5,000 "nuisance" alligators are killed by trappers yearly.
Compared with those numbers, Harper's catch is a drop in the bucket. But authorities worry that he manipulated a system that's designed to keep hunting in check and to make sure as many people as possible get a chance to hunt.
Alligator hunters do their work at night, shining a flashlight to catch a gator's eyes, which glow red. Hunters sneak up on a gator and quickly hook or harpoon it. Then, they use a weapon called a "bang stick" to kill alligators in the head.
It's risky business.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission warns hunters: "The improper placement and discharge of the bang stick can occasionally only knock the alligator temporarily unconscious. Never, therefore, assume that the alligator is dead. NEVER ASSUME AN ALLIGATOR IS DEAD AND DOES NOT NEED TO BE SECURED PROPERLY."
Harper, who also played for the University of Florida football Gators before a brief stint with the Dolphins in 1967, liked to hunt at Lake Kissimmee in Osceola County, investigators said.
In some instances, Harper charged money for people to hunt, using other people's permits, Duryea said. He also sold the meat and hides. An average alligator hide can fetch $20 to $25 a foot, and big ones can be worth more. Gator meat fetches about $5 a pound.
Harper's alligator supply was so steady, investigators say, that an alligator processing company from Broward County put a cooler at Harper's marina to keep the carcasses fresh until pickup.
Officials at Florida's Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission became suspicious when they noticed discrepancies in the paper trail that accompanies every alligator killed in Florida, said Sgt. Mike Frantz, who worked on the case for 11 months. A large number of permit applications returned to one address: Harper's. When officers checked with the people who held the hunting permits, some said they had never gone hunting at all.
Harper was arrested at his house early in the morning of Dec. 28. To the world, the big news on Boca Grande that day was that former President George Bush; his wife, Barbara; Gov. Jeb Bush; his wife, Columba; and other Bushes were vacationing at the Gasparilla Inn, just a five-minute walk from Harper's house.
But the locals were all talking about Jack Harper and his alligators.
Boca Grande is a tiny place -- just 7 miles long and a half-mile at its widest.
Harper would stand up at his big-money tarpon tournaments and solicit people who wanted to sign up for alligator hunts. He told them he'd get the permits for them.
Ed Walker, a Palm Harbor charter boat captain, said Harper approached him at a fishing tournament last year and asked him to fill out an application for an alligator hunting permit. Walker was selected by the lottery. He said Harper called him and asked him to go hunting. But Walker never finished the rest of the application process. The next thing he knew, a uniformed Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officer appeared at his door.
"Somebody had apparently falsified my name and my signature on the tag application," Walker said.
Harper was booked into the Lee County Jail, where he posted $25,000 bail. A court date has not yet been set.
-- Times staff writer Terry Tomalin contributed to this report.